The Media's Influence on Public Opinion

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Humans are not born with fully formulated attitudes about politics, so where do they come from? The answer is political socialization, which is the way in which people learn about politics . There are a number of elements or agents involved in creating our political awareness, but this paper will focus on the mass media¡¯s role (particularly forms of news media) in constructing political reality in Western society. One way that the media shapes our political reality is by mixing facts with opinions and in doing so manipulates messages. The amount of time and emphasis allocated to particular types of stories can also have an influence on what issues viewers perceive to be significant, over reporting some issues, while neglecting others, positions some issues at an unmerited advantage to others. The mass media¡¯s persuasive power over Western Democratic government is in its ability to spotlight issues and events labeling them as politically significant. The media also sets a pace for what topics need attention, and governments usually respond accordingly. News media¡¯s ability to persuade is changing with the Internet, now people no longer have to be content with spoon feedings of information they can easily investigate deeper if the wish to. This paper will show the ways in which the media have an influence on people¡¯s political attitudes and the political the process itself, and also the changes that are occurring, in the media¡¯s influence, as the Internet gains popularity as a source of information. To understand news media¡¯s influence it is important to understand how people use the media. On a basic level of analysis, communication media bridges the gap between us and the world outside of our isolated communities. A lot of people, also, count on news media to make sense of the world in an efficient way, as McCullagh contests that our world is becoming more complicated and people require more information. Most North Americans count on television newscasts as their primary source of information on politics, it is reported that 80 percent of the information that Americans receive about world issues comes from news media. Since most people do not have much first hand experience with the political process, they rely on the media for these experiences. For example most members of the public do not attend very many, if any, debates between politicians running for office, instead they use television or radio as a vehicle to gain access to such events. Considering that the media helps us learn about the world, we must also consider that the path of information, provided by the media, connecting us to the world is not an unimpeded one; instead McCullagh proposes that the media work like a filter that picks and chooses what information get through to its audience . The commonly used term to describe the way the media decide what issues or events are considered significant is called agenda-setting. Bernard Cohen paints a clear picture of the media¡¯s role in setting the public agenda stating that ¡°the mass media may not be successful in telling people what to think, but the media are stunningly successful in telling their audience what to think about.¡±(Cohen). The theory of agenda setting does not try to suggest that the media has a complete stronghold over audiences thoughts and opinions, it merely illustrates the media¡¯s ability to direct public attention in particular directions. The way that news communication covers elections is important in illustrating how journalist can manipulate the information audiences receive. Such manipulation can be observed when examining the way elections are covered by television media. McCullaugh notes a dramatic decrease in the amount of time allocated for the politicians, themselves, to speak about there platform and an increase in the amount of time used by journalist to speak about the election. In the 1992 and 1996 U.S. presidential election there was an imbalance in the...
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