Chapter 8: The Media

Click here to return to Guest Hollow’s Government Online Textbook table of contents.

Chapter 8 Vocabulary

agenda setting

the media’s ability to choose which issues or topics get attention

citizen journalism

video and print news posted to the Internet or social media by citizens rather than the news media

cultivation theory

the idea that media affect a citizen’s worldview through the information presented

digital paywall

a paid subscription to access published online material

equal-time rule

an FCC policy that all candidates running for office must be given the same radio and television airtime opportunities

fairness doctrine

a 1949 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, now defunct, that required holders of broadcast licenses to cover controversial issues in a balanced manner


the process of giving a news story a specific context or background

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

a federal statute that requires public agencies to provide certain types of information requested by citizens

hypodermic theory

the idea that information is placed in a citizen’s brain and accepted

indecency regulations

laws that limit indecent and obscene material on public airwaves


printed information about a person or organization that is not true and harms the reputation of the person or organization

mass media

the collection of all media forms that communicate information to the general public

minimal effects theory

the idea that the media have little effect on citizens


news coverage focusing on exposing corrupt business and government practices

party press era

period during the 1780s in which newspaper content was biased by political partisanship


the process of predisposing readers or viewers to think a particular way

prior restraint

a government action that stops someone from doing something before they are able to do it (e.g., forbidding someone to publish a book he or she plans to release)

public relations

biased communication intended to improve the image of people, companies, or organizations

reporter’s privilege

the right of a journalist to keep a source confidential


spoken information about a person or organization that is not true and harms the reputation of the person or organization

soft news

news presented in an entertaining style

sunshine laws

laws that require government documents and proceedings to be made public

yellow journalism

sensationalized coverage of scandals and human interest stories

Freedom of the press and an independent media are important dimensions of a liberal society and a necessary part of a healthy democratic republic. “No government ought to be without censors,” said Thomas Jefferson, “and where the press is free, no one ever will.” What does it mean to have a free news media? What regulations limit what media can do? How do the media contribute to informing citizens and monitoring politicians and the government, and how do we measure their impact? This chapter explores these and other questions about the role of the media in the United States.

8.1 What Is the Media?


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain what the media are and how they are organized
  • Describe the main functions of the media in a free society
  • Compare different media formats and their respective audiences

Ours is an exploding media system. What started as print journalism was subsequently supplemented by radio coverage, then network television, followed by cable television. Now, with the addition of the Internet, blogs podcasts, and social media give citizens a wide variety of sources for instant news of all kinds. The Internet also allows common citizens to initiate public discussion by uploading text, images and video for viewing, including videos documenting interactions between citizens and the police or government officials in non-official venues. The video below shows a controversy that was caused when Democrat Nancy Pelosi (while serving as speaker of the House) got a haircut when hair salons were supposed to be closed due to COVID restrictions and strict mask regulations were in place.

Provided we are connected digitally, we have a bewildering number of choices for finding information about the world. In fact, some might say that compared to the tranquil days of the 1970s, when we might read the morning newspaper over breakfast and take in the network news at night, there are now too many choices in today’s increasingly complex world of information. This reality may make the news media all the more important to structuring and shaping narratives about U.S. politics. It also gives the media an incredible amount of power that has the potential for misuse – though the proliferation of competing information sources like blogs and social media may in some cases actually weaken the power of the ‘mainstream’ news media relative to the days when only a few news media outlets monopolized our attention.


The term media defines a number of different communication formats from television media, which share information through broadcast airwaves, to print media, which rely on printed documents. The collection of all forms of media that communicate information to the general public is called mass media, including television, print, radio, and Internet. One of the primary reasons citizens turn to the media is for news. We expect the media to cover important political and social events and information in a concise and neutral manner (although neutrality seems to be rare and nearly non-existent in recent years).

The media is sometimes called “The Fourth Estate” or “The Fourth Power” because, like the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches of government, the media, despite NOT being a government entity, has tremendous capacity for influence over people’s lives and the direction of government via the framing and presentation of issues. This is why, in the past, the media was expected by its readers and viewers to be neutral in its presentation and citizens were often offended when it did not live up to presenting facts in an objective manner. (This did not include shows and columns that were labeled as editorial, where personal viewpoints were presented and discussed.)

To accomplish its work, the media employs a number of people in varied positions. Journalists and reporters are responsible for uncovering news stories by keeping an eye on areas of public interest, like politics, business, and sports. Once a journalist has a lead or a possible idea for a story, he or she researches background information and interviews people to create what is supposed to be a complete and balanced account. Editors work in the background of the newsroom, assigning stories, approving articles or packages, and editing content for accuracy and clarity. Publishers are people or companies that own and produce print or digital media. They oversee both the content and finances of the publication, ensuring the organization turns a profit and creates a high-quality product to distribute to consumers. Producers oversee the production and finances of visual media, like television, radio, and film.

The work of the news media differs from public relations, which is communication carried out to improve the image of companies, organizations, or candidates for office. Public relations is not a neutral information form. While journalists are supposed to write stories to inform the public, a public relations spokesperson is paid to help an individual or organization get positive press. Public relations materials normally appear as press releases or paid advertisements in newspapers and other media outlets. Some less reputable publications, however, publish paid articles under the news banner, blurring the line between journalism and public relations. Unfortunately, some ‘reporters’, at various media outlets, are sometimes indistinguishable from PR firms when it comes to certain candidates, political parties, or topics.


Each form of media has its own complexities and is used by different demographics. Millennials are more likely to get news and information from social media while Baby Boomers are most likely to get their news from television, either national broadcasts or local news.

Television alone offers viewers a variety of formats. Programming may be scripted, like dramas or comedies. It may be unscripted, like game shows or reality programs, or informative, such as news programming. Although most programs are created by a television production company, national networks—like CBS or NBC—purchase the rights to programs they distribute to local stations across the United States. Most local stations are affiliated with a national network corporation, and they broadcast national network programming to their local viewers.

Before the existence of cable, satellite, and fiber optics, networks needed to own local affiliates to have access to the local station’s transmission towers. Towers have a limited radius, so each network needed an affiliate in each major city to reach viewers. While cable technology has lessened networks’ dependence on aerial signals, a small number of viewers still use antennas and receivers to view programming broadcast from local towers.

Affiliates, by agreement with the networks, give priority to network news and other programming chosen by the affiliate’s national media corporation. Local affiliate stations are told when to air programs or commercials, and they diverge only to inform the public about a local or national emergency. For example, ABC affiliates broadcast the popular television show Once Upon a Time at a specific time on a specific day. Should a fire threaten homes and businesses in a local area, the affiliate might preempt it to update citizens on the fire’s dangers and return to regularly scheduled programming after the danger has ended.

Most affiliate stations will show local news before and after network programming to inform local viewers of events and issues. Network news has a national focus on politics, international events, the economy, and more. Local news, on the other hand, is likely to focus on matters close to home, such as regional business, crime, sports, and weather. The NBC Nightly News, for example, covers presidential campaigns and the White House or skirmishes between North Korea and South Korea, while the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles (KNBC-TV) and the NBC affiliate in Dallas (KXAS-TV) report on the Texas governor’s activities or weekend festivals in the region.

Cable programming offers national networks a second method to directly reach local viewers. As the name implies, cable stations transmit programming directly to a local cable company hub, which then sends the signals to homes through coaxial or fiber optic cables or by satellite. Because cable does not broadcast programming through the airwaves, cable networks can operate across the nation directly without local affiliates. Instead, they purchase broadcasting rights for the cable stations they believe their viewers want. For this reason, cable networks often specialize in different types of programming.

The Cable News Network (CNN) was the first news station to take advantage of this specialized format, creating a 24-hour news station with live coverage and interview programs. Other news stations followed, such as NEWSMAX, MSNBC and FOX News. A viewer might tune in to Nickelodeon and catch family programs and movies or watch ESPN to catch up with the latest baseball or basketball scores. The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, known better as C-SPAN, now has multiple channels covering Congress, the president, the courts, and matters of public interest. You can watch C-SPAN live streams here if you have a TV subscription or you can watch it on YouTube.

