Human society is a rather complicated phenomenon that is affected by numerous factors. Politics, economy, the social sphere of human life, etc. are all the factors that condition the development of society. However, with the wide spreading of globalization the role of information, and consequently mass media, has been on a sharp increase. This paper will examine the actual role of mass media in shaping public opinion on various phenomena of the objective reality and informing the understanding of politics in the public mind. The objectivity of mass media and the extent of their external control of them will also be examined. To achieve this, the paper will resort to the research works of such scholars as Brännström & Lindblad (1994), Vidich (1990), Zhang & Chia (2006), etc.
From the epoch of the Enlightenment on, i. e. from the early 18th century, the role of information started acquiring greater importance in society. As human life and freedom have become the basic values of the latter, information and its influence upon people started being considered as the major instrument of manipulating human consciousness and making people act in accordance with someone’s will. According to Mass Media: Pluralistic View (2009), soon the mass media, as a channel of information transmission and influencing people, obtained the importance of the “fourth estate” in the society is equal to the legislative, executive, and court powers (Hickey, 1998). Nowadays, “the media is a fully-integrated part of the state power-structure. In its practical application, it is more valuable than the military. There are definite drawbacks to using force, whereas, propaganda and public relations tend to be less disruptive to the normal flow of business” (Good, R. 2006).
Accordingly, the phenomenon of mass media objectivity should be of paramount importance for the society that understands how crucial mass media are for the formation of public opinion (Fan, 1988). However, there is considerable, and reasonable, doubt in this respect among scholars. To be more exact, scholars’ opinions are uniform in their belief in the biases that any medium possesses, and the debate over the mass media objectivity is taking place between them and the state authorities or media owners who claim the absolute objectivity of their TV channels, newspapers, etc. So, “the question needs to be asked, though, to what extent the free press is at all free” (Mass Media: Pluralistic View 2009). In this dispute, the opinion expressed by Vidich (1990) deserves attention most of all.
Vidich (1990) argues that the major function of the mass media was supposed to be keeping public morals, controlling the conformity of the governmental policies to the basics of democracy and human rights, and reporting to the public about any violations occurring, but the course of social development modified the mass media functions and made it one of the instruments in the political rivalry and propaganda: “The mass media’s appropriation of the position of keeper of public morals replaces the role of town gossip and also appropriates its hypocrisy (Vidich, A. J. 1990, p. 22). Drawing from these facts, the phenomenon of the variety of interests that mass media can represent acquires great importance. As the modern society is the commercially motivated one, the major interests in question are those of transnational corporations, state governments, and governmental agencies of various countries.
The discussion of the interests represented by mass media can not be started by any other phrase but the one said by a television station director and quoted by McManus (1997): “In this business,” he explained, “you have to think with a cash register in your head” (McManus, 1997, p. 5). The very essence of the mass media industry of today is formulated in these lines. Money and profit are those points in which the media owners are interested, and all the information they provide people with is, at the first hand, directed at increasing the profitability of their enterprises.
Namely for this purpose, the very essence of journalist work is being misinterpreted nowadays. Authoritative people in the media industry, including the former President of NBC News, Reuven Frank, claim that “this business of giving people what they want is a dope pushers argument. News is something people don’t know they’re interested in until they hear about it. The job of a journalist is to take what’s important and make it interesting” (Mass Media: Pluralistic View 2009). Nevertheless, certain positive goals can also be pursued via mass media.
For example, the health care system in such countries as Great Britain, Sweden, etc. benefits greatly from the huge impact mass media have on public opinion: “The mass media have come to be recognized as a strong force in the field of preventive medicine. By focusing on health questions, the media may enable people to think about lifestyle issues and perhaps to change their behavior” (Brännström & Lindblad, 1994, p. 22). Thus, health care, sports, and other social activities can benefit from the mass media’s being the fourth estate in every society. Moreover, understanding of politics is also promoted by mass media (Wilkins, 2000, p. 569).
