Honors Gov: News Media

mass-media5     Never before in human history has so much information been made available to us through the mass media. Today, we have 24-hour news programming available on both radio and cable television stations. A growing number of people now get instant news on demand using the electronic media, computers, cell phones, and other communication devices that connect to the Internet. The Web makes billions of documents stored in computers all over the world accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Most Americans a generation ago,  looked to trusted news media, newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast news shows, for information on politics and public affairs. The news media rely on a small army of reporters, fact-checkers, and editors to research and report stories in an accurate, unbiased manner. Beginning in the late 1980s, new ways to communicate with the public about politics began to appear. These new media include talk radio, television talk shows, television news magazines, televised town hall meetings, and cable comedy shows spoofing the news of the day. More recently, news-oriented Web logs, or blogs, have emerged as another new medium.

The news media have three essential roles in a democracy. The first is serving as a watch-dog over the government. The second is setting the public agenda. The third is supporting the free exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. One of the greatest concerns of our nation’s founders was the potential for government officials to abuse their power. They saw a free press as a guard against corruption and the misuse of power.

Too much happens in the world for the press to report on everything. News editors and producers have to choose what to cover and what to leave out. These decisions help determine what issues get placed on the public agenda. Politicians and activists try to harness this agenda-setting power of the media to focus attention on issues they care about.

Finally, the news media serve as a marketplace of ideas and opinions. The airwaves today are filled with opinion journalism, the chatter of talking heads eager to share their views with the world. Most people who tune into these electronic debates do so not to receive objective analysis, but rather because they share the talk show host’s political point of view.

Many Americans believe that the media have a liberal or conservative bias. Nevertheless, most professional journalists strive to be fair and unbiased in their reporting. In its code of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists calls on its members to be “honest, fair and courageous.” It cautions that “deliberate distortion is never permissible.”

What critics see as media bias may, in reality, be a reflection of how news organizations work. Most news media outlets are businesses. They need to attract readers, listeners, or viewers to survive. With limited space or time to fill, their reporters, editors, and producers have to make choices about what stories to cover. These decisions are less likely to be motivated by political ideology than by what they think will attract and hold an audience.

Journalists look at many factors in choosing what stories to cover. One is impact. Will the story touch people in some way, even if only to make them mad or sad? A second is conflict, preferably mixed with violence. Does the story involve a crime, a fight, a scandal, or a disaster? A third factor is novelty. Is the story about a “hot topic” or a breaking news event? A fourth is familiarity. Does the story involve people we all know and find interesting? These factors influence what you see and hear as news. Because reporters like novelty, you won’t see many stories about ongoing issues or social problems. Because they want conflict, you won’t see much coverage of compromise in the making of public policy. And because they are looking for impact, bad news almost always wins out over good. As an old saying in journalism goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Honors Gov Homework:
1. Constitution Unit Test – on Friday 11/1
2. SSA Health Care Paper – due Friday 11/8

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