Cable and satellite providers also offer on-demand programming for most stations. Citizens can purchase cable, satellite, and Internet subscription services (like Netflix) to find programs to watch instantly, without being tied to a schedule.

The on-demand nature of the Internet has created many opportunities for news outlets. While early media providers were mostly just those entities who could pay the high cost of printing or broadcasting, modern media require just a URL and some server space. The ease of online publication has made it possible for more niche media outlets to form. The websites of the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers often focus on matters affecting the United States, while channels like BBC America present world news. NEWSMAX presents political commentary and news in a conservative vein, while the Internet site for CNN offers a liberal perspective on the news.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of online news has also increased the amount of poorly written material with little editorial oversight, and readers must be cautious when reading Internet news sources. Sites like Buzzfeed allow members to post articles without review by an editorial board, leading to articles of varied quality and accuracy. The Internet has also made publication speed a consideration for professional journalists. No news outlet wants to be the last to report a story, and the rush to publication often leads to typographical and sometimes serious factual errors. Even large news outlets, like the Associated Press, have published articles with errors in their haste to get a story out.

The Internet also facilitates the flow of information through social media, which allows users to instantly communicate with one another and share with audiences that can grow exponentially. Facebook, Truth Social, and Twitter have millions of daily users. Social media changes more rapidly than the other media formats. While people in many different age groups use sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, other sites like Snapchat and TikTok appeal mostly to younger users. The platforms also serve different functions. Tumblr and Reddit facilitate discussion that is topic-based and controversial, while Instagram is mostly social. A growing number of these sites also allow users to comment anonymously, leading to increases in threats and abuse.

Regardless of where we get our information, the various media avenues available today, versus years ago, make it much easier for everyone to be engaged. The question is: Who controls the media outlets that we rely on? Most media are controlled by a limited number of conglomerates. A conglomerate is a corporation made up of a number of companies, organizations, and media networks. In the 1980s, more than fifty companies owned the majority of television and radio stations and networks. By 2011, six conglomerates controlled most of the broadcast media in the United States: CBS Corporation, Comcast, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox (formerly News Corporation), Viacom, and The Walt Disney Company. The Walt Disney Company, for example, owns the ABC Television Network, ESPN, A&E, 21st Century Fox, and Lifetime, in addition to the Disney Channel. Viacom owns BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and VH1. Time Warner owns Cartoon Network, CNN, HBO, and TNT, among others. While each of these networks has its own programming, in the end, the conglomerate can make a policy that affects all of the stations and programming under its control.

In 1983, fifty companies owned 90 percent of U.S. media. By 2012, just six conglomerates controlled the same percentage of U.S. media outlets.

Conglomerates can create a monopoly on information by controlling a sector of a market. When a media conglomerate has policies or restrictions, they will apply to all stations or outlets under its ownership, potentially limiting the information citizens receive or slanting the way information is presented in order to offer a less-than-objective perspective.

While watching the following video think about how government, media, the economy and your own personal finances are very inter-related.

Newspapers too have experienced the pattern of concentrated ownership. Gannett Company, while also owning television media, holds a large number of newspapers and news magazines in its control. Many of these were acquired quietly, without public notice or discussion. Gannett’s 2013 acquisition of publishing giant A.H. Belo Corporation caused some concern and news coverage, however. The sale would have allowed Gannett to own both an NBC and a CBS affiliate in St. Louis, Missouri, giving it control over programming and advertising rates for two competing stations. The U.S. Department of Justice required Gannett to sell the station owned by Belo to ensure market competition and multi-ownership in St. Louis.


If you are concerned about the increasing lack of variety in the media and the market dominance of media conglomerates, the non-profit organization, Free Press, tracks and promotes open communication.

These changes in the format and ownership of media raise the question whether the media still operate as an independent source of information. An interesting philosophical point of debate and discussion might be, “If the media as a whole offers only a very limited or specifically slanted point of view, do we still have a free press?”

Is it possible that corporations and CEOs who now control the information flow are making profit and the dissemination of their own personal viewpoints more important than the impartial delivery of information? The reality is that media outlets, whether newspaper, television, radio, or Internet, are businesses. They have expenses and must raise revenues. Yet at the same time, we expect the media to entertain, inform, and alert us – supposedly without bias. They must provide some public services, while following laws and regulations. Reconciling these diverse and sometimes warring goals may not always be possible.


The media exists to fill a number of functions. Whether the medium is a newspaper, a radio, or a television newscast, a corporation behind the scenes must bring in revenue and pay for the cost of the product. Revenue comes from advertising and sponsors, like McDonald’s, Ford Motor Company, and other large corporations. But corporations will not pay for advertising if there are no viewers or readers. So, all programs and publications need to entertain, inform, or interest the public and maintain a steady stream of consumers. In the end, what attracts viewers and advertisers is what survives.

The media are also supposed to be watchdogs of society and of public officials. As mentioned previously, some refer to the media as the fourth estate, with the branches of government being the first three estates and the media equally participating as the fourth. This role should help maintain democracy and keep the government accountable for its actions, even if a branch of the government is reluctant to open itself to public scrutiny. As much as social scientists would like citizens to be informed and involved in politics and events, the reality is that we are not. So, the media, especially journalists, keep an eye on what is happening and sounds an alarm when the public needs to pay attention.

The question arises, “What happens when the media simply parrots whatever line the government suggests is the truth.” Many have accused the media of doing just that during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. There were honest and lucid disagreements over what the correct response to the virus should be, the veracity of certain information being disseminated by governmental agencies, and the efficacy of certain treatments, yet detractors of the government’s positions were in many cases never covered by mass media, were actively ridiculed, and their positions and ideas were actively censored by social media.

Is this the type of behavior that the press should engage in? Is this the behavior that the writers of the First Amendment would have expected when they wrote in the freedom of the press provisions? When this happens is the fourth estate fulfilling its watchdog role and informing the public so they can make correct political choices and decisions?

The media also engages in agenda setting, which is the act of choosing which issues or topics deserve public discussion. For example, in the early 1980s, famine in Ethiopia drew worldwide attention, which resulted in increased charitable giving to the country. Yet the famine had been going on for a long time before it was ‘discovered’ by western media. Even after the discovery, it took video footage to gain the attention of the British and U.S. populations and start the aid flowing. Today, numerous examples of agenda setting show how important the media can be when trying to prevent further emergencies or humanitarian crises.

Before the Internet, traditional media determined whether citizen photographs or video footage would become “published news.” In 1991, a private citizen’s camcorder footage showed four police officers beating a black motorist named Rodney King in Los Angeles. After appearing on local independent television station, KTLA-TV, and then the national news, the event began a national discussion on police brutality and ignited violent and deadly riots in Los Angeles.

The agenda-setting power of traditional media has begun to be appropriated by social media and smartphones, however. Facebook, YouTube, and other Internet sites allow citizen-witnesses to instantly upload images and accounts of events and forward the link to friends. A few uploads “go viral” and attract the attention of millions of viewers or the mainstream media, but large network newscasts and major newspapers are still far more powerful at initiating or changing a discussion.

The media also has the potential to promote the public good by offering a platform for public debate and improving citizen awareness. Network news informs the electorate about national issues, elections, and international news. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles TimesFOX News, and other outlets have the ability to make sure voters can easily find out what issues affect the nation. Is terrorism on the rise? Is the dollar weakening? The network news hosts national debates during presidential elections, broadcasts major presidential addresses, and interviews political leaders during times of crisis. Cable news networks now provide coverage of all these topics as well.

Local news has a larger job, despite small budgets and fewer resources. Local government and local economic policy have a strong and immediate effect on citizens. Is the city or county government planning on changing property tax rates? Will the school district change the way standardized tests are administered? When and where is the next town hall meeting or public forum to be held? Local and social media provide a forum for protest and discussion of issues that matter to the community.

Meetings of local governance, such as this meeting of the Independence City Council in Missouri, are rarely attended by more than gadflies and journalists. (credit: “MoBikeFed”/Flickr)
P.S. A “gadfly” is a person who annoys other people by persistent criticism.

