For a long time, scholars have understood the significant role that the media play in influencing public opinion and giving shape to the perceptions that people have about the world. But on the other hand, the debate about how influential the media are is clear even from the studies that were undertaken about political communication in the course of the 1920s. A study that was conducted in the course of the 1930s about the First World War propaganda pointed out that media messages “had strong direct effects on the audience who directly received and wholly accepted the media messages they were exposed to” (Chalif, 2011, p.7). Conversely, another group of communication scholars established that the effect the media has on the audience was “much more limited, as early U.S election studies showed people resisting media messages and relying more heavily on personal communications to inform their political decisions” (Chalif, 2011, p.7).
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According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (2010), when one considers a large amount of time Americans engage in spending with the media, it turns out to be apparent that this debate has to be revisited in light of the current media environment. In case the media is a significant predictor of public opinion as well as mass attitudes, then this huge amount of time that is spent interacting with the media will most likely have grave implications for society as well as for the political systems. It is not just the time that is spent with media that changes the game, but also the strong interconnectivity that exists between the media and politics. In the current day, the influence of the media over politics and public opinion is unprecedented in size as well as in scope.
News and the media can be manipulated in many ways. One of the most common ways through which the media and the news presented can be presented is through “direct control via state-owned outlets”. Where the media is owned by the state, it is easy for the government to engage in manipulating the media-provided information. Leeson & Coyne (2007) in their paper provide an example of the situation in Romania where he points out that TVR, which is the preeminent source of the Romanian news “is first and foremost recognized as a political tool of the ruling party rather than a source of credible information” (Leeson & Coyne, 2007, p.12). It is further pointed out that there is a wide acknowledgment that TVR offered decidedly biased news coverage in the time “surrounding the election of 1990 to politically manipulate the outcome” (Leeson & Coyne, 2007, p.7). It is also reported that beginning from the year 1990, TVR has gone on manipulating information that reaches the public (Leeson & Coyne, 2007).
Other than the direct control by the state as a way of manipulating the news in the media, manipulation can also result where, even if the media outlets are privately owned by essential production means as well as distribution are monopolized in the hands of the government, the control that government has over the media remains to be powerful (Leeson & Coyne, 2007). Still taking the case in Romanian, it is pointed out that “state ownership of the media related infrastructure is one indirect method government uses to manipulate the media” (Leeson & Coyne, 2007,p.14). Giving a specific example, just until the recent past, there was a single newsprint mill in the entire Romania which was owned by the state. By the government served as a monopoly on newsprint, this enabled it to have direct control over what private newspapers would engage in operating, and this enabled the government to have indirect control over the news that was reported in the newspaper.
Some of the problems that come with media manipulation can be effectively dealt with if people would have high levels of media literacy. Media literacy is more than just information consumption. An individual who is media literate is in a position to engage in the production, creation, and successful communication of information in all its forms and not just in the print form (Malik, 2008). The media literacy seeks to ensure there is empowering of the citizens and to ensure transformation of their passive relationship to media into an engagement that is active and critical which can challenge the “traditions and structures of a privatized, commercial media culture and finding new avenues of citizen speech and discourse” (Malik, 2008, p.6). The purpose of media education is not to protect individuals from the media influence and in turn leading them to better things but rather, to make it possible for them to come up with informed decisions on their behavior. The need to engage in studying the media in a manner that is coherent and critical has turned out to be obvious on an increasing level in recent years, “as they have come to occupy a central position in our cultural and political life” (Malik, 2008, p. 6).
Chalif, R. S. (2011). Selective politics: The fragmentation and polarization of news on cable TV. (Master’s Thesis. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C).
Kaiser Family Foundation (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Web.
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Leeson, P.T. & Coyne, C. J. (2007). Manipulating the media. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press.
Malik, S. (2008). Media literacy and its importance. Society for Alternative Media and Research, 1(1), 1 – 23.