Democracy and the Media

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In modern societies, it is impossible to talk intelligently about democracy without considering the role played by print and electronic media in disseminating political messages to the public. Especially following the creation of electronic media in the twentieth century, the connections between democracy, political campaigns, public opinion, and journalistic practices have become the focus of great attention and anxiety among communication scholars. Each new media innovation is evaluated for its potential effect on democratic politics, and media professionals are regularly criticized for practices that are perceived in one way or another as being antidemocratic. Also, as media have allowed politicians and political candidates to address large audiences, Richard E. Neustadt's contention in his book Presidential Power (1980)—that the real power of the U.S. president is the "power to persuade"—has become increasingly intuitive, with presidents and other politicians acquiring more and more channels through which to reach their constituents, in addition to their normal interactions with other appointed and elected policymakers.

The relationship between democracy and the media has been a regular topic of discussion ever since the emergence of liberal democratic theory as an intellectual force in Europe. In the seventeenth century, John Milton's Aeropagitica provided a libertarian argument for the right of free discussion, as such discussion presumably would lead to the rejection of false and unsound opinion and the discovery of truth. Although the free press guarantee in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution received surprisingly little attention at the time of the adoption of the First Amendment, that guarantee has been the object of much debate ever since. In part because of frustration with the early Federalists, Thomas Jefferson and other anti-Federalists were passionate defenders of the free press in the early days of the American republic. In the nineteenth century, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill articulated a fully developed justification for free speech and a free press, as silencing anyone might prevent the truth from being told and would run the risk that errors would not be discovered.

The modern media has only been able to convey up-to-date political information to the public for a little less than two centuries, thanks largely to technological innovations in print media and the rapid development of electronic media forms. Furthermore, German sociologist Jürgen Habermas explains in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) that the rise of the politically oriented public sphere in parts of Europe and the United States was fundamentally linked to the development of the media. In the emerging democratic societies of Europe and North America, newspapers became not only reporters of news but shapers of public opinion. However, as newspapers became increasingly dependent on commercial advertising for support, economic considerations meant that newspaper editorial policy and journalistic practice could also be influenced by those who controlled financial resources. The result, as described by Habermas, is that wealthy individuals or those who control wealth have more influence over public opinion and, ultimately, over what policies are changed than do members of the lower and middle classes. Other scholars also have worried that, in addition to the economic forces that might distort public debate, the heavy reliance of the modern media on governmental sources of information might lead in some cases to less scrutiny and criticism of governmental policies.

As the relationship between democracy and the media has been considered throughout the twentieth century, much attention has been given to the extent of media effects, especially following the experience with government-produced propaganda during two world wars. If media coverage of politics and political campaigns has little influence on public attitudes and behaviors, then presumably people need not be concerned over the quantity and quality of attention that is paid to politics in the media. However, if media coverage of politics and political campaigns has a moderate or strong influence on public attitudes and behaviors, then protecting democratic government requires careful review—and possibly governmental regulation—of media, whether print or electronic, mainstream or alternative. Historically, some scholars have maintained at one time or another that the media have almost no effect or that the media have a strong, direct effect on audiences, but the vast majority of contemporary scholars believe that the media have some, usually moderate, effects on some audiences in some situations.

Further complicating the relationship between democracy and the media has been the emergence of computer-based interactive media, including the Internet, and other new technologies, such as facsimile machines. New media forms provide ordinary people with unparalleled opportunities to distribute information quickly and inexpensively to large numbers of their fellow citizens. The democratic potential of such new media is sometimes described as being a way to compensate for the ownership of traditional media forms (e.g., newspapers) by fewer and fewer large corporations, given the concern that this trend to "media monopolies" has or will reduce the diversity of opinions that are expressed in established media. However, the proliferation of Internet sources has meant that the information provided on the Internet often is not accurate or, at the very least, Internet information has not been properly checked for accuracy. Additionally, while some political observers have discussed the potential of Internet voting and campaign material distribution to rejuvenate interest in voting and in political activism, others have argued that the tendency of Internet websites to engage in shallow political humor and parody is more likely to foster cynicism than to combat it. Of course, given the rapid development of the Internet and its steady increase in availability and ease of use, the political implications of emerging electronic media are far from certain, whether in historically democratic societies or in authoritarian nations where governments are struggling, usually with uneven success, to restrain the free flow of information.

