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Media Influence on Politics and Public Opinion: Critical Analysis

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Introduction

The relationship between the media, politics, and the public is a complicated one. The changing face of the media landscape, including how we disseminate and access news content, as well as how politicians and government institutions choose to communicate, is constantly evolving and begs the question; what consequences does this have on the democratic process, political agenda, and public opinion?

This essay will critically discuss how the media influences politics and public opinion. It will do so by drawing on Brian McNair’s ‘An Introduction to Political Communication as a backdrop to a wider discussion focusing on two specific journal articles, namely; Florian Foos and Daniel Bischof’s ‘Tabloid media influence on Euroscepticism: Quasiexperimental evidence from England’, which examines the role the media plays in influencing public opinion, and Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei’s ‘The Political Legacy of Entertainment TV’, which examines the role the media plays in influencing politics.

While the question posed is a straightforward one “How does the media influence politics and public opinion?” the answer is less so. Despite analysing different types of mass media, voter attitudes and behaviour, the role of agenda-setting, and the power of political communication, I will argue that this is a difficult question to answer.

Main Body

How the media influences public opinion:

The term ‘public opinion can be traced as far back as the early sixteenth century when modern European countries began to transition from autocracy to liberal democracies, and newspapers began to deviate from simply providing news content to providing a platform for analysis, opinion, and debate (REF). For the first time ever, issues of public interest were open to everyone and the press established itself as a key part of the democratic process.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the degree to which the media influences public opinion, one example can be seen when we look at tabloid media’s effects on voter attitudes and behaviour. Florian Foos and Daniel Bischof’s paper ‘Tabloid media influence on Euroscepticism: Quasi-experimental evidence from England’ provides insight into how a prolonged boycott of “the most important Eurosceptic tabloid newspaper” The Sun affected voting attitudes and behaviours in Merseyside in the 2016 Brexit vote (Foos and Bischof, 2019, p.1).

The boycott was a direct result of The Sun’s coverage of the fatal Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which saw 96 people lose their lives. In order for us to understand the journalistic ethics of a tabloid newspaper like The Sun, it is worth reminding ourselves of the paper’s reputation. Former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie, who was responsible for The Sun’s infamous front page headline ‘The Truth, defined ethics as:

“Ethics? As far as I’m concerned that’s the place to the east of London where people wear white socks.” (Chippindale and Horrie, 2013)

The fallout from this front-page story, which ultimately led to a ban of The Sun in Merseyside, continues to this day with local taxi drivers displaying a “Do not buy The Sun” sign on their cars (Sledge, 2018), and the majority of shops refusing to stock the title (Taylor, 2016). The blacklisting of the paper even extends as far as local daily newspapers such as The Liverpool Echo refusing to explicitly state the name ‘The Sun’ in its reporting, instead referring to it as “The S*n” (Kay and Bloom, 2017).

While The Sun has always been notorious for displaying an anti-EU sentiment, with circulation figures plummeting in Merseyside less people were exposed to news headlines such as ‘BeLEAVE in Britain’, and ‘See EU Later’ (Martinson, 2016). Foos and Bischof’s research (2019, p.15) argues that this resulted in a change in public opinion towards the EU, leading to more positive and encouraging sentiment. Further, they make the case that this reduction in Euroscepticism in Merseyside influenced how local people voted for Brexit in 2016. While Merseyside voted slightly more in favour of Remain, Foos & Bischof argue that this is down to changes in voting behaviour as a direct result of the boycott of The Sun newspaper:

The results show that following the boycott, counting areas located in Merseyside county were significantly less likely to vote for the Eurosceptic option. (Foos and Bischof, 2019, p.15)

How the media influences politics:

Nowhere is the media’s influence over politics more evident than in the run-up to and during an election campaign. The media “set the agenda”, by deciding which candidates and political parties to cover, as well as determining how much air time or column space campaign issues receive (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Lang and Lang reinforce this sentiment and are quoted in McCombs and Shaw as saying:

The mass media force attention to certain issues. They build up public images of political figures. They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the mass should think about, know about, and have feelings about. (Lang and Lang (1966, quoted in McCombs and Shaw, 1972, p.177))

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Place Order

This is evident in Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei’s paper ‘The Political Legacy of Entertainment TV’, which centres on former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private television network Mediaset and the influence it has had on the political landscape in Italy.

