The news media may be the most powerful entity in all of America. It is the normal American’s sole connection to the policies that are made that affect his/her life. The fact that the news media is responsible for educating people is what makes it so powerful. The media can easily sway the opinions of the American public just by choosing what it tells them. It is because of all this that the media plays an important role in policy making in America.
Policy does not just magically happen. There are many steps to the policy making process. In theory, there are six stages that a policy goes through before it is enacted. These stages include problem formation, agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation and adoption, implementation and administration, and policy evaluation. The media is deeply involved in each of these policy stages. One should note that not all policies follow these exact stages, and some policies do not go through all the stages.
First of all, the media’s influence in the problem formulation stage is enormous. The nature of the media is to report things to the public. Because of this daily reporting the media can bring many types of things to the forefront of the American conscious. Sometimes the media even brings the issue to the forefront of the collective Congress conscious. This is crucial because when the media begins reporting on the issues of importance to American people the policy makers tend to start listening. This is what starts the ball rolling, so to speak. The media can also report on issues that may not seem that critical, and by merely rousing interest it can make a non-issue a major policy issue.
The next stage in the policy making process is the formulation stage. This is the stage in which the policy makers decided what to do about the things on the agenda. The media’s role in this stage is very important, and could be the most noticeable. During this stage the policy makers try to appeal to the people through the medium of the media. Politicians tell the media their ideas for a certain policy and then the media reports it to the people. This relationship is crucial in the process because it is how politicians tell if their policies are being well accepted by the people or if they are ineffective or if they make them look bad. The way things play in the media is of utmost importance to the media savvy politician. During this stage of the process the media is also busy researching the intricacies of policies put forth by policy makers. Then members of the media report these findings in a way that the American people can understand what is going on.
Next is the legitimation and adoption stage of the policy making process. This stage mainly happens in the legislature and determines what will happen to a proposed policy. Naturally, what happens to a policy is greatly determined by what kind of media coverage it has generated. If a proposed policy generates positive and steady publicity there is a good chance that policy will be enacted. However, if a proposed issue generates negative publicity or if the coverage of that issue decreases, that policy may not become enacted. Policy makers looking to round up support, or to build opposition, for a proposed policy during this stage of the process may also choose to use the media. So politicians can use the media to press their policies through or use it to hamper the efforts of their opponents. The media can have another impact during this stage. For example, if a proposed policy contains a provision that will only help a few people while hurting many others, the media can report that and generate support for a change to the proposal. During this stage the media’s influence can help gain support for policies, help to kill policies, or help protect people by exposing negative provisions within a propose policy.
The media’s role in the next step in the process is a little tricky. This step is the implementation and administration stage of the policy making process. This is the stage in which policies are put in to effect and used. The media’s role here is one of a watchdog. Reporters often investigate how policies are being put into effect and report to the public. Like the muckrakers of old reporters often uncover scandals revolving around policies. This type of media coverage can cause the administration of policies to change. The media’s role in this stage is fairly simple, they make sure that the American people know what exactly the policy makers are doing.
The final stage in the policy making process is the evaluation stage. During this stage feedback is sought to determine the overall effectiveness of newly enacted policies. The media’s role here can be very important by holding the government accountable. The media is able to do this by showing what is going on, by researching policies, reporting studies on the policy, and allowing people to voice complaints about a policy. This is important because if it is found that a policy is not being effectively employed it can be changed so that it does work. Basically, in the evaluation stage the media provides the public and the actual policy makers with evidence regarding the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of policies.
Through all this one can reasonably assume that the media is a very powerful entity in American society. Without the media many people in this country would not even know what is happening most of the time. In theory, the media provides an objective view of the policies put forth by the government, and allows people to formulate their own opinions. However, the media sometimes takes advantage of the power that it has by skewing facts and sometimes fails to report on both sides of an issue. Overall, the media does a fairly good job of presenting both sides of an issue. But if one news source does not report one side of a story, there is always another news source reporting the other side of the issue.
Note: Much of this is from a paper I wrote for a political science class.
Graber, Doris A. Mass Media and American Politics. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 1989.
Paletz, David L. The Media in American Politics: Contents and Consequences. New York: Longman, 1999.
Patterson, Thomas E. The American Democracy. St. Louis: McGraw Hill, 2001.