Moral Obligations of Media Professionals

The obligations or duties of media professionals as those duties relate to life in a democracy have been far from clear as new media technologies have become available. By the eighteenth century, liberal democratic theory as developed in Europe and North America suggested that opinion and deception were inevitably going to be part of a free society, but such theories also maintained that truth would emerge in the end after vigorous debates about public policy issues. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, slipshod journalistic practices and highly partisan editors and publishers (including Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst) led many observers to become increasingly uncomfortable with media that frequently published exaggerated stories that came complete with an obvious political slant.

In response to such excesses, alternative theories of the relationship between democracy and the media were considered. Specifically, what eventually was called the social responsibility theory of the media emerged by the mid-twentieth century in the United States, most noticeably in the 1947 report of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press. While still embracing the notion of a free press, social responsibility theory suggested that the special freedoms that were given to media in democratic societies meant that media had a responsibility to report accurately and objectively the multiple perspectives on matters of public relevance. This argument was used with particularly great force against radio and television broadcasters who were allowed to use a public resource, broadcast frequencies, for their individual gain. Because media have an obligation to inform the public about politically relevant information, for example, some members of the Hutchins Commission even speculated that the failure of media to meet their public obligations might require further governmental regulation to see that this obligation was met. While government surveillance and regulation of media content along the lines discussed by the Hutchins Commission never took place, prevailing sentiment among media professionals who reported political news favored some version of the social responsibility theory for the latter half of the twentieth century.

Even as social responsibility theory was gaining acceptance among journalists, modern political campaigns increasingly were required to rely heavily on media for contact with prospective voters in nations such as France, Great Britain, and the United States. Even the ancient practice of political speech making, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson observes in her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age (1988), became relatively more intimate, conversational, and television-friendly by the late twentieth century. In addition to "paid media," or media messages that were distributed in the form of paid advertisements, for example, political candidates sought to capitalize on the advantages of "free media" exposure by soliciting favorable media attention in one way or another, even by staging media events, or "pseudo-events," whose only purpose was to attract the attention of print and electronic journalists.

While media effects research in the 1940s and 1950s often indicated that the influence of media on prospective voters was minimal, more recent research suggests that media coverage of political campaigns may have some worrisome and, ultimately, undemocratic effects. In U.S. presidential campaigns, for example, some scholars have argued that the tendency of many media outlets is to emphasize the "horse race" component of the contest itself, rather than focusing on the issues that are being discussed by the various candidates. In presidential primaries, the tendency of media professionals to give the vast majority of their attention to the best-known candidates and to put great importance on performance in a few early primaries or caucuses means that the choices of those professionals may have an enormous effect on the outcome of the campaign. Furthermore, even when media outlets talk about issues, those issues may concern campaign issues (e.g., the age of a political candidate) rather than policy issues (e.g., income tax reductions). Another complaint is that some electronic media, most notably television, address a diverse mass audience that discourages candidates from taking any meaningful or controversial positions for fear of alienating some voters.

As a result of these observations, some scholars conclude that the media have not met their obligations to the public by providing relevant information about the public policies that are preferred by different candidates. In contrast, defenders of media campaign coverage point out that people learn about issues and policy preferences from media outlets. If voters do learn relatively little about issues, it may be because candidates themselves take few substantive policy positions during campaigns. Perhaps the most optimistic way to interpret the current situation is described by Roderick P. Hart in his book Seducing America (1994). According to Hart, one way to interpret the relationship between democracy and the media is that television, at least, is an imperfect and frequently shallow source of political information, but it teaches something about politics to even the most apathetic citizen and encourages the best citizens to learn more about politics and even to become politically active. The problem for Hart, unfortunately, is that television, the primary source of political information for most people, is a passive medium designed for personal entertainment, rather than encouraging political action and a sense of civic responsibility. Only the exceptional individual is inspired by television to take an active and personal interest in politics, let alone in political campaigns.