While journalists reporting the news are, theoretically, supposed to present information in an unbiased fashion, sometimes the public seeks opinion and analysis of complicated issues that affect various populations differently, like healthcare reform and the Affordable Care Act. This type of coverage may come in the form of editorials, commentaries, Op-Ed columns, and blogs. These forums allow the editorial staff and informed columnists to express a personal belief and attempt to persuade. If opinion writers are trusted by the public, they have influence. When editorial crosses over into ‘reporting’ many would suggest there has been a conflict of interest.

Walter Cronkite, reporting from Vietnam, had a loyal following. In a broadcast following the Tet Offensive in 1968, Cronkite expressed concern that the United States was mired in a conflict that would end in a stalemate. His coverage was based on opinion after viewing the war from the ground. Although the number of people supporting the war had dwindled by this time, Cronkite’s commentary bolstered opposition. Like editorials, commentaries contain opinion and are often written by specialists in a field.  Blogs offer more personalized coverage, addressing specific concerns and perspectives for a limited group of readers.

8.2 The Evolution of the Media


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the history of major media formats
  • Compare important changes in media types over time
  • Explain how citizens learn political information from the media

The evolution of the media has been fraught with concerns and problems. Accusations of mind control, bias, and poor quality have been thrown at the media on a regular basis – oftentimes for good reason. Yet the growth of communications technology allows people today to find more information more easily than any previous generation – but they have to be better at sifting and discerning than any generation previously due to the myriad of news sources. Mass media can be print, radio, television, or Internet news. They can be local, national, or international. They can be broad or limited in their focus. The choices are tremendous.


Although newspapers united for a common cause during the Revolutionary War, the divisions that occurred during the Constitutional Convention and the United States’ early history created a change. The publication of the Federalist Papers, as well as the Anti-Federalist Papers, in the 1780s, moved the nation into the party press era, in which partisanship and political party loyalty dominated the choice of editorial content. One reason was cost. Subscriptions and advertisements did not fully cover printing costs, and political parties stepped in to support presses that aided the parties and their policies. Papers began printing party propaganda and messages, even publicly attacking political leaders like George Washington. Despite the antagonism of the press, Washington and several other founders felt that freedom of the press was important for creating an informed electorate. Indeed, freedom of the press is enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the first amendment.

Between 1830 and 1860, machines and manufacturing made the production of newspapers faster and less expensive. Benjamin Day’s paper, the New York Sun, used technology like the linotype machine to mass-produce papers. Roads and waterways were expanded, decreasing the costs of distributing printed materials to subscribers. New newspapers popped up. The popular penny press papers and magazines contained more gossip than news, but they were affordable at a penny per issue. Over time, papers expanded their coverage to include racing, weather, and educational materials. By 1841, some news reporters considered themselves responsible for upholding high journalistic standards, and under the editor (and politician) Horace Greeley, the New-York Tribune became a nationally respected newspaper. By the end of the Civil War, more journalists and newspapers were aiming to meet professional standards of accuracy and impartiality.

Benjamin Day (a) founded the first U.S. penny press, The Sun, in 1833. The Sun, whose front page from November 26, 1834, is shown above (b), was a morning newspaper published in New York from 1833 to 1950.

Yet readers still wanted to be entertained. Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World gave them what they wanted. The tabloid-style paper included editorial pages, cartoons, and pictures, while the front-page news was sensational and scandalous. This style of coverage became known as yellow journalism. Ads sold quickly thanks to the paper’s popularity, and the Sunday edition became a regular feature of the newspaper. As the New York World’s circulation increased, other papers copied Pulitzer’s style in an effort to sell papers. Competition between newspapers led to increasingly sensationalized covers and crude issues.

In 1896, Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times with the goal of creating a dignified newspaper that would provide readers with important news about the economy, politics, and the world rather than gossip and comics. At least for a time, The New York Times brought back the informational model, which exhibited impartiality and accuracy and promoted transparency in government and politics. However, with the arrival of the Progressive Era, the media began muckraking: the writing and publishing of news coverage that exposed corrupt business and government practices.

Investigative work like Upton Sinclair’s serialized novel The Jungle led to changes in the way industrial workers were treated and local political machines were run. The Pure Food and Drug Act and other laws were passed to protect consumers and employees from unsafe food processing practices. Local and state government officials who participated in bribery and corruption became the centerpieces of exposés.

Muckraking journalism still appears today, and the quicker movement of information through the system would seem to suggest an environment for yet more investigative work and the punch of exposés than in the past. However, at the same time there are fewer journalists being hired than there used to be. The scarcity of journalists and the lack of time to dig for details in a 24-hour, profit-oriented news model make truly investigative stories rare. There are two potential concerns about the decline of investigative journalism in the digital age. First, one potential shortcoming is that the quality of news content has become uneven in depth and quality, which could has led to a less informed citizenry. Second, if investigative journalism in its systematic form declines further, then the cases of wrongdoing that are the objects of such investigations would have a greater chance of going on undetected.

In the twenty-first century, traditional print newspapers have struggled to stay financially stable. Print media earned $44.9 billion from ads in 2003, but only $16.4 billion from ads in 2014. Given the countless alternate forms of news, many of which are free, newspaper subscriptions have fallen. Advertising and especially classified ad revenue dipped. Many newspapers now maintain both a print and an Internet presence in order to compete for readers. The rise of free news blogs, such as The Daily Caller, The Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, have made it difficult for newspapers to force readers to purchase online subscriptions to access material they place behind a digital paywall. Some local newspapers, in an effort to stay visible and profitable, have turned to social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Stories can be posted and retweeted, allowing readers to comment and forward material. Yet, overall, despite many going completely out of business, many newspapers have adapted, becoming leaner—though less thorough and investigative—versions of their earlier selves.


Radio news made its appearance in the 1920s. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began running sponsored news programs and radio dramas. Comedy programs, such as Amos ’n’ AndyThe Adventures of Gracie, and Easy Aces, also became popular during the 1930s, as listeners were trying to find humor during the Depression. Talk shows, religious shows, and educational programs followed, and by the late 1930s, game shows and quiz shows were added to the airwaves. Almost 83 percent of households had a radio by 1940, and most tuned in regularly.

The “golden age of radio” included comedy shows like Easy Aces, starring Goodman and Jane Ace (a), and Amos ’n’ Andy, starring Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, shown here celebrating their program’s tenth anniversary in 1938 (b). These programs helped amuse families during the dark years of the Depression.

Not just something to be enjoyed by those in the city, the proliferation of the radio brought communications to rural America as well. News and entertainment programs were also targeted to rural communities. WLS in Chicago provided the National Farm and Home Hour and the WLS Barn Dance. WSM in Nashville began to broadcast the live music show called the Grand Ole Opry, which is still broadcast every week and is the longest live broadcast radio show in U.S. history.

As radio listenership grew, politicians realized that the medium offered a way to reach the public in a personal manner. Warren Harding was the first president to regularly give speeches over the radio. President Herbert Hoover used radio as well, mainly to announce government programs on aid and unemployment relief. Yet it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who became famous for harnessing the political power of radio. On entering office in March 1933, President Roosevelt needed to quiet public fears about the economy and prevent people from removing their money from the banks. He delivered his first radio speech eight days after assuming the presidency:

“My friends: I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”

Optional video if you want to hear Roosevelt’s radio speech:

Roosevelt spoke directly to the people and addressed them as equals. One listener described the chats as soothing, with the president acting like a father, ‘sitting in the room with the family, cutting through the political nonsense and describing what help he needed from each family member’. Roosevelt would sit down and explain his ideas and actions directly to the people on a regular basis, confident that he could convince voters of their value. His speeches became known as “fireside chats” and formed an important way for him to promote his political goal – The New Deal agenda. Roosevelt’s combination of persuasive rhetoric and the compliance of the media allowed him to expand both the government and the presidency beyond their previously codified roles.

As radio listenership became widespread in the 1930s (a), President Franklin D. Roosevelt took advantage of this new medium to broadcast his “fireside chats” and bring ordinary Americans into the president’s world (b). (credit a: modification of work by George W. Ackerman; credit b: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

SIDEBAR: The influence of radio then as TV and the Internet do now, cannot be overstated. Because it has generally been a trusted part of everyday life, the media has the opportunity to play on people’s emotions and fears. It can be a politician’s (or a prankster’s) biggest ally in swaying people to believe things they might otherwise not believe. This was evidenced in the early days of radio when Orson Wells produced and directed The War of the Worlds, a Halloween radio broadcast that panicked thousands of citizens. Though modern listeners might find it quaint or even silly now, the delivery of the material – as if it was news cutting into a real entertainment style radio program – convinced many that there was an actual invasion of earth going on.

