HGov: Influencing Media

Public officials at all levels of government work hard to both attract and shape media coverage. The most common way to do this is by staging an event and inviting the press. Presidential press conferences are an example of staged events.

Politicians also try to influence the press by granting interviews to reporters. Often they set ground rules that indicate what information reporters can use and how they can identify their source. If it is an on-the-record conversation, the report can quote the public official by name. If it is an off-the-record conversation, the reporter can use the information but may not reveal the source.

When speaking on the record, politicians usually put their own spin on issues. Their goal is to convince both reporters and the public that their view of events is the correct one. They also try to include colorful sound bites that capture their main points in just a few words. They know that short sound bites are more likely to be run in news stories than are long speeches.

Public officials sometimes use off-the-record conversations to float trial balloons. A trial balloon is a proposal that is shared with the press to test public reaction to it. If the reaction is negative, the official can let the proposal die without ever having his or her name attached to it.

Off-the-record conversations are also used to leak information to the press. A leak is the unofficial release of confidential information to the media. Public officials leak information for many reasons. They may want to expose wrongdoing, stir up support for or opposition to a proposal, spin the way an event is covered, or curry favor with reporters.

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. What critics see as media bias may 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.



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