One clear example of the controversial and complex relationship between democracy and the media is found in research on campaign debates. Beginning with the famous Kennedy-Nixon U.S. presidential debates in 1960, campaign debates involving two or more political candidates have become an increasingly important part of political campaigning. Presidential candidates have no choice but to participate in such debates if they wish to be perceived as being capable and qualified, and candidates in state and even local political campaigns are likely to be invited to participate in one or more debates. Certainly, the available evidence suggests that, whatever their previous levels of information, voters acquire more knowledge about political candidates after watching a debate, in which voters are able to compare the policy platforms and personal attributes of the major-party candidates. When compared to traditional campaign speeches, debates may be more informative and rightly deserve the large amount of media attention that they get. However, media coverage of and participation in campaign debates has been repeatedly criticized. First, media are sometimes said to influence public perceptions of those debates by focusing on competitive concerns, namely who "won" or "lost" a given debate. The result is that public policy concerns addressed in those debates are given relatively little attention. Second, as media professionals sometimes ask questions of the candidates or serve as moderators during the debates, their participation in the debates is subject to great scrutiny. For example, one study published by Frances R. Matera and Michael B. Salwen (1996) found that journalists who asked lengthy questions of candidates during presidential debates, especially questions with multiple parts, might contribute to the tendency of candidates to give long-winded answers that ignore part or all of the original question. As long as media representatives continue to participate in such debates, there will be a need to assess their contributions to campaign debates, along with the performances of the candidates themselves.

The increasing importance of media in political campaigns has also led to a rise in the use of professional political consultants by candidates. While such consultants could be found by the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, only since the 1960s have consultants dealing with scientific polling and various media outlets become a fixture in all but the most local of political campaigns. Candidates and their professional advisers became increasingly sophisticated in their targeting of certain groups of voters, and, by the 1990s, President Bill Clinton would be described as the most poll-driven and public-opinion-sensitive politician in the nation's history. Consultants are depicted as constantly attempting to "spin" the perceptions of U.S. voters in a way that is favorable to the candidate, and some critics of political consulting believe that consultants are responsible for a shift to an increasingly superficial style of political campaigning. However, defenders of consulting argue that voter cynicism is most directly attributable to disenchantment with political parties and with widely reported political scandals. Furthermore, consultants reject any strategy or approach that would alienate key groups of voters. In the end, consultants design and create campaign messages not to anger voters but because they believe those messages have a good chance of working. Finally, if political consultants are guilty of unethically manipulating media professionals and the public, then it is the job of media professionals and the public to uncover and point out those attempts at manipulation.

Social-Scientific Theories of the Media

Several different social-scientific theories of media effects have important implications for the creation and modification of public opinion in democratic societies. Some of the most successful and well-known contemporary media theories are related to agenda setting, the knowledge gap, news diffusion and information flow, and the spiral of silence.

The Agenda-Setting Effect

As originally explained by Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw (1972), media may not be able to tell people what to think, but they are able to tell audiences what to think about. In other words, media may set the public agenda by saying which concerns are important and which are not. Hundreds of studies of the agenda-setting effect suggest that media exposure encourages individuals to agree more closely on what public issues are most important at any given time. This finding is important because it suggests that media gatekeepers (e.g., editors) may help to determine what issues will find their way onto the public agenda. Also, most people are only able to remember and describe a few issues at a time, so issues to which the media pay attention are quite likely to displace or crowd out other potentially worthy issues that receive less media attention. Once an issue is perceived as important by ordinary citizens, politicians and political candidates are more likely to address this issue in their public statements and/or to work for social and political changes that will resolve the public policy problems with which that issue is linked. Other organizations and people outside the media, of course, also work to set the agenda in a democratic society. Media act as only one force among many in determining what issues get attention and what issues are ignored.