You can listen to the broadcast in its entirety here. This is extra and can be done during your free time.

During this time, print news still controlled much of the information flowing to the public. Radio news programs were limited in scope and number. But in the 1940s the German annexation of Austria, conflict in Europe, and World War II changed radio news forever. The need and desire for frequent news updates about the constantly evolving war made newspapers, with their once-a-day printing, too slow. People wanted to know what was happening, and they wanted to know immediately. Although initially reluctant to be on the air, reporter Edward R. Murrow of CBS began reporting live about Germany’s actions from his posts in Europe. His reporting contained news and some commentary, and even live coverage during Germany’s aerial bombing of London. To protect covert military operations during the war, the White House had placed guidelines on the reporting of classified information, making a questionable legal ‘exception’ to the First Amendment’s protection against government involvement in the press. Newscasters voluntarily agreed to suppress information, such as about the development of the atomic bomb and movements of the military, until after the events had occurred.

The number of professional and amateur radio stations grew quickly. Initially, the government exerted little legislative control over the industry. Stations chose their own broadcasting locations, signal strengths, and frequencies, which sometimes overlapped with one another or with the military, leading to tuning and interference problems for listeners. The Radio Act (1927) created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which made the first effort to set standards, frequencies, and license stations. The Commission was under heavy pressure from Congress, however, and had little authority. The Communications Act of 1934 ended the FRC and created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which continues to work with radio stations to assign frequencies and set national standards, as well as oversee other forms of broadcasting and telephones. The FCC regulates interstate communications to this day. For example, it prohibits the use of certain profane words during certain hours on public airwaves.

While radio’s importance for distributing news waned with the increase in television usage, it remained popular for listening to music, educational talk shows, and sports broadcasting. Talk stations began to gain ground in the 1980s on both AM and FM frequencies, restoring radio’s importance in politics. By the 1990s, talk shows had gone national, showcasing broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh.

In 2022, five of the most listened to radio talk shows are the Sean Hannity Show, the Glenn Beck Radio Program, the Mark Levin Show, the Mike Gallagher Show and the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show.

In 1990, Sirius Satellite Radio began a campaign for FCC approval of satellite radio. The idea was to broadcast digital programming from satellites in orbit, eliminating the need for local towers. By 2001, two satellite stations had been approved for broadcasting. Satellite radio has greatly increased programming with many specialized offerings, such as channels dedicated to particular artists. It is generally subscription-based and offers a larger area of coverage, even to remote areas such as deserts and oceans. Satellite programming is also exempt from many of the FCC regulations that govern regular radio stations. Howard Stern, for example, was fined more than $2 million while on public airwaves, mainly for his sexually explicit discussions. Stern moved to Sirius Satellite in 2006 and has since been free of oversight and fines.


Television combined the best attributes of radio and pictures and changed media forever. The first official broadcast in the United States was President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech at the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The public did not immediately begin buying televisions, but coverage of World War II changed their minds. CBS reported on war events and included pictures and maps that enhanced the news for viewers. By the 1950s, the price of television sets had dropped, more televisions stations were being created, and advertisers were buying up spots.

As on the radio, quiz shows and games dominated the television airwaves. But when Edward R. Murrow made the move to television in 1951 with his news show See It Now, television journalism gained its foothold. As television programming expanded, more channels were added. Networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC began nightly newscasts, and local stations and affiliates followed suit.

Edward R. Murrow’s move to television increased the visibility of network news. In The Challenge of Ideas (1961) pictured above, Murrow discussed the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States alongside films stars such as John Wayne.

Even more than radio, television allows politicians to reach out and connect with citizens and voters in deeper ways. Before television, few voters were able to see a president or candidate speak or answer questions in an interview. Now everyone can view body language and opine on whether they think candidates or politicians are sincere. Presidents can directly convey apparent anger, sorrow, or optimism during addresses.

The first television advertisements, run by presidential candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in the early 1950s, were mainly radio jingles with animation or short question-and-answer sessions. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s campaign used a Hollywood-style approach to promote his image as young and vibrant. The Kennedy campaign ran interesting and engaging ads, featuring Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and everyday citizens who supported him.

Television was also useful to combat scandals and accusations of impropriety. Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon used a televised speech in 1952 to address accusations that he had taken money from a political campaign fund illegally. Nixon laid out his finances, investments, and debts and ended by saying that the only election gift the family had received was a cocker spaniel the children named Checkers. The “Checkers speech” was remembered more for humanizing Nixon than for proving he had not taken money from the campaign account. Yet it was enough to quiet accusations.

Optional video if you are curious to see part of Nixon’s speech:

In addition to television ads, the 1960 election also featured the first televised presidential debate. By that time most households had a television. Kennedy’s careful grooming and practiced body language allowed viewers to focus on his presidential demeanor. His opponent, Richard Nixon, was still recovering from a severe case of the flu. While Nixon’s substantive answers and debate skills made a favorable impression on radio listeners, viewers’ reaction to his sweaty appearance and obvious discomfort demonstrated that live television had the potential to make or break a candidate. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was ahead in the polls, and he let Barry Goldwater’s campaign know he did not want to debate. Nixon, who ran for president again in 1968 and 1972, declined to debate. Then in 1976, President Gerald Ford, who was behind in the polls, invited Jimmy Carter to debate, and televised debates became a regular part of future presidential campaigns.


Visit American Rhetoric for free access to speeches, video, and audio of famous presidential and political speeches.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, presidents often used television to reach citizens and gain support for policies. When they made speeches, the networks and their local affiliates carried them. With few independent local stations available, a viewer had little alternative but to watch. During this “Golden Age of Presidential Television,” presidents had a strong command of the media.

Some of the best examples of this power occurred when presidents used television to inspire and comfort the population during a national emergency. These speeches aided in the “rally ’round the flag” phenomenon, which occurs when a population feels threatened and unites around the president. During these periods, presidents may receive heightened approval ratings, in part due to the media’s decision about what to cover.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech from the rubble of Ground Zero in New York became a rally. Bush spoke to the workers and first responders and encouraged them, but his short speech became a viral clip demonstrating the resilience of New Yorkers and the anger of a nation. He told New Yorkers, the country, and the world that Americans could hear the frustration and anguish of New York, and that the terrorists would soon hear the United States – a not-so-veiled reference to future military retribution.

Optional video showing Bush’s speech:


The acceptance of cable TV in the 1980s and the expansion of the Internet in the 2000s opened up more options for media consumers than ever before. Viewers can watch nearly anything at the click of a button, bypass commercials, and record programs of interest. The resulting saturation, or inundation of information, may lead viewers to abandon the news entirely or become more suspicious and fatigued about politics. This effect, in turn, also changes the president’s ability to reach out to citizens. For example, viewership of the president’s annual State of the Union address has decreased over the years, from sixty-seven million viewers in 1993 to thirty-two million in 2015. Citizens who want to watch reality television and movies can easily avoid the news, leaving presidents with no sure way to communicate with the public. Other voices, such as those of talk show hosts and political pundits, now fill the gap.

SIDEBAR: In 1969 when man first landed on the moon on July 20th, Neil Armstrong’s famous “one giant leap for mankind” quote was heard by an estimated 650 million people all at one time in part because all of the major networks carried the first moonwalk live. There were also less than 10 TV channels in most markets – thus putting the same material on almost every station. It would truly be an extraordinary event for ALL cable TV to broadcast the same material at the same time on all channels – if it could be done at all. Never mind the Internet.

Maybe if a REAL Martian attack happened…

Electoral candidates have also lost some media ground. In horse-race coverage, modern journalists analyze campaigns and blunders or the overall race, rather than interviewing the candidates or discussing their issue positions. Some argue that this shallow coverage is a result of candidates’ trying to control the journalists by limiting interviews and quotes. In an effort to regain control of the story, journalists begin analyzing campaigns without input from the candidates. The use of social media by candidates provides a *countervailing trend.

