As the media has increasingly transitioned from traditional methods of delivering political news (radio, broadcast and cable TV programs) to more Internet-based platforms, Americans now have access to a seemingly unlimited amount of political news. The media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, informing citizens about political issues, and promoting political engagement. The way in which the media covers political events can have a significant impact on how citizens view politics, their level of engagement, and their willingness to participate in the political process. Despite this, many political scientists believe these new developments may be doing more harm than good.
For example, media coverage of political events can influence how citizens view the importance of a particular issue. If the media gives extensive coverage to a particular issue, it can increase the public's awareness and concern about that issue, leading to increased political participation. For example, the media's coverage of the Flint water crisis in Michigan in 2014 brought widespread attention to the issue of contaminated drinking water, which in turn led to increased public engagement, activism, and political participation.
Media analysis and commentary can also influence political participation by shaping public opinion on political issues. Political commentators, journalists, and analysts can provide in-depth analysis and perspectives on political events, which can help citizens to better understand complex issues and make informed decisions. For instance, media analysis and commentary on the 2020 US presidential election helped citizens to better understand the candidates' platforms, qualifications, and policies, which in turn influenced their political engagement and voting decisions.
In addition, media coverage of political events can also shape the public's perception of the political process. For example, if the media emphasizes the importance of voting and civic engagement, it can encourage citizens to become more politically active and participate in the political process. On the other hand, if the media portrays politics as being dominated by special interests and corrupt politicians, it can discourage citizens from participating in the political process and contribute to political apathy.
Moreover, the media can also influence political participation by providing citizens with information about political candidates and their platforms. For instance, during election campaigns, the media plays a crucial role in informing citizens about the candidates' positions on key issues, their qualifications, and their track record. This information helps citizens to make informed decisions and engage in the political process by casting their votes or participating in political activism.
Furthermore, the media's coverage of political events can also influence how citizens perceive the effectiveness of government and the political system. If the media focuses on political scandals, corruption, and inefficiency, it can create a negative perception of the government and the political system, which can discourage political participation. On the other hand, if the media focuses on positive developments and success stories in government, it can encourage political engagement and foster a more positive view of the political system.
An increased demand for news reporting tailored to individual political ideologies has stimulated the growth of news organizations that provide viewers with daily news and commentary that align with their personal political belief system. Beginning with CNN in the 1980s, followed by Fox News in the mid-1990s, and more recently with online platforms such as the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and the Daily Wire, Americans now have multiple options when seeking ideologically targeted 🎯 news. One recent concern with these developments in TV and Internet news has been the increasing level of bias evident in the reporting of the news 📰. Eager to attract as many advertisers 💲 as possible, these companies have increasingly revealed their biases and, in many cases, have placed more emphasis on appealing to viewers’ emotions 😂 😠 😨 via sensationalistic reporting and commenting on the news, rather than in-depth, substantive news.
These sites often cater to a specific audience and can contribute to the spread of misinformation, political polarization, and the breakdown of public trust in the media. Partisan news sites can also contribute to the creation of echo chambers, where individuals are exposed only to viewpoints that align with their own, reducing their exposure to alternative perspectives and leading to a further reinforcement of their existing beliefs. If citizens rely on partisan news sites for their information, they may receive an overly partisan and distorted view of political events and issues, leading to a further reinforcement of their existing beliefs and political polarization.
This trend toward ideological news has been exacerbated by the rise of social media, which has made it easier for individuals to find and consume news that aligns with their personal beliefs. For example, social media algorithms can use data on an individual's previous news consumption to suggest similar content, leading to a reinforcement of their existing beliefs and a further narrowing of their exposure to alternative perspectives.
The increasing level of bias in news reporting has contributed to a decline in public trust in the media, as well as a decline in the perceived accuracy and impartiality of news reporting. This has led to a further breakdown in civil discourse, as individuals are more likely to dismiss news that does not align with their existing beliefs and are less likely to engage in productive political debates.
Media Bias Chart. Image courtesy of League of Women Voters
With the changing media landscape, more Americans are demonstrating confirmation bias—seeking out and interpreting information in a way that confirms what they already believe. This reality is played out on social media platforms on a daily basis, as Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers post links to articles 📰 , videos 📹 , memes 😂 , and other sources that serve to reinforce their own belief system. In this way, social media has placed extreme pressure on media organizations when determining what to report on and how to report it. This has caused an increase in consumer-driven media that focuses on attracting as many readers/viewers/listeners as possible, even at the expense of quality reporting of the news.
Despite having access to more political news than at any other point in American history, many Americans are often misinformed due to irresponsible media consumption. The sharing of political news online via social media platforms 📱 has increased interactions between like-minded Americans 👌 👍 , but hasn’t necessarily led to a more informed citizenry. Americans far too often consume political news without determining the credibility of the source. Many political scientists fear 😱 that this consumer-driven media landscape will only get worse—potentially leading to a dangerously misinformed electorate—and that the only solution is to exercise more discretion when consuming political news.