‘Nowadays, It’s Neither Politicians nor Voters Who Decide Elections, It’s the Media.’ Discuss

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‘Nowadays, it’s neither politicians nor voters who decide elections, it’s the media.’ Discuss

In modern democracy the issue of who decides elections is one that is particularly important to investigate due to the idea that in a perfect democracy, the majority of power should lie with the electorate, as by definition democracy means the rule of the people. Whilst much debate about the relationship between the media and democracy focuses on the role of different types of media, and the media as a platform, the focus of this essay shall be to analyze the electoral influence of the independent mass media. In order to be able to decide elections, the media should be able to manipulate both voters and politicians as they are generally held to be the key players at election time. The aim of this essay then is to determine the extent to which the media holds influence over voters and politicians during elections. If the media holds great power then it can be seen to decide elections, if however it is proved that the media struggles to influences voters and politicians then we should conclude that its electoral power is limited. By focusing on the issue of agenda setting before proceeding to analyse the nature of media bias this essay will show that the impact of the media in deciding elections is fairly minimal and is reserved largely to influencing politicians.

One of the key areas that much scholarly debate focuses on when determining the extent to which the media influences elections is the issue of agenda setting. According to McCombs, (1972, p.176) this can be defined as ‘the ability of the news media to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda’. If the media can be seen to dictate which issues take prominence in elections then it accordingly should be seen as having considerable power in dictating the electoral outcome. This is because the media will have the power to focus on specific issues which favour certain parties and thus leave the electorate inclined to vote in a certain way. For example focusing on issues surrounding social mobility may consequently lead to a more left-leaning outcome in the election. Therefore it is of great importance when determining the impact of the media on elections that the topic of agenda setting is rigorously scrutinized.

Whilst the agenda of the media and the public may often parallel each other, there also exists an important literature (Miller 1989, Dalton 1998) which shows the lack of similarities between issues primed by the media and issues deemed as important by the public. This suggests there is more to the agenda setting than McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) assertion that when mass media emphasize a topic, the public presented with the message will consider this topic to be of importance. Starting with the work of Miller (1989) who focused on the British election of 1987, a clear gap was found in the issues dominating the television agenda and the agenda prioritized by the public. Whilst the television media gave obvious prominence to issues revolving around security, the public were far more concerned with social welfare issues. From this study we can conclude that in some cases at least the media does not independently have the power to dictate the issues around which elections are fought. Whilst Miller (ibid) shows that the media agenda was aligned with the party agenda, crucially the agenda which the public saw as pivotal to the election differed, and thus the election results as a consequence did not mirror the medias initiatives. Therefore in this case the role of the media in deciding an election should be judged as minimal.

Furthermore, another issue within agenda setting that is important to address in order to comprehend the media’s influence on elections is the causality in the relationship between the agendas of the media, public, and parties. The similarities between the media and the parties in this election studied by Miller (ibid) need not...
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