*Countervailing: equal, opposing strength


The First Social Media Candidate

When president-elect Barack Obama admitted an addiction to his Blackberry, the signs were clear: A new generation was assuming the presidency. Obama’s use of technology was a part of life, not a campaign pretense. Perhaps for this reason, he was the first candidate to fully embrace social media.

While John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, focused on traditional media to run his campaign, Obama did not. One of Obama’s campaign advisors was Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook. The campaign allowed Hughes to create a powerful online presence for Obama, with sites on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and more. Podcasts and videos were available for anyone looking for information about the candidate. These efforts made it possible for information to be forwarded easily between friends and colleagues. It also allowed Obama to connect with a younger generation that was often left out of politics.

By Election Day, Obama’s skill with the web was clear: he had over two million Facebook supporters, while McCain had 600,000. Obama had 112,000 followers on Twitter, and McCain had only 4,600.

The original Blackberry

The availability of the Internet and social media has moved some control of the message back into the presidents’ and candidates’ hands. Politicians can now connect to the people directly, bypassing journalists. When Barack Obama’s minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was accused of making inflammatory racial sermons in 2008, Obama used YouTube to respond to charges that he shared Wright’s beliefs. The video drew more than seven million views. 

Later, Donald Trump’s hundreds of election tweets, sometimes delivered at odd hours, became the stuff of legend. Trump often bypassed mainstream media altogether by communicating directly with his constituents and the world on social media – particularly in Twitter.

Trump was a master at getting attention on social media, eventually amassing nearly 88 million Twitter followers. His social media interactions often found their way into mainstream media coverage. President Trump’s rancorous, yet informational and entertaining tweets kept his press coverage steady during the 24 hour news cycle by ‘feeding the media beast’ and giving hungry newsgatherers something to talk about even during slow news days.

Are there any disadvantages to a presidential candidate’s use of social media and the Internet for campaign purposes? Why or why not?

Social media, like Facebook, also placed journalism in the hands of citizens: citizen journalism occurs when citizens use their personal recording devices and cell phones to capture events and post them on the Internet.

How The 21st Century Changed Journalism

In 2012, citizen journalists caught both presidential candidates by surprise. Mitt Romney was taped by a bartender’s personal camera saying that 47 percent of Americans would vote for President Obama because they were dependent on the government. Obama was recorded by a Huffington Post volunteer describing Midwesterners as being “bitter” and clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Optional video if you want to hear Obama’s statement that was recorded:

These statements became nightmares for the campaigns. As journalism continues to scale back and hire fewer professional writers in an effort to control costs, citizen journalism may become the new normal.

8.3 Regulating the Media


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify circumstances in which the freedom of the press is not absolute
  • Compare the ways in which the government oversees and influences media programming

The Constitution, in the First Amendment enshrines the freedom of the press. The Constitution also gives Congress responsibility for promoting the general welfare. While it is difficult to define what this broad dictate means, Congress has used it to protect citizens from media content it deems inappropriate. Although the media are independent participants in the U.S. political system, their liberties are not absolute and there are rules they must follow.


The U.S. Constitution was written in secrecy. Journalists were neither invited to watch the drafting, nor did the framers talk to the press about their wrangling over disagreements and decisions. Once it was finished, however, the Constitution was released to the public and almost all newspapers printed it. Newspaper editors also published commentary and opinion about the new document and the form of government it proposed. Early support for the Constitution was strong, and Anti-Federalists (who opposed it) argued that their concerns were not properly covered by the press. The eventual printing of The Federalist Papers, and the lesser-known Anti-Federalist Papers, fueled the argument that the press was vital to American democracy. It was also clear the press had the ability to affect public opinion and therefore public policy.

The approval of the First Amendment, as a part of the Bill of Rights, demonstrated the framers’ belief that a free and vital press was important enough to protect. It said:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This amendment serves as the basis for the political freedoms of the United States, and freedom of the press plays a strong role in keeping democracy healthy. Without it, the press would not be free to alert citizens to government abuses and corruption. In fact, one of New York’s first newspapers, the New York Weekly Journal, began under John Peter Zenger in 1733 with the goal of routing corruption in the colonial government. After the colonial governor, William Cosby, had Zenger arrested and charged with seditious libel in 1835, his lawyers successfully defended his case and Zenger was found not guilty, affirming the importance of a free press in the colonies.

In defending John Peter Zenger against charges of libel against colonial governor William Cosby, Andrew Hamilton argued that a statement is not libelous if it can be proved. (credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

The media should act as informants and messengers, providing the means for citizens to become informed and serving as a venue for citizens to announce plans to assemble and protest actions by their government. Yet the government must ensure the media are acting in good faith and not abusing their power. Like the other First Amendment liberties, freedom of the press is not absolute. The media have limitations on their freedom to publish and broadcast.

Slander and Libel

First, the media do not have the right to commit slander, speak false information with an intent to harm a person or entity, or libel, print false information with an intent to harm a person or entity. Libel and slander are both types of defamation. These acts constitute defamation of character that can cause a loss of reputation and income. The media do not have the right to free speech in cases of libel and slander because the information is known to be false. Yet on a weekly basis, newspapers and magazines print stories that are negative and harmful. How can they do this and not be sued?

First, libel and slander occur only in cases where false information is presented as fact. When editors or columnists write opinions, they are protected from many of the libel and slander provisions because they are not claiming their statements are facts. Second, it is up to the defamed individual or company to bring a lawsuit against the media outlet, and the courts have different standards depending on whether the claimant is a private or public figure. A public figure has a high bar to meet as he must show that the publisher or broadcaster acted in “reckless disregard” when submitting information as truth or that the author’s intent was malicious.

This test goes back to the New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) case, in which a police commissioner in Alabama sued over inaccurate statements in a newspaper advertisement. Because the commissioner was a public figure, the U.S. Supreme Court applied a stringent test of malice to determine whether the advertisement was libel; the court deemed it was not.

A private individual must make one of the above arguments or argue that the author was negligent in not making sure the information was accurate before publishing it. For this reason, newspapers and magazines are less likely to stray from hard facts when covering private individuals, yet they can be willing to stretch the facts when writing about politicians, celebrities, or public figures. But even stretching the truth can be costly for a publisher. In 2010, Star magazine published a headline, “Addiction Nightmare: Katie Drug Shocker,” leading readers to believe actress Katie Holmes was taking drugs. While the article in the magazine focuses on the addictive quality of Scientology sessions rather than drugs, the implication and the headline were different. Because drugs cause people to act erratically, directors might be less inclined to hire Holmes if she were addicted to drugs. Thus, Holmes could argue that she had lost opportunity and income from the headline. While the publisher initially declined to correct the story, Holmes filed a $50 million lawsuit, and Star’s parent company American Media, Inc. eventually settled. Star printed an apology and made a donation to a charity on Holmes’ behalf.

Generally speaking, defamation cases are considered by many to be expensive and difficult for both sides to litigate.

Classified Material

The media have only a limited right to publish material the government says is classified. If a newspaper or media outlet obtains classified material, or if a journalist is witness to information that is classified, the government may request certain material be redacted or removed from the article. In many instances, government officials and former employees give journalists classified paperwork in an effort to bring public awareness to a problem. If the journalist calls the White House or Pentagon for quotations on a classified topic, the president may order the newspaper to stop publication in the interest of national security. The courts are then asked to rule on what is censored and what can be printed.

The line between the people’s right to know and national security is not always clear. In 1971, the Supreme Court heard the Pentagon Papers case, in which the U.S. government sued the New York Times and the Washington Post to stop the release of information from a classified study of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that while the government can impose prior restraint on the media, meaning the government can prevent the publication of information, that authority is very limited. The court gave the newspapers the right to publish much of the study, but revelation of troop movements and the names of undercover operatives are some of the few approved reasons for which the government can stop publication or reporting.

