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Can the Media Influence Politics? If so, How? If Not, Why Not?

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The media is the link between the public and politics. However, while media sources are viewed as purveyors of the day's news, they maintain considerable influence on politics. It is important to differentiate the concept of media influence from the concept of media bias. While some media sources will have an undoubted bias in the way they are reporting the news and the issues they select and prioritise, this does not necessarily equate with influence. Influence can be far less obvious or overt than bias, and can lead to changes in opinion in an indirect manner. While United States news outlets such as Fox News or the New York Post may have a more direct political bias, other outlets such as CNN or the New York Times – while appearing less openly biased – will also wield considerable influence. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, while The Daily Mail has an agenda which must be obvious to many who read it, less openly biased newspapers such as The Guardian will still have the potential to influence politics and politicians. In fact, media sources with a less overt bias will have potentially more influence than others, as they could be considered to be more reliable or trustworthy than biased tabloid entertainment news. This paper will assess the issue of media influence on politics, and evaluate the methods and forms this influence can take.
Media Influence
The role of the media in influencing politics has been long recognised. Comparative analysis of media sources from a number of countries has shown the influence organisations have over the political system (Hallin and Mancini, 2004, p. 4). With the development of 'mass media' and the increasing centralisation of news sources, the influence of the media has only grown. Since the 1970s, scholars have discussed the way in which the media has influenced politics and politicians. In The Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media, McCombs and Shaw outlined how the media can take steps to determine which news would be published and which would be prioritised. Since then there has been a number of studies into media influence in the political sphere, whether that amounts to indirect forming of debate, or outright media bias. As noted by McQuail, ''the history of mass media shows clearly enough that such control is regarded as a valued form of property for those seeking political or economic power'' (p. 21). The media, and particularly mass media, can be a useful and effective tool for exerting political influence. This can be done by those involved in the media industry in both a direct and an indirect manner, i.e. with or without the level of knowledge of the degree of influence. McQuail argues that the mass media can effectively set the agenda and determine which ideas have importance in the political realm, all the while seeming as mere purveyors of the day's important happenings. ''The mass media can divert and amuse and they can flatter. In general, mass media are very cost effective as a means of communication in society; they are also fast, flexible and easy to plan or control'' (p. 21). While the literature is by no means settled on the extent of the existence of media influence over politics and political debate generally, studies that consider media to have little influence often focus on whether such influence amounts to bias, or whether such influence is liberal or conservative (Entman, 2007, p. 164). Entman notes that studies which attempt to disprove a particular bias among news sources will often explain that liberal or conservative bias in mainstream news sources is overstated, however they tacitly acknowledge that news sources must necessarily have a certain degree of influence over politics (2007, p. 168; Domke et al, 1999, p. 35).
The way in which the mass media set the agenda in the political arena is multi faceted. Studies have shown that issues deemed by the public to be important are often influenced or completely replaced by issues deemed by the media to be important or pivotal. As noted by Entman, this can take the form of obviously biased reinforcement of particular values, such as ''consistent framing in favour of capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, individualism, consumerism, and White privilege, among other deeply entrenched values that certainly help allocate power in American society'' (2007, p. 170; Gilens, 1999 p. 3). Cohen, Tsfati and Sheafer cite the example of almost the entire Israeli Knesset participating in a taping of The Apprentice as it was deemed beneficial to their political standing – even though the benefit of the appearance was minimal outside of media value (2008, p. 1). However, influence need not be so overt for it to be remarkably influential. The media effectively sets the boundaries for political debate, reaffirming that each issue falls somewhere along the political spectrum – whether liberal or conservative – according to criteria developed by news organisations themselves. Attitudes towards particular aspects of government policy can be framed and reinforced by the media, until such attitudes are adopted by politicians and the wider public. Entman notes that in the United States the mainstream media has advocated for widespread reduction in taxation since the 1980s, and this has influenced the way in which both politicians and the public deal with the issue of taxation. Politicians and members of the public who held attitudes inconsistent with this lower tax view – for instance noting the social benefits of higher taxation – were marginalised and portrayed as being off the spectrum (Entman, pp. 169-170). Even non-domestic issues such as foreign policy will often be within the media's sphere of influence (Robinson, 2001, p. 524).
One clear area where media has a strong influence in the realm of politics is in regard to elections. Candidates understand that a favourable opinion among those in the mass media is crucial to their electoral hopes. As far back as the 1970s, scholars noted that ''in our day, more than ever before, candidates go before the people through the mass media rather than in person'' (McCombs and Shaw, p. 176). With the degree of money that is involved in contemporary media, there is an obvious benefit in encouraging or discouraging particular viewpoints. A political candidate may adopt a position which will be beneficial to a media organisation, and the organisation may favour the politician accordingly. While this may happen by a news source adopting a particular political position and thereto reporting in a consistent manner, it can also be through specific campaigns – particularly election campaigns. This is only furthered by larger news providers and centralised media ownership. As noted by Entman, ''Powerful players devote massive resources to advancing their interests precisely by imposing such patterns on mediated communications. To the extent we reveal and explain them, we illuminate the classic questions of politics: who gets what, when, and how'' (2007, p. 164).

