Media and the political process

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The thinking that media and the political process have a dialectical relationship, that includes action and reaction, is a recent and not yet well developed theory of mass communication. Whether media actually does have the ability to influence foreign policy is the subject of intense debate among scholars, journalists and policy makers.
“The CNN (Cable News Network) Effect” , as it is called by scholars, however, demonstrates the impact of new global real time media. The CNN effect regards the role of media as typically substantial if not profound. Some radicals even define the CNN effect as a loss of policy control on the part of policymakers, because of the power of the media; a power that they can do nothing about. Their thinking is a major deviation from the existing and almost hegemonic thinking of the propaganda model. According to propaganda model the relationship between the media and the political process was seen as a rather supplementary one. The media were thought to serve the political elite and the powerful.
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in their book, Manufacturing Consent, label the media’s relationship with powerful sources of information as symbiotic. Thus, the effects of their relationship go beyond a moral division of labor; officials have and give facts and reporters receive. State politicians take on the responsibility of comforting media practitioners in order to strengthen their symbiotic relationship. The journalists, on their behalf, channel official information as it is, without trying to verify its accuracy and give surety that the government agenda is not seriously challenged in their reporting.
In recent times, technological developments in the field of mass communication being a key factor, a shift in ideology seems to have happened. Following the introduction of internet technology, the media are becoming a voice for the voiceless. The growing role of bloggers and online analysts in the political arena, the emergence of social media websites like twitter and facebook, plus the growing power of Wikileaks and other online information sources are challenging the state monopoly on news sources and control of classified information.
Advancements in communication technology have created a capacity to broadcast live from anywhere on earth. This in turn has minimized the media’s dependency on official news sources. Images and videos posted by individual journalists are available uncensored. Hence, being a media conglomerate and/or dependent on advertisement revenue as a means of filtering news are weakening, if not brought to an end. Since the relationship between the filters and media power is oppositional, these basic filters of news are weakening and the power of the media is strengthening.
As Steven Livingston, an associate professor of Political Communication and International Affairs at George Washington University, stated, media power is evident in three forms. These are: media as a policy agenda setting agent, an impediment to the achievement of desired policy goals, and as an accelerant to policy decision making.
Hence, media as policy agenda setter may make an issue prominent as it really deserves or make it more prominent than it deserves. Thus, the media bring an issue to the attention of the public, politicians and decision makers. Through follow-up stories, it again push the concerned bodies to act accordingly. Whether they like it or not, because all the cameras are on them, the respondents will be urged to respond in a relatively shorter time. Once a response is given, based on its own interests, the media impedes the implementation of policies meant to address a problem.
This effect of the media is most apparent in cases of crisis and disaster. It can shape the political environment towards humanitarian activities. It does so through presenting the details of the phenomenon and the damaging effects on the victims in a full and sensational way to generate the maximum emotional response in the audience.
The historical instance of Ethiopia during the 1984 – 1985 famine confirms what is described above. During this severe famine, which cost the lives of millions, international relief agencies received abundant donations from many Western countries. Through the images of dying children, the moral virtue of the public was raised, and it tended to be easily manipulated, and these same images are still the most iconic ones of Ethiopia on the screens of the western media, despite astonishing developments in the country over the last decade.
Media influence is even more prominent during political campaigns. News coverage of a single event could put a candidate ahead or behind. In fact, countless national political figures, including the president in contest, plan public appearances and statements to expand their influence through the media. The media also gives people access, to be able to choose a political party, devise an perspective on government parties and manage their own interests.
As I mentioned earlier however, the power of the media is not yet to be fully named as a counter balance and revolutionary to the political process. James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs at CNN, argues that “media’s effect on policy making is conditional and specific to policy types and objectives.” This means that the media knows when and where to be a revolutionary force, or to lend a deaf ear to the political process, bearing in mind its immature power or knowing its interest is unharmed.
In conclusion, the relationship between media and the political environment cannot be put in clear terms as action and reaction. Nor can the media be judged as a watchdog to the political environment. Rather the magnitude of the power media can exert on state politics is in continuing debate.
What is clear is the media’s tendency to shoulder more societal responsibilities like amalgamating the public and urging governments to turn their attention to humanitarian activities. Its influence as an accelerant to policy decision making and implementation is also unquestionable.
Though, what remains yet to be practically shown is its role as a real impediment to the achievement of policy goals that are against the public interest.