Research Paper on Presidential Elections
Media, Public Opinion and Presidential Elections
Media plays important role in the life of society. People rely on media to get information about everything happening throughout the world. The democratic government is founded on the principle of freedom, including the freedom of media. However, the challenge is that journalists are expected to be objective in the coverage of the news and strive to avoid personal bias. The importance of media objectivity is especially vital for the news covering presidential elections. When the nation has to make a decision regarding the president of the United States of America, they form their opinion based on the messages they receive through media. Media has direct impact on the public opinion on presidential elections, debates and campaigns.
As the presidential candidates try to reach the national audience, the media becomes the primary tool to achieve this goal. Media serves the informative function and people tend to believe in the information they are presented with through television news, shows, newspaper articles, and commentaries. It would be wrong to say that media has negative impact on the formation of public opinion about the presidential candidates but it would be incorrect to state that media has no influence over the choice. Undoubtedly, journalists are able to play with the words to deliver the message they want. As a result, the phrases spoken by candidates are taken out of the context or presented in another light.
People tend to believe in news, especially when the news is broadcasted by the trusted networks such as CNN. When Barack Obama’s grandmother became ill and he took several days out of his campaign to visit her, news throughout the world presented him as the best grandson in the world who put interests of his family above his personal ambitions. Undoubtedly, the effect of this news was enormous as at that moment thousands of grandmothers in the country made the decision to vote to Obama. The same principle applies when the negative story hits the news. Even if the incident is not exceptionally bad, the media will exaggerate the negativity of it because people love to learn something bad about the successful individuals. The negative media coverage has a destructive impact on the candidate’s campaign.
The coverage of the United States presidential elections has been provided by all major cable television and radio stations in the country. Even the smallest newspapers in the most isolated villages published information about the presidential elections, candidates, their campaigns and debates. From one side, active media coverage of the presidential elections is a norm. From the other side, 2008th campaigns have been of special interest as the first African American candidate could become the American President. The United States of America is a democratic country and the media plays an important role in helping the people make informed decision. With such a great responsibility before the nation, he media should be fair, objective and free of bias.
“Public opinion is a dominant force in American politics and especially so during the long electoral process. If a presidential candidate fails to hit it off with the media at the first primary, then that presidential candidate is likely to have a political mountain to climb up to the November elections” (Trueman 2008). The impact of media on an average person cannot be underestimated. According to the research, in one year an average American watches about 1000 hours of network television, spends 150 hours reading a newspaper and additional 100 reading magazines (Trueman 2008). Therefore, the opinion about the presidential candidate is formed based on the media image of the particular politician.
It is very important for the politician to contribute to the formation of the powerful media image if they he wants to succeed. Trueman (2008) reveals that most candidates hire campaign media consultants who guide the politicians through the process of influencing the nation through powerful media messages. Newspaper editors have less power to shape the opinion only because less people read newspapers than watch television. However, a newspaper can also shape the choice of a person as an editor decides what to put on the front page and whether to present the story as boring or stimulating.
The media has grown considerably in the past couple of years. As James Long (2009) suggests, “the proliferation of 24 hour a day news channels alone would be a considerable increase, if you include the rapid growth of he internet the growth becomes unfathomable”. With the vast sources of information, the nation has an opportunity to hear and see all the sides of every issue. However, the media is not free of bias because media outlets are working for profit. There is no authority banning controlling the accuracy of the reports, especially the ones concerning the presidential elections. Long (2009) argues that “the news channels are saturated with images of and stories surrounding the so-called ‘front runners’ of any election” while the other candidates receive insufficient attention to win the race.
As the media evolves it has different impact of the public opinion. For example, Keen (2009) suggests that “American new-media pundits predicted that 2008 would be the “YouTube election” – a poll decided by the bloggers, the social networkers and the other authors of user-generated content on the internet”. The American nation is digitalized. It means that the internet and digital technologies are confidently replacing the traditional media such as radio and television. As a result, each presidential candidate understood the importance of establishing solid presence in world of the internet. It was supposed that the successful candidate would emerge with the help of digital technologies through mobilizing millions of supporters online.
Nevertheless, the role of the traditional media in the recent elections was enormous. The presidential debates were broadcasted live and millions of Americans made their final decision based on the answers given by candidates. The newspaper articles provided the electorate with the information about the candidates, the lives, and key campaign points. The traditional media made a significant contribution to the formation of public opinion about the presidential candidates. Nevertheless, every candidate heavily invested into internet media to market themselves and distribute the appealing message online. Moreover, “all the candidates have gone through the predictable motions of establishing a presence on fashionable social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and then scooping up hundreds of thousands of virtual ‘friends’” (Keen 2009).
The Impact of Media
The media not only plays one of the most important roles in the formation of public opinion, but is the part of the election process itself. As the media evolves and its nature changes, all aspects of the political campaigns change as well. Thirteen years ago, DeGroad (1995) argued that the changes to advances in technology, “especially ongoing, live television coverage of candidates, as well as changes in telecommunications tools such as telephones, faxes and computers that can deliver campaign messages and gauge public opinion”. The media advances open new opportunities for presidential candidates to make the desired impact on the voters. The choice of the media helps determine the audience response to the sent message. With the greater scope of media coverage, more information is delivered to the public at a much higher speed.
