Chapter Summary

Mass media are forms of communication—such as television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, and magazines—that reach large public audiences. More media outlets and more information mean that Americans must devote ever-increasing time, effort, and money to sort out what is relevant to them.

Media ownership can influence the kind of news we get. Early political parties and candidates created newspapers to advocate their issues. When newspapers suddenly became cheap and thus accessible to the general public in the 1830s, papers aimed for objectivity as a way to attract more readers. Later, newspaper owners used sensationalist reporting to sell more newspapers and gain independence from political interests. Today's media, still profit driven, are now owned by a few large corporate interests. Some observers argue that the newspaper is a dying media resource.

The 1934 Federal Communications Act, which created the Federal Communications Commission, imposed order on multiple media outlets and attempted to serve the public interest through three provisions: the equal time rule, the fairness doctrine, and the right of rebuttal.

Journalists, playing four roles, have great influence over news content and presentation. Gatekeepers decide what is news and what is not. Disseminators determine relevant news and get it out to the public quickly. The investigator role involves verifying the truth of various claims or analyzing particular policies. Finally, as public mobilizers, journalists try to report the peoples' interests rather than their own.

Public skepticism of the media has increased in recent decades. Some critics believe the homogeneous background of journalists—mostly male, white, well-educated, with northeastern roots—biases the press, as does their predominantly liberal ideology. Others claim that the revolving door, the practice of journalists taking government positions but later returning to reporting, severely damages news objectivity. Because the media play such a central role in democracy, the degree to which they fail to provide relevant, objective information about government is worrying to many political observers.

Citizen access to the media has been primarily passive in the past, but the rise of new, interactive media and the growth of the civic journalism movement, including blogs, Twitter, and social media, may help to transform citizens into more active media participants. Some political commentators see this trend as an attempt to restore journalism to its more traditional watchdog and information-provider role. Other political commentators are worried that the accuracy of the news may suffer. We are in the midst of a media revolution, and the only thing we know for sure is that things will change, quickly and inevitably.