Almost everyone gets his or her information about world, national, and local affairs from the mass media. This fact gives both print and broadcast journalism important functions that include influencing public opinion, determining the political agenda, providing a link between the government and the people, acting as a government watchdog, and affecting socialization.
The Functions of the Mass Media
The mass media not only report the results of public opinion surveys conducted by outside organizations but also increasingly incorporate their own polls into their news coverage. More important, newspapers and television help shape public opinion as well. Research has shown that the positions Americans take on critical issues are influenced by the media, especially when the media air divergent views and provide in-depth analysis.
The term political agenda is broader in scope than the term public opinion, and it refers to the issues Americans think are the most important and that government needs to address. A person's perception of such matters as crime, civil rights, the economy, immigration, and welfare are affected by the manner and extent of media coverage. Studies indicate that a correlation exists between the significance people assign a problem and the frequency and amount of space or time newspapers, magazines, and television give to it.
Link between the government and the people
The mass media is the vehicle through which the government informs, explains, and tries to win support for its programs and policies. President Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats" used radio in this manner. Today, the major networks do not always give the president desired airtime if they believe the purpose is essentially political. If they do grant the time, the opposition party usually has the opportunity to rebut what the president says or present its own views on a topic immediately after the president speaks.
From muckraking early in the century to today's investigative reporting, an important function of the mass media is to bring to the attention of the American people evidence of corruption, abuse of power, and ineffective policies and programs. Watergate would have remained just another burglary buried in the back pages of The Washington Post had Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward not dug into the story. Although the media are often accused of having a "liberal bias" (and, indeed, surveys show most journalists to be liberal Democrats), all presidential administrations face close scrutiny from print and broadcast journalists.
The mass media, most significantly through its news, reporting, and analysis, affects what and how we learn about politics and our own political views. Along with family, schools, and religious organizations, television also becomes part of the process by which people learn society's values and come to understand what society expects from them. In this regard, the impact comes primarily from entertainment programming. Television's portrayal of minorities and women, family relations, and the place of religion in American life is considered to be a powerful influence on our attitudes.
Some people believe that Americans, especially children, imitate behavior observed in media communications. They are, therefore, concerned about the quantity of sex and violence on TV. This theory of behavior may be naive, and certainly it lacks consistent or weighty scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the perspective is a significant political force, because it links social conservatives who disapprove of sexual promiscuity with social liberals who find America's gun culture distasteful. Both the legislative and executive branches have pressured networks to clean up what former Vice President Al Gore called the "cultural wasteland."