Embedded Journalism and Political Participation
As far as politics is concerned, the problems of objectivity and biases should be examined first of all. The so-called “embedded journalism” is one of the controversial topics in the area as it, on the one hand, provides people with the information from the very site of events reported but, on the other hand, the objectivity of such reporting can not be ensured as journalists are there under the absolute influence of either governmental agencies, or military detachments, or transnational organizations. For example, Fox (2006) considers embedded journalism during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, when reporters from the US were delivering their news from the very battlefields but no one could guarantee that the news was objective and not dictated by the US military authorities (Fox, 2006, p. 36).
Further on, the issue of political activeness should be considered in connection with mass media. Research by Zhang & Chia (2006) examines the influence of various media on the political and civil participation of respondents, and the results of the research manifest that specific kinds of media influence the mentioned factors differently: “For instance, television viewing (Putnam, 1995a, 1995b) and Internet use (Kraut et al., 1998) have been indicated as the culprits for civic disengagement or physical inactivity, whereas newspaper reading has been consistently found to increase civic and political participation” (Zhang & Chia, 2006, p. 277). Thus, different media have different impacts on shaping public opinion.
Corporations and Government
Moreover, considering the political aspect of mass media it is impossible not to mention the role of corporations and governments in media control. As Good (2006) argues, “the media’s primary objective is to shape public opinion in a way that elicits support for the corporate agenda” (Good, R. 2006). In this respect, the needs of businesses that fund a television station or a newspaper are paramount for the latter. An example of such a relation between mass media and business can be the situation when Rupert Murdoch, the owner of The Sun, reported the open support of Tony Blair at the 1997 General Election when the New Labour Party celebrated the victory (not in the last turn due to Murdoch’s support and media promotion of the New Labour’s ideas) (Mass Media: Pluralistic View, 2009).
Thus, mass media have a crucial role in forming public opinion and people’s awareness of politics (McCombs, 2004). However, the ideas mass media present as the actual truths are rather often the coverage for the real commercial and mercantile goals of policy-makers: “Politics then becomes less an attempt to gain and serve the public trust than a combination of theatre and a sporting event played to an undifferentiated mass audience (Vidich, A. J. 1990, p. 26). Mass media shape the public mind in respect of social and political awareness, but the ideas shaped are often misinterpreted or misrepresented by media in favor of the corporations that fund them or governmental agencies that control them (Moy & Scheufele, 2000, p. 744).
So, mass media can be viewed as the major shapers of public opinion in modern society. A great role is attributed to the media informing the public understanding of politics as well. However, the issues of biases and pursuing interests of some corporations or agencies often distort the actual picture of politics and make people believe in the misrepresented ideas. What is to be done to ensure the objectivity of mass media, is the creation of non-profit independent media that will not be subjected to corporate financing or state control.
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Fan, P. 1988, Predictions of Public Opinion from the Mass Media: Computer Content Analysis and Mathematical Modeling, Greenwood Publishing Group.
Fox, K. 2006, ‘The “I” of Embedded Reporting: An Analysis of CNN Coverage of the “Shock and Awe” Campaign’, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50 (1), p. 36.
Good, R. 2006, ‘Traditional Media As Instruments To Shape Public Opinion And To Elicit Support For The Corporate Agenda’, Masternewsmedia, [Online] Web.
Hickey, N. 1998, ‘Sell The Front Page!’, The Guardian.
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McCombs, M. 2004, Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion, Polity.
McManus, J. H. 1997, ‘Who’s Responsible for Journalism?’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 12(1), pp. 5-17.
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Vidich, A. J. 1990, ‘American Democracy in the Late Twentieth Century: Political Rhetorics and Mass Media’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 4 (1), pp. 5 – 29.
Wilkins, K. G. 2000, ‘The role of media in public disengagement from political life’, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 44(4), p. 569.
Zhang, W., & Chia, S. C. 2006, ‘The Effects of Mass Media Use and Social Capital on Civic and Political Participation’, Communication Studies, 57(3), p. 277+.