AP Test Prep: Evolution of the Mass Media

The mass media is composed of two parts: print media and the broadcast (or electronic) media. The print media refers primarily to newspapers and magazines, but can include books, such as an instant campaign biography as well as a reporter's lengthy analysis of a campaign. Radio, television, and the Internet constitute the broadcast media. While the number of daily newspapers in the United States has declined somewhat over the past 20 years, access to cable television and the Internet has grown tremendously. Americans get most of their news and information from the broadcast media.

The earliest newspapers in the country were little more than mouthpieces for partisan politics — Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists published the Gazette of the United States while Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans put out the National Gazette. Improvements in technology and rising literacy rates led to mass-circulation newspapers (known as the penny press) by the 1840s.

Late-nineteenth-century newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst often turned to sensational reporting, known as yellow journalism, to boost readership and to shape public opinion. Sensationalized stories about alleged Spanish atrocities against Cubans trying to win their independence were a factor in President William McKinley's decision to declare war on Spain in 1898. The Progressive Era (1900-1920) saw the rise of the muckrakers, reporters committed to bringing political corruption and unsavory business practices to the public's attention through articles in national magazines as well as books. Ida Tarbell's exposé of the activities of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company is a good example of muckraking.

Most newspapers today focus on local coverage. There are only a few that cover national issues in depth, and whose editorials can influence national policy. How important the print media is to the average American is subject to debate, however. The number of Americans reading newspapers and magazines is down, and polls indicate that the public has more confidence in the accuracy of stories aired on television than in the papers. On the other hand, those who get their news from the print media are better informed. Commercial radio first began to broadcast in 1920, and got into politics very quickly carrying the results of that year's presidential election. President Franklin Roosevelt effectively used radio to communicate directly with the American people through his "fireside chats" during the worst days of the Depression.

Radio's importance as a news and information source declined however with the introduction of television in the late 1940s. The new media changed the nature of running for office — the first campaign ads for a presidential candidate appeared on television in 1952 and the first presidential debate was aired in 1960 between Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. It is interesting to note that those who heard the debate on radio believed that Nixon won, but people who watched the debate felt Kennedy did.

Television also provided Americans with insights in the political process at work by covering party conventions as well as such momentous national events as the Watergate hearings and the impeachment and trial of President Clinton. A glimpse into the work of Congress became available in 1979 when the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) began to cover the proceedings of the House. In 1996, both President Clinton and challenger Bob Dole reached out to voters with their own Web sites. Today, the Internet provides access to a wealth of information on how government operates as well as political news and commentary.