During the second Persian Gulf War, FOX News reporter Geraldo Rivera convinced the military to embed him with a U.S. Army unit in Iraq to provide live coverage of its day-to-day activities. During one of the reports, he filed while traveling with the 101st Airborne Division, Rivera had his camera operator record him drawing a map in the sand, showing where his unit was and using Baghdad as a reference point. Rivera then discussed where the unit would go next. Rivera was immediately removed from the unit and escorted from Iraq. The military exercised its right to maintain secrecy over troop movements, stating that Rivera’s reporting had given away troop locations and compromised the safety of the unit. Rivera’s future transmissions and reporting were censored until he was away from the unit.


The liberties enjoyed by newspapers are overseen by the U.S. court system, while television and radio broadcasters are monitored by both the courts and a government regulatory commission – the FCC or Federal Communications Commission.

The Radio Act of 1927 was the first attempt by Congress to regulate broadcast materials. The act was written to organize the rapidly expanding number of radio stations and the overuse of frequencies. But politicians feared that broadcast material would be obscene or biased. The Radio Act thus contained language that gave the government control over the quality of programming sent over public airwaves, and the power to ensure that stations maintained the public’s best interest.

The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the Radio Act and created a more powerful entity to monitor the airwaves—a seven-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee both radio and telephone communication. The FCC, which currently has five members (and nearly 1,500 employees), requires radio stations to apply for licenses, granted only if stations follow rules about limiting advertising, providing a public forum for discussion, and serving local and minority communities. With the advent of television, the FCC was given the same authority to license and monitor television stations. The FCC now also enforces ownership limits to avoid monopolies and censors materials deemed inappropriate. It has no jurisdiction over print media, mainly because print media are purchased and not broadcast.


Concerned about something you heard or viewed? Would you like to file a complaint about an obscene radio program or place your phone number on the Do Not Call list? The FCC oversees each of these.

To maintain a license, stations are required to meet a number of criteria. The equal-time rule, for instance, states that registered candidates running for office must be given equal opportunities for airtime and advertisements at non-cable television and radio stations beginning forty-five days before a primary election and sixty days before a general election. Should WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, agree to sell Senator Marco Rubio thirty seconds of airtime for a presidential campaign commercial, the station must also sell all other candidates in that race thirty seconds of airtime at the same price. This rate cannot be more than the station charges favored commercial advertisers that run ads of the same class and during the same time period More importantly, should Fox5 in Atlanta give Bernie Sanders five minutes of free airtime for an infomercial, the station must honor requests from all other candidates in the race for five minutes of free equal air time or a complaint may be filed with the FCC. In 2015, Donald Trump, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, appeared on Saturday Night Live. Other Republican candidates made equal time requests, and NBC agreed to give each candidate twelve minutes and five seconds of airtime on a Friday and Saturday night, as well as during a later episode of Saturday Night Live.

The FCC waives the equal-time rule if the coverage is purely news. If a newscaster is covering a political rally and is able to secure a short interview with a candidate, equal time does not apply. Likewise, if a news program creates a short documentary on the problem of immigration reform and chooses to include clips from only one or two candidates, the rule does not apply. But the rule may include shows that are not news. For this reason, some stations will not show a movie or television program if a candidate appears in it. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gary Coleman, both actors, became candidates in California’s gubernatorial recall election. Television stations did not run Coleman’s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes or Schwarzenegger’s movies, because they would have been subject to the equal time provision. With 135 candidates on the official ballot, stations would have been hard-pressed to offer thirty-minute and two-hour time slots to all. Even the broadcasting of the president’s State of the Union speech can trigger the equal-time provisions. Opposing parties in Congress now use their time immediately following the State of the Union to offer an official rebuttal to the president’s proposals.

While the idea behind the equal-time rule is fairness, it may not apply beyond candidates to supporters of that candidate or of a cause. Hence, there potentially may be a loophole in which broadcasters can give free time to just one candidate’s supporters. In the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, Scott Walker’s supporters were allegedly given free airtime to raise funds and ask for volunteers while opponent Tom Barrett’s supporters were not. According to someone involved in the case, the FCC declined to intervene after a complaint was filed on the matter, saying the equal-time rule applied only to the actual candidates, and that the case was an instance of the now-dead fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was instituted in 1949 and required licensed stations to cover controversial issues in a balanced manner by providing listeners with information about all perspectives on any controversial issue. If one candidate, cause, or supporter was given an opportunity to reach the viewers or listeners, the other side was to be given a chance to present its side as well. The fairness doctrine ended in the 1980s, after a succession of court cases led to its repeal by the FCC in 1987, with stations and critics arguing the doctrine limited debate of controversial topics and placed the government in the role of editor.

The FCC also maintains indecency regulations over television, radio, and other broadcasters, which limit indecent material and keep the public airwaves free of obscene material. While the Supreme Court has declined to define obscenity, it is identified using a test outlined in Miller v. California (1973). Under the Miller test, obscenity is something that appeals to deviants, breaks local or state laws, and lacks value. The Supreme Court determined that the presence of children in the audience trumped the right of broadcasters to air obscene and profane programming. However, broadcasters can show indecent programming or air profane language between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Click here to watch a video on YouTube: Obscenity and Free Speech: The Miller Test (For whatever reason this video could not be embedded.)

The Supreme Court has also affirmed that the FCC has the authority to regulate content. When a George Carlin skit was aired on the radio with a warning that material might be offensive, the FCC still censored it. The station appealed the decision and lost. Fines can range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, and many are levied for sexual jokes on radio talk shows and nudity on television. In 2004, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl’s half-time show cost the CBS network $550,000.

While some FCC violations are witnessed directly by commission members, like Jackson’s exposure at the Super Bowl, the FCC mainly relies on citizens and consumers to file complaints about violations of equal time and indecency rules. Approximately 2 percent of complaints to the FCC are about radio programming and 10 percent about television programming, compared to 71 percent about telephone complaints and 15 percent about Internet complaints. Yet what constitutes a violation is not always clear for citizens wishing to complain, nor is it clear what will lead to a fine or license revocation. In October 2014, parent advocacy groups and consumers filed complaints and called for the FCC to fine ABC for running a sexually charged opening scene in the drama Scandal immediately after It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—without an ad or the cartoon’s credits to act as a buffer between the very different types of programming. The FCC did not fine ABC.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought significant changes to the radio and television industries. It dropped the limit on the number of radio stations (forty) and television stations (twelve) a single company could own. It also allowed networks to purchase large numbers of cable stations. In essence, it reduced competition and increased the number of conglomerates. Some critics, such as Common Cause, argue that the act also raised cable prices and made it easier for companies to neglect their public interest obligations. The act also changed the role of the FCC from regulator to monitor. The Commission oversees the purchase of stations to avoid media monopolies and adjudicates consumer complaints against radio, television, and telephone companies.

adjudicate: to make a decision about who is right in a dispute


The press has had some assistance in performing its muckraking duty. Laws that mandate federal and many state government proceedings and meeting documents be made available to the public are called sunshine laws. Proponents believe that open disagreements allow democracy to flourish and darkness allows corruption to occur. Opponents argue that some documents and policies are sensitive, and that the sunshine laws can inhibit policymaking.

While some documents may be classified due to national or state security, governments are encouraged to limit the over-classification of documents. The primary legal example for sunshine laws is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act requires the executive branch of the U.S. government to provide information requested by citizens and was intended to increase openness in the executive branch, which had been criticized for hiding information. Citizens wishing to obtain information may request documents from the appropriate agencies, and agencies may charge fees if the collection and copying of the requested documentation requires time and labor. FOIA also identifies data that does not need to be disclosed, such as human resource and medical records, national defense records, and material provided by confidential sources, to name a few. 

Not all presidents have embraced this openness in all instances. President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, exempted the CIA and FBI from FOIA requests. Information requests have increased significantly in recent years, with U.S. agencies receiving over 700,000 requests in 2014, many directed to the Departments of State and Defense, thus creating a backlog.


Want to request a government document but unsure where to start? If the agency is a part of the U.S. government, the Freedom of Information Act portal will help you out.

Fewer people file requests for information than you might expect because most assume the media will find and report on important problems. And many people, including some in the press, assume the government, including the White House, sufficiently answers questions and provide enough information about government actions and policies. This expectation is not new. During the Civil War, journalists expected to have access to those representing the government, including the military. But William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general, maintained distance between the press and his military. Following the publication of material Sherman believed to be protected by government censorship, a journalist was arrested and nearly put to death. The event spurred the creation of accreditation for journalists, which meant a journalist must be approved to cover the White House and the military before entering a controlled area. All accredited journalists also need approval by military field commanders before coming near a military zone.

