An old saying goes, the media may not be able to tell us what to think, but they can tell us what to think about. It seems clear that the nation's "public agenda" is almost wholly shaped and determined by how much attention the media decide to give to specific issues and world events. But I think the process of agenda-setting goes deeper than this.
It is not only about determining that the public mind will be focused on issues such as NAFTA, U.S. health care reform, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at any given time. Ultimately, the media's agenda-setting power derives from the effects of accumulated media exposure on the general public, over time, and how this accumulated exposure literally creates and shapes our world views. In telling us what to think about, perhaps the media really do manage to tell us what to think, period.
In my understanding of how media work, I choose to emphasize the agenda-setting function of media and somewhat discount the "direct effects" or "magic bullet" theory of media power. However, I also find fault with the so-called "minimal effects" theory. This theory holds that media have little or no effect on people's views, and often dovetails with research into what is broadly known as "media uses and gratifications." Briefly, both these theories postulate that people expose themselves to media in selective ways, giving more attention to information that conforms to their already established views. The problem I have with these theoretical approaches is that they ignore the process by which a person's "already established views" are established in the first place. In part, they come from one's accumulated prior media exposure, from the time of birth onwards.
The media are channels through which people receive information about the world, and thus must be viewed as essential elements in the socialization process that we all undergo in learning about our world. Even other elements in the process of socialization (i.e., family, school, church) are themselves subject to media influences. To understand more about the process by which prior media exposure builds on itself and continually shapes our perceptions, a look at dissonance theory proves helpful. When we encounter information that is at odds with our previously held beliefs, dissonance results, and we are likely to reject that information. Thus, our accumulated media exposure constructs a set of unconscious mental boundaries for each of us. Our minds are unlikely to stray beyond these bounds when exposed to opinions that contradict the accumulated conventional, mainstream views fed to us over time by the media.
So rather than having little or no effects on people's opinions, I contend that over time, the mass media effectively shape people's entire world views. The net effects of accumulated media exposure is to indoctrinate people with a detailed vision of how the world works, how they fit into the world, in short, what it all means. This all falls under the broad rubric of agenda-setting.
In thinking about various other theories of mass media effects, I find some validity in the premises shared by news diffusion and multi-step flow models. We live in a technologically, socially, politically complex, sensory overloaded, late-stage industrialized nation, and it is estimated that only half of our adult population is functionally literate, and only a quarter of our citizenry highly literate. It seems obvious that some information reaches various sections of the population and not others, or at different times, and may encounter interpersonal transmission between different groups along the way (i.e., between so-called opinion leaders and others). In a time of ever increasing social isolation and extinction of opportunities for people to communicate with one another, however, such interpersonal transmission may be occurring less and less frequently.
However, I see these theories more as communication models than effect theories. They are diagrams which describe how some information is transmitted from initial sources to eventual audiences. They don't do much to explain how this transmission affects the content of the messages themselves, except to hypothesize that the people who act as intervening transmitters color messages with their own individual biases. More important, I think, is to go back to the communication source and look at the information being transmitted in its "original" form.
In order to understand how the mass media truly affect politics by shaping people's world views, it is necessary to have insight into the pressures and constraints that themselves shape the news, information, and entertainment the mass media transmits. My argument is that the mass media are to the social, political, and economic status quo in our country what the dictator's boot is in totalitarian regimes around the world. That is to say, they are the single most important factor in maintaining the status quo in today's America.
Why is this? I think it is because the world view that the media indoctrinates in people through accumulated media exposure is a very status-quo affirming one. The pressures and constraints that shape this world view and thus color the news and information we receive stem from the interests of those who ultimately control the mass media, i.e., their owners. At this point in time, our nation's mass media are almost all controlled by an ever more concentrated group of global corporations (Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly). These corporations are profiting greatly from a global status quo characterized by an almost unfettered international capitalist order, and thus have powerful interests in maintaining said status quo.
An extraordinarily complex web of organizational, ideological and other factors governs the manufacture of such status-quo affirming news and information. The oft-repeated charge that the media has a liberal bias derives much of its credibility from surveys of reporters. Individual reporters may be relatively liberal, but what really matters are the political, social, and economic worldviews of their editors and bosses.
"Surveys show that daily newspapers endorse Republican presidential candidates over Democratic ones at about a six-to-one ratio. Surveying 'eighty-four systematic studies,' one media critic found 'a very high correlation' between editorial slant and news coverage, with political bias in the news being 'overwhelmingly pro-Republican and pro-conservative.' Despite the talk about a 'liberal conspiracy' in the press, 'the real question is how liberal electoral politics survives at all with the overwhelming opposition of the conservative press.'" (Parenti, Inventing Reality, p 14)
The dynamics of self-censorship usually serve to keep reporters in line, i.e., prevent them from pursuing too many stories that may be in the public interest but offend powerful interests and are likely to be killed by their editors. Most journalists come out of the same graduate schools, anyway, where they learn to look at the world in similar ways. Those reporters who spend time covering people in positions of power are likely to start seeing things from their perspective. For the most part, journalists in the upper echelons of mass media have become very highly compensated, and themselves are part of our country's economic elite.
I don't see a "media conspiracy" of some sort behind this state of affairs. Rather, I see the role that the mass media play in creating conservative, uninformed world views and influencing our political beliefs as a natural outgrowth of their control by powerful private business interests.
I don't prescribe total government control of the mass media as the solution to this problem. Yet I do believe that hope lies in organizing enough Americans to eventually take back the airwaves and create truly alternative mass media channels. When this occurs, and the accurate, truthful dissemination of essential information is ensured, freed from the economic and status-quo affirming constraints of today's corporate-controlled mass media wasteland, then and only then will the media be functioning as it should in a true democracy.
For reasons of space and clarity, my emphasis on the mass media's agenda-setting role excluded mention of a much more direct way in which the mass media has affected politics in our country. However, I feel the subject is important enough to merit a short postscript.
In the four decades since its widespread introduction, television has become the dominant arm of the mass media. During this period, it has succeeded wildly in diverting the attention of most Americans from our nation's problems and how we might best go about solving them. Television has come to play an invaluable role in keeping most Americans docile and passive citizens, unable to figure out why so much is wrong with our country and the rest of the world and what to do about it.
Watching television displaces social and community life, reducing opportunities for people to get together and talk about any one of the hundreds of grievances they might share, thus reducing the likelihood of political activism and organization. If reading involves mind exercise, watching television causes the mind to atrophy and die. The average American watches more than four hours of television a day. No study of mass media effects on politics would be complete without recognition of this chilling reality.
Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly, 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: The Politics Of News Media. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.