Berlusconi’s election to the Italian parliament in March 1994 marked the first in a long line of conflicts of interest for the businessman. For the first time, his ownership of Mediaset and his political ambitions could be leveraged to his advantage. Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei (2019, p.2499) found that those with early access to Mediaset and who, as a result of this were more exposed to light entertainment compared to news or educational content, were more prone to vote for Berlusconi in 1994 when he first sought election.

However, the research also found that this was not an isolated incident and TV viewers, particularly those who watch the most TV (primarily the old and the young) continued to vote for Berlusconi throughout the next five elections until the party was dissolved in 2013 (Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei, 2019, pp.2498-2499).

Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei (2019, p.2498) describe this as a “remarkable” effect on voting behaviour and attribute it to a number of different reasons including; the engagement levels of people who consume entertainment TV, the cognitive effects of this, and the recognition factor of Berlusconi. Although today’s media landscape is vastly different to what it was in the 1980s, a similar comparison could be made between Berlusconi’s Mediaset and the voting preferences of Fox News viewers in the US (Lalwani, 2019).

According to McNair (2018, pp. 41-42), individual political parties often attempt to shape the media’s agenda in a bid to highlight their views on certain predetermined topics. While this is not unusual, the lines become blurred when there is a clear conflict of interest between the two parties, with one holding leverage over the other such as with Berlusconi and Mediaset. Nonetheless, this is not an isolated case and we have become attuned to influential business people dipping their toes into the media landscape. In recent years, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post, while billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

A study carried out by Professor Michael Bruter, Professor of Political Science and European Politics at the London School of Economics & Political Science analysed what he referred to as the ‘time bomb’ effect of one-sided news, which demonstrated the power of media manipulation and how it can exploit even the most educated readers (Bruter, 2009). Further, Professor Bruter’s research makes reference to the influence of sustained media exposure of partisan TV outlets such as FOX and MSNBC (Burns, 2009).

The media can also influence politics through public opinion polls. Although not an exact science, opinion polls do provide an insight into voting attitudes and behaviour. According to McNair (2018, p.36), opinion polls can act as a causal factor in voting behaviour. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why politicians place such prominence on surveys:

If politicians have become more sensitive to public opinion as measured in polls they have also, it is frequently argued, become prisoners of that public opinion, allowing it to dominate the processes of policy formulation and decision-making. (McNair, 2018, p.42)

While it is difficult to ascertain just how much power the media holds in influencing politics, it should be overlooked at our peril, warns McNair (2018, p.49) who says “…political communication is too important to be ignored by those with a concern for the workings of modern democracies”.

Conclusion

Journalism is highly contextual and the degree to which the media can play a part in impacting public opinion and the democratic process depends very much on the country in question. Italy is a perfect example of the Polarized Pluralist Model, features of which include high political parallelism, strong state intervention, and a weak newspaper market leading to a more dominant role of television. (REF TABLE 4.1). Countries that fall under the Polarized Pluralist Model may be more susceptible to mass media influencing politics and public opinion compared to the Liberal Model.

Similarly, while there are cases where a change in public opinion is determined by a single event (for example, former Irish presidential candidate Sean Gallagher’s ‘brown envelope’ gaffe during a live RTE debate in 2011), these are the exception rather than the rule and it is difficult to quantify the true impact of the media on public opinion.

To summarise, the media, politics, and public opinion are intrinsically linked. While we fundamentally believe mass media have the power to exert significant influence over us and determine public opinion and politics, this is not an exact science and in essence, we may never know the true impact of a particular newspaper, broadcast, or opinion poll has had.

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Media Influence on Politics and Public Opinion: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/media-influence-on-politics-and-public-opinion-critical-analysis/
“Media Influence on Politics and Public Opinion: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/media-influence-on-politics-and-public-opinion-critical-analysis/
Media Influence on Politics and Public Opinion: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/media-influence-on-politics-and-public-opinion-critical-analysis/> [Accessed 28 Jan. 2023].
Media Influence on Politics and Public Opinion: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Jan 28]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/media-influence-on-politics-and-public-opinion-critical-analysis/
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