To cover war up close, more journalists are asking to travel with troops during armed conflict. In 2003, George W. Bush’s administration decided to allow more journalists in the field, hoping the concession would reduce friction between the military and the press. The U.S. Department of Defense placed fifty-eight journalists in a media boot camp to prepare them to be embedded with military regiments in Iraq. Although the increase in embedded journalists resulted in substantial in-depth coverage, many journalists felt their colleagues performed poorly, acting as celebrities rather than reporters.

The line between journalists’ expectation of openness and the government’s willingness to be open has continued to be a point of contention. Some administrations use the media to increase public support during times of war, as Woodrow Wilson did in World War I. Other presidents limit the media in order to limit dissent. In 1990, during the first Persian Gulf War, journalists received all publication material from the military in a prepackaged and staged manner. Access to Dover, the air force base that receives coffins of U.S. soldiers who die overseas, was closed. Journalists accused George H. W. Bush’s administration of limiting access and forcing them to produce bad pieces. The White House believed it controlled the message. The ban was later lifted.

In his 2008 presidential run, Barack Obama promised to run a transparent White House. Yet once in office, he limited access and questions. In his first year in office, George W. Bush, who was criticized by Obama as having a closed government, gave 147 question-and-answer sessions with journalists, while Obama gave only 46. Even Helen Thomas, a long-time liberal White House press correspondent, said the Obama administration tried to control both information and journalists.

Because White House limitations on the press are not unusual, many journalists rely on confidential sources. In 1972, under the cloak of anonymity, the associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mark Felt, became a news source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, political reporters at the Washington Post. Felt provided information about a number of potential stories and was Woodward’s main source for information about President Richard Nixon’s involvement in a series of illegal activities, including the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. The information eventually led to Nixon’s resignation and the indictment of sixty-nine people in his administration. Felt was nicknamed “Deep Throat,” and the journalists kept his identity secret until 2005.

The practice of granting anonymity to sources is sometimes referred to as reporter’s privilege. Fueled by the First Amendment’s protection of the press, journalists have long offered to keep sources confidential to protect them from government prosecution.

To illustrate, as part of the investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA officer, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to reveal “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, as her confidential government source. Reporter’s privilege has increased the number of instances in which whistleblowers and government employees have given journalists tips or documents to prompt investigation into questionable government practices. Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak to the press regarding the U.S. government’s massive internal surveillance and tapping program was one such case.

In 1972, however, the Supreme Court determined that journalists are not exempt from subpoenas and that courts could force testimony to name a confidential source. Journalists who conceal a source and thereby protect him or her from being properly tried for a crime may spend time in jail for contempt of court. In the case of Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), three journalists were placed in contempt of court for refusing to divulge sources. The journalists appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 5–4 decision, the justices determined that freedom of the press did not extend to the confidentiality of sources. A concurring opinion did state that the case should be seen as a limited ruling, however. If the government needed to know a source due to a criminal trial, it could pursue the name of that source.

More recently, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from New York Times journalist James Risen, who was subpoenaed and ordered to name a confidential source who had provided details about a U.S. government mission designed to harm Iran’s nuclear arms program. Risen was finally released from the subpoena, but the battle took seven years and the government eventually collected enough other evidence to make his testimony less crucial to the case. Overall, the transparency of the government is affected more by the executive currently holding office than by the First Amendment.

8.4 The Impact of the Media


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify forms of bias that exist in news coverage and ways the media can present biased coverage
  • Explain how the media cover politics and issues
  • Evaluate the impact of the media on politics and policymaking

In what ways can the media affect society and government? The media’s primary duty is to present us with information and alert us when important events occur. This information may affect what we think and the actions we take. The media can also place pressure on government to act by signaling a need for intervention or showing that some part of the population wants change. For these reasons, the quality of the media’s coverage, and their predisposition toward bias on any particular issue truly matters.


Concerns about the effects of media on consumers and the existence and extent of media bias go way back. In the 1920s reporter and commentator Walter Lippmann noted that citizens have limited personal experience with government and the world and posited that the media, through their stories, can place ideas in citizens’ minds. These ideas become part of the citizens’ frame of reference and affect their decisions. Lippmann’s statements led to the hypodermic theory, which argues that information is “shot” into the receiver’s mind and readily accepted.

Yet studies in the 1930s and 1940s found that information was transmitted in two steps, with one person reading the news and then sharing the information with friends. People listened to their friends, but not to those with whom they disagreed. The newspaper’s effect was thus diminished through conversation. This discovery led to the minimal effects theory, which argues the media have little effect on citizens and voters. By the 1970s, a new idea, the cultivation theory, hypothesized that media develop a person’s view of the world by presenting a perceived reality. What we see on a regular basis is our reality. Media can then set norms for readers and viewers by choosing what is covered or discussed.

In the end, the consensus among observers is that media have some effect, some say the effect is subtle. Others theorize that in our current times, the effect is anything BUT subtle. This raises the question of how the media, even general newscasts, can affect citizens. One of the ways is through framing: the creation of a narrative, or context, for a news story. The news often uses frames to place a story in a context so the reader understands its importance or relevance. Yet, at the same time, framing affects the way the reader or viewer processes the story.

Episodic framing occurs when a story focuses on isolated details or specifics rather than looking broadly at a whole issue. Thematic framing takes a broad look at an issue and skips numbers or details. It looks at how the issue has changed over a long period of time and what has led to it. For example, a large, urban city is dealing with the problem of an increasing homeless population, and the city has suggested ways to improve the situation. If journalists focus on the immediate statistics, report the current percentage of homeless people, interview a few, and look at the city’s current investment in a homeless shelter, the coverage is episodic. If they look at homelessness as a problem increasing everywhere, examine the reasons people become homeless, and discuss the trends in cities’ attempts to solve the problem, the coverage is thematic. Episodic frames may create more sympathy, while a thematic frame may leave the reader or viewer emotionally disconnected and less sympathetic.

Civil war in Syria has led many to flee the country, including this woman living in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in September 2015. Episodic framing of the stories of Syrian refugees, and their deaths, turned government inaction into action. (credit: Enes Reyhan)

Framing can also affect the way we see race, socioeconomics, or other generalizations. For this reason, it is linked to priming: when media coverage predisposes the viewer or reader to a particular perspective on a subject or issue. If a newspaper article focuses on unemployment, struggling industries, and jobs moving overseas, the reader will have a negative opinion about the economy. If then asked whether he or she approves of the president’s job performance, the reader is primed to say no. Readers and viewers are able to fight priming effects if they are aware of them or have prior information about the subject.


When reporting is spotty, the media’s coverage of campaigns and government can sometimes affect the way government operates and the success of candidates. In 1972, for instance, the McGovern-Fraser reforms created a voter-controlled primary system, so party leaders no longer picked the presidential candidates. Now the media are seen as kingmakers and play a strong role in influencing who will become the Democratic and Republican nominees in presidential elections. The media can discuss the candidates’ messages, vet their credentials, carry sound bites of their speeches, and conduct interviews. The candidates with the most media coverage build momentum and do well in the first few primaries and caucuses. This, in turn, leads to more media coverage, more momentum, and eventually a winning candidate. Thus, candidates need the media.

In the 1980s, campaigns learned that tight control on candidate information created more favorable media coverage. In the presidential election of 1984, candidates Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush began using an issue-of-the-day strategy, providing quotes and material on only one topic each day. This strategy limited what journalists could cover because they had only limited quotes and sound bites to use in their reports. In 1992, both Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s campaigns maintained their carefully drawn candidate images by also limiting photographers and television journalists to photo opportunities at rallies and campaign venues. The constant control of the media became known as the “bubble,” and journalists were less effective when they were in the campaign’s bubble. Reporters complained this coverage was campaign advertising rather than journalism, and a new model emerged with the 1996 election.

Campaign coverage now focuses on the spectacle of the season, rather than providing truly objective and worthwhile information about the candidates. Colorful personalities, strange comments, and embarrassing revelations are more likely to get airtime than the candidates’ issue positions.