Consistent with contemporary theories of indirect media effects, the relative importance of the agenda-setting effect depends on the situation in which the effect is measured. For example, a strong agenda-setting effect is more likely when the relevant audience believes that the source of the media message is highly credible, since a highly credible source is more likely to be persuasive. Furthermore, heavy media exposure may result in a stronger agenda-setting effect than when media use is fairly light.

The Knowledge Gap Hypothesis

Democratic theory requires that citizens be informed about political candidates and public policy debates in order to make reasoned decisions, and from this perspective, the media in a democratic society are obligated to provide appropriate information to the public. However, some researchers have maintained that providing a larger quantity of information does not necessarily reduce the "gap" in the amount of knowledge that is possessed by some groups when compared to others. Early versions of this thesis, called the knowledge gap hypothesis, maintained that higher socioeconomic status groups would acquire knowledge at a faster rate than lower socioeconomic status groups. Some studies suggest that knowledge gaps exist for other reasons as well. For example, a group that is highly motivated will gain knowledge more quickly than a group that is not motivated, and highly educated groups will acquire knowledge more quickly than will less educated groups. Situational factors and the source(s) of information may also determine the nature and extent of knowledge gaps.

If such knowledge gaps sometimes persist despite efforts to distribute information to all members of society, then these gaps suggest that some groups are better equipped to influence public policy than others. Such a conclusion is obviously troubling in democratic societies. Some knowledge gap researchers have tried to isolate strategies for reducing knowledge gaps, such as finding ways to increase motivation among groups that have a lower socioeconomic status.

News Diffusion and Information Flow

Scholars have periodically attempted to determine how members of the public learn about breaking news stories, what media are turned to for information, and what sorts of information are actively sought by the public. Various labels have been used for research of this sort, including "news diffusion," "news seeking," "information seeking," "flow of information," and "news learning." While these various research projects have differed in some important ways, all seek to explain how information is acquired in various contexts. For example, when a crisis or catastrophic event occurs, such as the assassination of a prominent politician, people are likely to turn to the media they most often use to acquire information. However, especially if people find a certain event to be upsetting, they are apt to talk about it with others, which can result in additional people learning about that event. As a result, when almost everyone knows about an event, the majority of those who are familiar with the event will have heard about it via interpersonal communication. For events that are less well known, those who are familiar with the events are more likely to have learned about them from the media.

Some research on this topic, not surprisingly, suggests that contextual factors such as prior knowledge determine the extent of learning that takes place when information is provided by the media. Where information-seeking is concerned, a study by Walter Gantz, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Ed Fink (1991) found that people are most likely to seek regular weather information from news sources, but people seek information on other topics, including politics, much less frequently. While this finding is not particularly encouraging in a democratic society, it is not surprising that ordinary people in a heterogeneous society would not actively seek political information on a regular basis. Where television newscasts are concerned, some researchers have suggested that, to help people recall and understand more news programming, including programming that deals with politics, the ideal news program should include fewer stories, explain those stories in more detail, and eliminate distracting visual images.

The Spiral of Silence Theory

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1974) has argued that people who hold a minority viewpoint about an issue or political candidate often feel pressured to keep silent, while people who hold a majority viewpoint are more likely to express that viewpoint. The explanation for this behavior is that people in the minority will doubt their own critical thinking abilities and, ultimately, question their own beliefs as they try to avoid isolating themselves socially. In contrast, people who are in the majority will become increasingly self-confident in the rightness of their beliefs and, as a consequence, will talk about their beliefs with ever-greater frequency. As such talk increases, it can tend to silence those who hold minority views. The implications of this phenomenon, in which overt opposition to prevailing beliefs becomes less and less likely, are obvious, as public opinion is a measure more of people's desire to be on the winning side than of which set of arguments is most persuasive. As a result, the spiral of silence theory predicts that media can influence public opinion by creating perceptions about which opinions are in the majority or are gaining influence and which are in the minority or are losing influence. Rather than public opinion being the product of rational debate about the best course of governmental action, as described by some democratic theorists, the spiral of silence theory depicts public opinion as the product of essentially undemocratic choices that are made by media professionals.

