As I was discussing current political issues with a few friends of mine, we debated about the pervasive influence of the media, particularly in its role of agenda-setting. The media has the unique position, even responsibility to “set-the-agenda” in terms of political dialogue because it chooses what topics to highlight, to fit into tight 2 minute spots on TV or radio or the 500 word columns in a paper where such real estate is at a premium. We can’t talk about everything. There simply isn’t space. The media thus decides what to include and what not to, in a way that puts it in a very unique and influential position in American politics.
Now of course, “the media” is terribly misguiding, as there is no one, single, monolithic, universal media, but it represents the thousands of newspapers, magazines, television shows, radio shows, websites, etc. that provide news. I could get into how it has become more monopolized overtime, how smaller, local organizations have been bought out by a few large conglomerates, and how a surprisingly small handful of elites have a large amount of control over these news sources…but that is beside the point.
Who determines the political agenda? Is it the media or the voters? The politicians? The business elites? The social elites? The educational elites?
At any given time, in any given topic, this (far from exhaustive) list of sources is likely influencing the issues, ideas, and principles that shape our politics. Focusing on the first two, I find myself frequently engaging in dialogues about the relationship between the media and voters. It comes up in the classroom when I teach, it comes up on news stories and shows when I talk, and it is an important conversation to be had.
Invariably, people have strong opinions about how terrible either the media or voters are. One might blame the media for perpetuating stories that person feels are otherwise of no interest to viewers/voters while another might lament that voters do no personal research or individual education beyond the short clips and stories provided to them from the media. This conflict appeared frequently in my Political Behavior class, where we dissected public opinion and voter knowledge through the current literature in the discipline. The role of the media was central to both topics and students debated whether the media or voters were to blame for the relatively low voter knowledge and political participation numbers that accompany American politics.
The problem, to me, is simply chicken-and-egg. It would be a fruitless exercise to blame the media for “telling us what to think” or “only giving us sound bites” because those are the exact reasons we seek to use the media for information in the first place. If we had all the time in the world, and all the resources for that matter, no, we probably wouldn’t need to watch the news to hear about certain issues or read about an event in the paper—we could just go to where it is an experience it ourselves. This is obviously crazy, as even if it was affordable in terms of time and money, it would be ludicrous for hundreds of people standing outside a burning building, waiting to hear first-hand the safety report and damage assessment. Instead, we can learn about this from the comfort and safety of our living room, our offices, or wherever (thanks, modern technology!).
At the same time, we can’t be lazy and passive in assuming “all-the-news-that-is-fit-to-print” actually encompasses all the news and all the perspectives. The news outlets only have so much time to dedicate to so much news, and invariably their prioritization omits important stories that, for whatever reason, are left untold. The best relationship of an engaged citizen and the media is one where the latter provides the beginning point of inquiry and the former then seeks to expand his/her knowledge on what he/she deems relevant, worthy, and interesting.
At a community event this past fall, an older woman stood up during the Q&A session and chastised one campaign for not having more political advertisements, as she felt she only knew about his opponent who had dozens of tv, radio, and print ads. I am sure I rolled my eyes and even now, in recalling the comment, I am doing it yet again. Advertisements are not news, they are paid and they are unapologetically biased (as they should be, that is why they are advertisements.) Likewise, not every candidate can afford them and, without getting into a discussion about campaign finance regulation, we live in a country where that is a fair and sizeable barrier.
The next day, in a few of my classes, I recalled this story to my students and then posed the question: “Who is responsible for political knowledge?” Is it the media, as the woman at the event angrily assumed, or is it the individual voter? Many of my students sided with the voter, arguing that finding information in a technological age is easy and relatively free, that the media is already biased, and that some voters don’t care so they shouldn’t be subject to the same news as those who do. It ignited a great discussion and while I do not agree with all of their answers, I loved how they really questioned who has the responsibility to be informed.
I do not think the issue is so simple as to just say either the voters or the media are the keepers and seekers of political knowledge (indeed, in an election cycle, the campaigns, the candidates, IGs, PACs, community organizations, etc. are all active in disseminating information to voters and the media as well). But I do think we should expect more from voters, to do their own research and play a more active role in understanding and participating in their government, and the media, by listening to their stories and responding with what we liked and what we believed has still yet to be heard. As this next campaign season transpires (and it will be a big one here in Indiana, with not only the Presidency but the Governorship and an open Senate seat up for election), this is my hope for a more critically engaged and active electorate and the media that empowers them, not obfuscates, to make the best decisions for themselves.