Some argue that newspapers and news programs are limiting the space they allot to discussion of the campaigns. Others argue that citizens want to see updates on the race and electoral drama, not boring issue positions or substantive reporting. It may also be that journalists have tired of the information games played by politicians. All these factors have likely led to the shallow press coverage we see today, sometimes dubbed pack journalism because journalists follow one another rather than digging for their own stories. Television news discusses the strategies and blunders of the election, with colorful examples. Newspapers focus on polls. In an analysis of the 2012 election, Pew Research found that 64 percent of stories and coverage focused on campaign strategy. Only 9 percent covered domestic issue positions; 6 percent covered the candidates’ public records; and 1 percent covered their foreign policy positions.

For better or worse, coverage of the candidates’ statements get less airtime on radio and television, and sound bites, or short clips, of their speeches have become even shorter. In 1968, the average sound bite from Richard Nixon was 42.3 seconds, while a recent study of television coverage found that sound bites had decreased to only eight seconds in the 2004 election. The clips chosen to air were attacks on opponents 40 percent of the time. Only 30 percent contained information about the candidate’s issues or events. The study also found the news showed images of the candidates, but for an average of only twenty-five seconds while the newscaster discussed the stories.

This study supports the argument that shrinking sound bites are a way for journalists to control the story and add their own opinions rather than just reporting on it. Candidates are given a few minutes to try to argue their side of an issue, but some say television focuses on the argument rather than on the information. In 2004, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show began attacking the CNN program Crossfire for being theater, saying the hosts engaged in reactionary and partisan arguing rather than true debating. Some of Stewart’s criticisms resonated, even with host Paul Begala, and Crossfire was later pulled from the air.

The media’s discussion of campaigns has also grown negative. Although biased campaign coverage dates back to the period of the partisan press, the increase in the number of cable news stations has made the problem more visible. Stations are overt in their use of bias in framing stories. During the 2012 campaign, seventy-one of seventy-four of a particular station’s stories about Mitt Romney were highly negative.

Due in part to the lack of objective and substantive media coverage, campaigns increasingly use social media to relay their message. Candidates can create their own websites and Facebook pages and try to spread news through supporters to the undecided. In 2012, both Romney and Obama maintained Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to provide information to voters. Yet, on social media, candidates still need to combat negativity, from both the opposition and supporters. Stories about Romney that appeared in the mainstream media were negative 38 percent of the time, while his coverage in Facebook news was negative 62 percent of the time and 58 percent of the time on Twitter. In the 2016 election cycle, both party nominees heavily used social media.

Once candidates are in office, the chore of governing begins, with the added weight of more media attention. Historically, if presidents were unhappy with their press coverage, they used personal and professional means to change its tone. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was able to keep journalists from printing stories through gentleman’s agreements, loyalty, and the provision of additional information, sometimes off the record. The journalists then wrote positive stories, hoping to keep the president as a source. John F. Kennedy hosted press conferences twice a month and opened the floor for questions from journalists, in an effort to keep press coverage positive.

When presidents and other members of the White House are not forthcoming with information, journalists must press for answers. Dan Rather, a journalist for CBS, regularly sparred with presidents in an effort to get information. When Rather interviewed Richard Nixon about Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon was hostile and uncomfortable. In a 1988 interview with then-vice president George H. W. Bush, Bush accused Rather of being argumentative about the possible cover-up of a secret arms sale with Iran:

Rather: I don’t want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.
Bush: You do, Dan.
Rather: No—no, sir, I don’t.
Bush: This is not a great night, because I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41 percent of the people are supporting me. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge my whole career by a rehash of Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? 

One of the more profound changes with President Trump compared to prior presidents revolves around his relationship with the press. Trump chose to use social media and directly tweet what he was thinking to the world. Whereas previous presidents spent much effort to cultivate relationships with the media in order to court public opinion, President Trump has instead regularly taunted and criticized the media as untrustworthy for producing what he called “fake news.” This in turn may have angered an arguably bias media, who regularly gave President Trump even more ‘bad press’.

Cabinet secretaries and other appointees also talk with the press, sometimes making for conflicting messages. The creation of the position of press secretary and the White House Office of Communications both stemmed from the need to send a cohesive message from the executive branch. Currently, the White House controls the information coming from the executive branch through the Office of Communications and decides who will meet with the press and what information will be given. This allows the White House to determine which reporters will be at press conferences and therefore they can select reporters who may be more favorable to their positions if they so choose.

In addition, people running the press conferences can be selective in which reporters are called upon and therefore to some extent which questions get asked. While a more objective reporter may be in the room, he may never be called upon and therefore questions more sympathetic to the President’s position may ever be posited.

Also, often, stories about the president often examine personality, or the president’s ability to lead the country, deal with Congress, or respond to national and international events. They are less likely to cover the president’s policies or agendas without a lot of effort on the president’s behalf. 

Congressional representatives have a harder time attracting media attention for their policies. House and Senate members who use the media well, either to help their party or to show expertise in an area, may increase their power within Congress, which helps them bargain for fellow legislators’ votes. Senators and high-ranking House members may also be invited to appear on cable news programs as guests, where they may gain some media support for their policies. Yet, overall, because there are so many members of Congress, and therefore so many agendas, it is harder for individual representatives to draw media coverage.

Another question is whether media coverage of an issue leads Congress to make policy, or whether congressional policymaking leads the media to cover specific policy items. In the 1970s, Congress investigated ways to stem the number of drug-induced deaths and crimes. As congressional meetings dramatically increased, the press was slow to cover the topic. The number of hearings was at its highest from 1970 to 1982, yet media coverage did not rise to the same level until 1984. Subsequent hearings and coverage led to national policies like DARE and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

First Lady Nancy Reagan speaks at a “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles on May 13, 1987 (a). The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) is an anti-drug, anti-gang program founded in 1983 by a joint initiative of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Later studies of the media’s effect on both the president and Congress report that the media has a stronger agenda-setting effect on the president than on Congress. What the media choose to cover affects what the president thinks is important to voters, and these issues were often of national importance. The media’s effect on Congress was more limited, however, and mostly extended to local issues like education or child and elder abuse. If the media are discussing a topic, chances are a member of Congress has already submitted a relevant bill, and it is waiting in committee.


The media choose what they want to discuss. This agenda setting creates a ‘reality’ for voters and politicians that affects the way people think, act, and vote. Even if the crime rate is going down, for instance, citizens accustomed to reading stories about assault and other offenses still perceive crime to be an issue. 

Word choice may also have a priming effect. News organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press no longer use the phrase “illegal immigrant” or “illegal aliens” to describe so-called “undocumented residents” despite the fact that these are the specific legal terms used for such people in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). This may be due to the desire to create a “sympathetic” frame for the immigration situation rather than a “threat” frame rather than to simply report objectively on what is happening and allow people to make up their own minds about current events.

Click here to return to Guest Hollow’s Government Online Textbook table of contents.

Image credits (any not mentioned directly beneath the photos):

generations: By Cmglee – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

We’ve taken excerpts from the below-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for our intended audience.

This text was adapted (with permission) from: American Government – 3e

Original authors/editors:

Glen Krutz, Professor of Political Science and Associate Director, Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. Krutz joined the Department of Political Science in 2002. Before joining OU, he served on the faculty of Arizona State University and helped run two large-scale National Science Foundation projects as a doctoral student at Texas A&M University.
Prosper Bernard, Jr., City University of New York
Jennifer Danley-Scott, Texas Woman’s University
Ann Kordas, Johnson & Wales University
Christopher Lawrence, Middle Georgia State College
Tonya Neaves, George Mason University
Adam Newmark, Appalachian State University
Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State University
Joel Webb, Tulane University
Abram Trosky, US Army War College
Shawn Williams, Campbellsville University
Rhonda Wrzenski, Indiana University Southeast
Original Editor: Sylvie Waskiewicz, PhD, is an editor, researcher, and writer who specialties include textbook publishing and e-learning instructional design, including copyediting and proofreading with meticulous review of text, layout, and media from first pages to printer proofs as well as QC of web content (HTML/XML).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Guest Hollow, LLC