Obviously, if the spiral of silence theory always worked in the way outlined by Noelle-Neumann, there would only be one prevailing public opinion on each subject to which the media paid attention. As the existence of social movements and pressure groups proves, however, there are still many minority groups that loudly and repeatedly demand social change. The available evidence suggests that, for some people and in some situations, people who perceive that their opinion is in the majority are slightly more likely to express their opinion than people who are in the minority. However, other factors may lead people in the minority to speak or people in the majority to remain silent, so the spiral of silence theory, by itself, is not sufficient to explain how public opinion is created and maintained. Also, the theory is not particularly good at describing how public opinion shifts from month to month or year to year, as examples exist of minority positions that later become majority positions.


In one way or another, many theories of media now claim that objectivity is not a feasible goal for media in a democratic society because political "facts" typically are based on subjective experiences and impressions. From this perspective, media help, however unintentionally, to determine how people perceive the political realities of the world in which they live, and the demand for objective reporting that is central to social responsibility theory simply cannot be met. When a woman or man watches a television news program, for example, she or he is not simply collecting information about a local school bond issue. Instead, that woman or man is learning what matters and what does not in society and is being told how legitimate (or illegitimate) a specific political perspective is. If media coverage of an issue does have a real chance of shaping people's perceptions of reality, then the goal must be for people to become active listeners and readers in their assessments of media messages. Unfortunately, the trend in the United States favors a lack of interest in politics. Surveys indicate that American citizens knew no more about politics in the 1990s than they did in 1940, despite the fact that the U.S. population had far more education on average in the 1990s than it did fifty years earlier. Demanding a more critical audience that would carefully analyze media messages about politics seems unduly optimistic. However, the experience of other democratic countries with democracy and the media has often differed from that of the United States, and voter participation in elections, at least, remains comparatively high in many of those countries. The experience of other countries with democracy and the media needs to be considered before coming to pessimistic conclusions on the basis of the U.S. experience alone.

Another contemporary concern that was not envisioned by the creators of social responsibility theory in the mid-twentieth century is the widespread availability of multiple media channels for conveying information to the public. Different media channels are perceived differently by users, so that the interactive experience of using the Internet poses a sharp contrast to the passive experience of watching television. The most famous example of these differences in experience with media channels involves the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. One study found that those who listened to the debates on the radio thought that Nixon had won, while those who watched the debates on television thought that Kennedy had won. Those people who research the relationship between democracy and the media must deal with the challenges that are posed by several different channels, with each channel affecting the perception of information in different ways.

Obviously, the relationship between democracy and the media remains complex. Many citizens of democratic societies do not want any government control of major media because they fear that governmental regulation of media would be incompatible with democracy, yet these citizens very much hope that media will restrain themselves voluntarily and act in a responsible fashion that facilitates and promotes democracy. Of course, what key terms in the last sentence mean, including "democracy" and "responsible," will continue to be debated. Also, as media sources are no longer provided only by full-time professionals using incredibly expensive equipment, more and more individuals with little commitment to careful research will be able to make their views known on the Internet or using inexpensive desktop-publishing software programs and personal computers. As society continues to be introduced to new and exciting communication technologies, the goal for individuals should be to become more critical receivers and users of the various media outlets. Only by carefully analyzing the sources of information and the arguments made by those sources can people reach thoughtful conclusions on the political issues that matter in their everyday lives. Whether most media professionals are proponents of big government or apologists for big corporations—both of which charges are made by media critics—the final responsibility for judging the performance of the media rests with ordinary people.

See also:Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Broadcasting, Self-Regulation of; Election Campaigns and Media Effects; First Amendment and the Media; Globalization of Culture Through the Media; Globalization of Media Industries; Hearst, William Randolph; Internet and the World Wide Web; Journalism, History of; Journalism, Professionalization of; News Production Theories; Opinion Polling, Careers in; Pirate Media; Propaganda; Public Broadcasting; Pulitzer, Joseph; Social Change and the Media.


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Brian R. McGee

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Democracy and the Media

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