National television, for example, affects the way candidates deliver their speeches. Presidential candidates must pitch every word they say to ensure that the desired message is received by the electorate. The primary objective of the candidate is to reach as many people as possible and to ensure that the desired impact is made. Short speeches, in particular, are media friendly and the audience will definitely memorize the friendly tone of the speaker rather than long and boring speech on welfare reform. Hawkins (2008) argues that McCain and Obama became leaders of the presidential race because both of them have focused on financial crisis, the issue that mattered to all Americans above other policies.
People rely on media to learn the news about candidates but the media is not absolutely unbiased. Moreover, it is possible to state that each network promotes its own views on a candidate and his programs. Television shows invite commentators to make remarks about the speeches and programs of presidential candidates. As a result, the nation creates an opinion based on the words they hear and images they see. In other words, the opinion is not their own but is rather skillfully formed by experienced media managers. Young (2009) notes, “Most people are wise enough to discriminate between fact-driven news and commentary, but some are not. Others do not realize they are getting a big dose of indoctrination instead of just the facts. This leaves them open to media influence even though they are often unaware”.
The special attention should be paid to the role of media on the election day. Crespin and Wielen (2002) point out that “throughout the afternoon and evening, the newscasters and pundits with their red and blue maps use exit-polling to announce which states have fallen and which way the race is leaning”. In other words, the media declares the winner before all state polls are closed. According to the qualitative study of Crespin and Wielen (2002), media has significant negative effect on voter turnout. Early projections about the winner result in substantial decrease in voter turnout. From the democratic perspective, this causes ramification upon the whole process of presidential elections.
Despite of the negative impact of media on election process, print media and television do a fair job of covering presidential election-related matters such as debates, campaigns, and personalities. Nevertheless, it is hardly possible to deny the fact that media has lost its objective function of informing electorate about the candidates as politicians and potential presidents. The following nine specific side-effects of media coverage should be mentioned (Suttor 2009):
1) Media discounts candidates (when the presidential race begins, many candidates fail because they do not get enough attention of journalists and, as a result, their national visibility is not achieved)
2) Media makes biased predictions (journalists are prone to declaring the winner before the official results are known. Early predictions are made not only about the final voting but about the speeches and debates as well. Thus, the public opinion is skillfully led in the desired direction)
3) Media messages are strictly positive about one candidate and negative about another (when Hillary Clinton was ahead in the polls, journalists spread the message that she was destined to win. However, when Obama gained some success, the media created a negative image of him. Undoubtedly, media messages are not left unnoticed by the audience)
4) Media is profit-driven (it means that television networks, newspapers and magazines will present not the objective information but the one they are paid for. In other words, the audience receives closely refined and carefully selected information).
5) Journalists take quotes out of context (linguistics open enormous opportunities to rephrase the spoken word in order to create an opposite meaning to it. For example, the explanation of the candidate’s speech by a commentator on a reputable television program may change the opinion of the audience).
6) Media loves scandals (it is hardly possible to imagine the presidential race without regularly appearing video clips and written articles about the personal failures of the candidates. Scandals do not add popularity to the candidate and audience is influenced to make a choice in the favor of the least scandalous person based on media messages only).
7) Media is biased (the fact alone that Oprah expressed her support to Barack Obama in her show has shaped the opinion of millions of people. Media exploits the popularity of celebrities to motivate electorate to give preference to the specific candidate)
8). Media is not free of gender and race bias (almost every journalist considered it an obligation to note that Barack Obama may become the first African American president. While the United States of American is proud of its democratic, discrimination-free society, race and gender still play important role in shaping the public opinion through media)
9) Media exaggerates the differences between candidates (media does not simply provide the informative overview of the presidential elections but rather puts too much emphasis on highlighting the differences between the candidates in terms of private life and personality instead of political campaigns and programs for the country)
In conclusion, media has a powerful impact on public opinion during the presidential elections. People rely on media and tend to trust in what they read, watch and hear. Unfortunately, media is not objective in the coverage of presidential elections and usually the preference to one candidate is given before the actual race begins. The created media image of the candidate influences the choice of each particular voter. If the image is positive, the voter is likely to give his preference to the candidate. The lack of accuracy and factuality in presented information undermines the value of media as reliable source of information. However, it cannot be denied that media is the only source of information about candidates and their campaigns. As media evolves its influence on public opinion increases as well. Whether a voter is watching a television show or reading a newspaper or surfing the Internet, he gets skillfully-prepared messages shaping the choice of the American president. The media industry is free of control; however, it is profit-driven. In addition to being oriented on profit, journalists strive to gain the attention of the audience by gathering and presenting information that is not always true. Moreover, candidates themselves employ experienced media managers to get the most advantage from the media’s power in shaping the public opinion.
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