In my intro American politics class (“American Government and Politics,” or “AGP”), I begin the class with a basic introduction to US political ideas and institutions, including the three branches of government.
But then, by week 3, we get right into the thick of things by studying an institution that is sometimes referred to as the FOURTH branch of government—the news media. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, famously said that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, he would prefer newspapers without a government.
In class this week, I explore with my students these big questions: Why are the news media so important to democracy? How do the news media affect politics? Are the news media PART of the political process in the US? What is the impact of personalized media on our democracy?
To help my students grapple with these big ideas, of course I assign some readings. 🙂 One of my favorites for the topic of the news media is Shanto Iyengar’s Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. This book is accessible, interesting, and updated with recent examples to make the content especially relevant. What I like most is that the book is focused on why the news media are politically important and why that matters for US politics today. This week, my students read excerpts of Iyengar’s chapters 2, 3, 5, and 6 on what gets reported (and what doesn’t), social media as a news source, and news media effects. They also read an excerpt of Timothy Cook’s Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution (Chapter 5: “The Political News Media”). In this chapter, Cook makes the strong claim that “journalists are political actors.”
Almost always, I accompany my reading assignments with reading responses. Yes, technically they are reading quizzes, but they are very low-stakes assignments, as each of them only counts for a few points and the students can do them at home, open-book style. In fact, these reading “quizzes” are really meant to be reading guides, and my students see them as aids that help them focus on the most important parts of the reading and prepare for class discussion as well.
When all this reading is completed, then the students begin thinking about how to combine the week’s readings with the particular Senate race that they are following! So when we learn about the ideal ways that the media contributes to the democratic process, I encourage my students to think about how the media in their states are serving as an “electoral forum” for their candidates to get out their messages. When we consider the claim that “journalists are political actors,” I ask my students to think about how the media are deciding what is newsworthy about their particular Senate races and the candidates themselves. What issues are the media focusing on in their states? What kinds of stories do they seem to be most interested in covering? As we learn more about agenda control, priming, and framing, I encourage my students to think about how these terms can explain some of the news coverage that they are seeing in their Senate races. Last but certainly not least, I ask them to think about how social media are being used as a form of political communication.
Starting this week, my students have two goals in class: to understand our class materials, and to relate them to something happening in their Senate races. When it comes to the impact of news media on American politics, that’s not a hard thing to do!
Here’s my introductory class video to this week’s materials:
And here are my reading response questions for the readings this week, starting with Iyengar. As you can see, sometimes I use the reading responses as a way to just explain the readings to the students ahead of class lecture/discussion – so that they are more prepared to understand the material from the start of class! This long-form explanation can also be seen in my reading response question for Cook’s chapter (the last question).
You may have heard the phrase, “the news media is the fourth branch of government in the US.” Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the US, famously said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Why are the news media so important to democracy? How should the media – ideally – contribute to the democratic process? Iyengar (2019, 22-25, 49-51) argues that the media make three contributions to democracy: as an electoral forum, as a public sphere, and as a watchdog.
Define these three functions and reflect on whether the US media lives up to these expectations, by using the text and explaining in your own words. How do regulatory policy and market forces in the US affect the media’s performance?
In the 2016 edition of Media Politics, the section on social media as a news source was only two pages long. In the 2019 edition, the section is expanded to six pages – showing the growing importance (and growing research) on how social media affects public opinion and politics.
As you read Iyengar’s section (2019, 138-144), think about how huge online social networks change news exposure and allow for propaganda and fake news. Do you think that the recent move to “fact check” Tweets and FB stories will help solve these problems? Have you seen any disinformation campaigns or news stories in your Senate races yet?
Iyengar’s Chapter 8 excerpt on News Media Effects looks at five different ways that the news media influences public opinion:
(2) Agenda Control
Start with the summary of the chapter on p. 281 (after the Conclusion of Chapter 8) to get a sense of what each of these areas mean. When reading, I want you to focus in particular on the AGENDA SETTING, PRIMING, and FRAMING functions. It is not important to read everything in this chapter – skim the examples and look for the BIG PICTURE ideas, especially on the three areas highlighted above.
All three of these concepts (agenda control, priming, and framing) are related to each other. Let me guide you through some thoughts on this connection.
Iyengar (2019, 254) describes agenda control as follows: “by covering some issues and ignoring others, the media influence which issues people view as important and which they view as unimportant.” Simply put, the more an issue is in the news, the more important people will think it is. Think about how agenda control relates to Cook’s (2005) ideas about the political news media – how journalists make decisions about which issues and topics to give more attention.