How? Manner of Influence Utilised by Media Sources
The way in which different media sources influence politics will depend on the type of media employed. McQuail notes that the gatekeeper role occupied by the media allows media to select which information will become news (p. 21). Essential to the provision of news by media organisations is the determination of which issues are deemed to be the most important of the day, a process known as determining the 'currency' of the news. This is generally done by a team of editors pursuant to the rules laid out by a chief editor or by another actor who has determined a set or features according to which news must be organised and priorities. McQuail lays out a number of ways in which this can occur (p. 21):
“First the media can attract and direct attention to problems, solutions or people in ways which can favour those with power and correlatively divert attention from rival individuals or groups. Second, the mass media can confer status and confirm legitimacy. Third, in some circumstances, the media can be a channel for persuasion and mobilisation. Fourth, the mass media can help to bring certain kinds of publics into being and maintain them. Fifth, the media are a vehicle for offering rewards and gratification.”
Whichever media medium is employed, whether newspaper, television, internet or radio, the method will differ as to how news is prioritised (McCombs and Shaw, p. 178). For newspapers and internet sources, placement is of particular relevance, as front page news will be received by more readers and will be deemed to be of a greater importance. The size of the article (how many centimetres and how many columns, as well as the size of the headline) will also be important, but but not nearly as indicative as placement. Similarly, placement and time period are important to determining the priority of radio or television news stories. New media, such as social media and others enabled through internet and smartphone platforms have also been found to be considerably influential (Axford and Huggins, 2001, p. 193).
The essay question asks 'can the media influence politics'. The answer to that question is an emphatic yes. Not only has the media considerable influence over politics and the political cycle indirectly, but the media can decide to target particular candidates or parties to receive favourable results. Through determining the currency and priority given to each item of news, the media frames the issues and sets the political agenda in which politicians are required to operate.
Axford, B, Huggins, R, (2001), New Media and Politics, London, Sage Publications.

Cohen, J, Tsfati, Y, Sheafer, T, (2008), The Influence of Presumed Media Influence in Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol 1, No 0, pp. 1-14.

Domke, D, Watts, M, Shah, D, Fan, D, (1999), The Politics of Conservative Elites and the Liberal Media Argument, Journal of Communication, Vol 49, No 4, pp. 35-58.

Entman, R, (2007), Framing Bias: Media and the Distribution of Power, Journal of Communication, Vol 57, pp. 163-173.

Gilens, M, (1999), Why Americans Hate Welfare, University of Chicago Press.

Hallin, D, Mancini, P, (2004), Comparing Media Systems, London, Cambridge University Press.

Jebril, N, Loveless, M, (2013). The Media and Democratisation. What is Known about the Role of Mass Media in Transitions to Democracy?, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

McCombs, M, Shaw, D, The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media, pp. 176-187.

McQuail, D, (1979), The Influence and Effects of Mass Media, in 'Mass Communication and Society', J Curran (ed), Sage Publications.

Newton, K, (2010), Foundations of Comparative Politics, 2nd Ed, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, P, (2001), Theorising the Influence of the Media on World Politics, European Journal of Communication, Vol 16, No 4, pp. 523-544.

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