Media Influence on Politics

The average adult American spends 67 minutes per day consuming news and relies on the media for an overwhelming majority of their political information. Media’s influence in politics has even earned it the title of the “forth branch of government”. When profits come into play however, reporting can be less than unbiased and independent. Cutting costs can cut the quality of information being presented. And in trying to capture the largest possible audience, dramatic stories and rushed information can have serious consequences.

Consolidation and advertising revenues come with strings attached that reduce the independent and unbiased content of the media. Consider General Electric, a multinational technology and services conglomerate ranked as the world’s largest company in 2009 by Forbes, and the third largest media conglomerate, which includes ownership of NBC among its extensive media portfolio. Every time NBC considers a news story on climate change, they risk potentially hurting GE’s sales in the oil and gas sector. Similarly, covering the brutality of the war in Iraq may increase public outcry for an end to the war, which could impact GE’s aircraft engine and nuclear reactor sales. Such conflicts of interest can result in stories being suppressed or biased in order to either increase profit or avoid lost business. The same is true for advertisers who guarantee the profits of media organizations. They may pull financial support if a story harms their sales or image, which ultimately can influence how or even if a story is told. And because of the influence that media has over the public, stories can also be used by owners to shape public opinion over policy and drive change in their favor. Such non-media company ownership of media organizations makes it difficult to remain independent and unbiased when reporting the news.

Investment in the quality of reporting also suffers from profit maximization. In order to decrease costs, many media organizations can save money by changing their reporting methods. Instead of investigating a political issue and presenting facts and conclusions, they can simply host voices from either side to argue their positions. This tactic can lead to the spread of misinformation as facts are simply not being checked. It can also legitimize points of view that are factually wrong and even previously debunked. Another common tendency, known as the horse race, is to report a candidate’s position in the polls rather than their position on issues. The effort to minimize costs has also led to news coverage shifting to national stories rather than regional or local stories which would require more offices and staff while appealing to a smaller audience. Local and state politics lose visibility as a result of this migration towards national news, which leaves voters less informed in the process.

In the pursuit of ever larger audiences for increased ad sales, the media also uses tactics which prove consequential to politics. “If it bleeds it leads” is a common way of describing the modern sensationalized news format. This effectively means that audiences are more likely to tune in to stories that are controversial and shocking over less dramatic ones. In this effort to elicit strong emotions and repeat viewership, emphasis is placed on hotly debated issues and conflicts. This recently emerged in the 2009 healthcare reform debate where inclusion of consultation services for end of life planning was labeled by some media organizations as “death panels” and received predominant news coverage while less divisive issues such as Medicare reimbursement rates received comparatively no coverage. When such singular focus is placed on an issue and presented in a divisive manner, it can cause a great deal of public anger, as seen in congressional town hall meetings across the country, which was in turn covered by the media. This cyclical coverage greatly exaggerated the divisiveness of the healthcare reform debate. In addition to sensationalism, media organizations can be quick to release information before all the facts have been checked in an effort to be “the first” to cover a story. In the 2000 presidential election, critics argue that early media predictions based on Florida exit polls impacted turnout and may have altered the election’s outcome. Such demand for immediate information also pressures candidates and politicians to respond hastily to news for fear of being labeled uncertain or divided. Rushing to judgment on developing stories before all the facts are in, especially when related to foreign policy, can have detrimental effects to the nation as a whole.

The media plays a vital role in molding the public agenda and takes pride in their professionalism and objective journalism. Profits however can negatively impact reporting by adding bias towards advertisers and parent companies. Reducing costs can also deteriorate quality of reporting and at the same time, in attempting to reach ever larger audiences, a race to the bottom can take place that benefits neither the public nor politics.