Priming is “a process by which news coverage influences the weights that individuals assign to their opinions on particular issues when they make summary political evaluations, such as which candidate deserves their vote” (Iyengar 2019, 261-262). As in, if something is frequently in the news, candidates will be primed to judge candidates by who is best equipped to handle that issue. Iyengar gives the example of crime: “If crime is the issue receiving the most attention in the news, for example, people will be more likely to support the candidate or public official who they think is best able to deal with crime” (Iyengar 2019, 262). Usually – although not always – Republican candidates are seen as stronger on issues of crime, war, law and order, safety and security; while Democratic candidates are seen as stronger on issues of health care, jobs, social security, racial justice. We will discuss this idea of “issue ownership” more in later weeks.
Framing “refers to the way opinions about an issue can be altered by emphasizing or de-emphasizing particular facets of that issue” (Iyengar 2019, 267). So for example, a Ku Klux Klan (white supremacist) rally can be presented as “either a free speech issue or a public safety issue (respondents reported higher levels of support for allowing such a rally when it was framed as a free speech issue)” (Iyengar 2019, 267). So it’s not just about WHAT is in the news, and WHICH candidate seems better equipped to handle that issue, it’s also about HOW that issue is being presented.
Last but not least, Iyengar gives us a good discussion of “episodic framing” on p. 268. Here we get a specific example of the concerns Cook (2005) raised in his article discussed on Monday—that the way the media covers elections results in “good” stories but “bad” politics. Iyengar (2019, 272) writes, “the heavy emphasis on campaign strategy and poll standings overwhelms coverage of the candidates’ issue positions, thus framing elections—and politics more generally—in terms of superficial rather than substantive matters.”
Here I would like you to think about these ways that the media influences public opinion by what it chooses to cover, and how it covers it. Have you seen any examples of this in the news coverage (local or national) of your Senate race? Which candidate is favored by the issues that are being focused on?
Cook (2005, 85) makes a strong claim: “journalists are political actors.” Let’s read excerpts of his chapter (85-91, 110-115) to think about how the media do not just report on the news—they influence and even make the news. (Note: Iyengar’s Chapter 3 excerpts cover similar ideas of newsworthiness, and also includes a look at the market pressures.)
In his introduction (85-87), Cook defines politics as establishing both authority and values in a society. He argues that the news media is political because it influences conceptions of authority and values. How do the media do this? In his next section on bias and impact (87-91), Cook explains (2005, 87): “News is necessarily selective. Reporters can attend to only so many possible events. … Journalists can create importance and certify authority as much as reflect it, in deciding who should speak on what subjects under what circumstances. Selectivity, in and of itself, does not automatically lead to bias. … Selectivity leads to bias when, day in and day out, certain kinds of political actors, political stories, and political issues become more covered and more favorably reported than others.” (87)
Okay, so what kind of political actors, stories, and issues will get more attention? According to Cook (2005, 90), it’s all about “newsworthiness” and the “negotiation of newsworthiness” between the journalists and the politicians. To be newsworthy, Cook (2005, 90) writes, “Not only must the story have protagonists and antagonists in conflict, but the sources’ action must move the story along to a new episode.” Later on (in the conclusion), he notes these stories must be “timely, terse, easily described, dramatic, colorful, and visualizable” (114). Moreover, journalists aren’t only looking for a good story. They will “apply standards of newsworthiness beyond importance in order to keep an audience interested, and therefore, to keep the viewership tuned in or the readership continuing to buy papers.” (111, emphasis added) Think about that! “Interesting” and “important” do not mean the same thing, and sometimes journalism will highlight the interesting story over the important story.
The consequences of the political choices that the news media make are serious. Cook (2005, 91) argues, “The production values of the news directs them—and us—toward particular political values and politics: not so much pushing politics either consistently left or right as toward officialdom and towards standards of good stories that do not make for equally good political outcomes.”
What does he mean when he says that good stories do not make for equally good politics? In his conclusion, Cook explains that political journalism involves “a greater negativity in the news” (112) and follows an “episodic rather than analytical” structure, which “denies news attention to preexisting social problems and discourages solutions” (113). The bias in news media also pushes politicians to act in ways that will attract media attention. As Newt Gingrich said (he was an “inflammatory” speaker in the mid-1990s—although by today’s standards…), “Part of the reason I use strong language is because you all will pick it up. … You convince your colleagues to cover me being calm, and I’ll be calm” (Cook 2005, 114). These are serious consequences, and it is worth us thinking about how the news media acts politically through this negotiation of newsworthiness.
Use the space here to reflect on what you learned from the Cook chapter, and your concerns about how the news media in the US interact with and shape the political process.