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THE MASS MEDIA

The mass media function in part as an interest group. Each component of the mass media is a business, and like other businesses, each component has a direct interest in various areas of public policy. For example, the media have aimed to secure certain legislation, such as freedom of information and open meeting laws to facilitate their access to news sources, as well as legislation or court decisions that allow them to protect the confidentiality of news sources. Associations like the National Association of Broadcasters are regularly concerned with the activities of the Federal Communications Commission, which controls their licensing of television and radio stations (Graber, 2009).

The mass media also function as conduits for other parties who aim to shape policy. For example, lobbying groups may purchase media advertising in an effort to align public opinion behind their causes. Through the media, these groups may reach the ear of legislators and administrators by publicizing problems and proposals about which these lawmakers might not otherwise hear or, in some instances, about which they might not want to hear.

The news media often generate widespread awareness and concern about events and condition. A class example involves the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon Administration four decades ago. Without dogged investigations by the media, the scandal probably would have remained buried. Many of the most scandalous aspects of the Watergate scandal involved the improper solicitation and use of campaign funds. Outraged segments of public opinion demanded the prevention of future “Watergates"

The legislative response to this outcry was the passage of a bill in April 1974 that would drastically alter the way in which presidential and congressional campaigns are funded. This brief history provides just one example of a situation in which, as a result of investigative reporting, the mass media provided a direct impetus for legislation. Another example involved the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, in which funds from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran were diverted to a Nicaraguan right-wing rebel group called the Contras. The Contras used the money to buy weapons to strengthen their effort to topple Nicaragua’s government, which was controlled by the leftist Sandinista Party (Si. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1987). Congress reacted to this scandal by enacting the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1989, which prohibited any U.S. agency from providing assistance to the Nicaraguan paramilitary operations (Barron and Lederman, 2008).

Because public opinion is an important precursor of change, the mass media can set the stage by making undesirable conditions visible to a sizable segment of the public with unparalleled rapidity. Through the exposure of perceived injustices, the mass media play a crucial role in the formation of public opinion. Ralph Turner and Lewis M. Killian (1987) discuss six processes considered essential in understanding how this role plays out. First, the mass media authenticate the factual nature of events, which is decisive in the formation of public opinion. Second, the mass media validate opinions, sentiments, and preferences: It is reassuring to hear one’s views confirmed by a well-known commentator. A third effect of the mass media is to legitimize certain behaviors and viewpoints considered to be taboo. Issues that were discussed only in private can now be expressed publicly, because they have already been discussed on television or elsewhere in the mass media. Fourth, the mass media often symbolize the diffuse anxieties, preferences, discontents, and prejudices that individuals experience. By giving an acceptable identification for these perplexing feelings, the mass media often aid their translation into specific opinions and actions. Fifth, the mass media focus the preferences, discontents, and sentiments of the public into lines of action. Finally, the mass media classify into hierarchies persons, objects, activities, and issues. As a result of the amount of consideration, preferential programming, and placement of items, they indicate relative importance and prestige.

In addition to investigative reporting and the shaping of public opinion, the mass media can pressure or challenge lawmakers into taking action on an issue or into changing their stand on a question. Influential newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post can make or break legislators by the use of editorial pages. Endorsement by a major newspaper can help a candidate’s chances of being elected. Conversely, opposition to a candidate on the editorial page can harm these chances. Legislators are quite aware of the power of the press, and as a result, take editorial views seriously.

Finally, an indirect way by which the mass media can furnish an impetus for lawmaking is through the provision of a forum for citizens’ concerns. For example, the “letters to the editor” page in newspapers is a traditional outlet for publicizing undesirable conditions, while comments to articles on news websites provide the modern equivalent. These letters and comments can accomplish several objectives. First, they can alert the community that an issue is before a lawmaking body; second, they can persuade readers to take a position; third, they can make clear that there are responsible and articulate people in the community who are concerned with the issue; and fourth, they can enlist the active support of others. Similarly, many radio and television stations have local talk shows and public-affairs programs that can be used to air grievances and to seek redress.

 
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