The Role of the Media in US Political Contests

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In contemporary US elections, the media is not only a disperser of information, but an active participant in the shaping of politics with an astounding influence on the outcome of political contests. With an increasingly partisan press it is important to understand the influence the press can exert on us, and we on them. In order to gain such understanding this essay explores the relationships between political candidates and the press, that relationship’s impact on election outcomes as well as the media’s ability to shape political agendas. The result is a circle of influence where all three; public, media and politician, can influence each other, but the media is the only player who swings both ways.


This essay will concern itself with the way in which the relationship between the agents of media and the political candidates themselves affects the role the media has played in US political contests after TV became a leading medium. It will also argue the extent to which this relationship has the power to set and change political agenda as well as shape the opinions of the voters.

The Media’s Role

According to Cook (1998) the media is not only an intermediary in politics, but a political institution unto itself, and the reporter ‘a key participant in decision-making and policy making’ (1998, p.3). The impact of the media is most evident during election time when it becomes clear that the traditional view of the media as mere watchdogs and recorders of government (Cater, 1959) is not a sufficient label.

The media’s role in US political contests and how it has changed over the last decades can be traced through two main aspects that shape the presence of politics in the US media and vice versa. These are as follows:

  1. Political commercials.
  2. Political media consultants and subjectivity.

Firstly, let us look at the impact of political commercials. Gordon and Hartmann’s research suggests that ‘advertising is capable of shifting the electoral votes of multiple states and consequently the outcome of an election’ (2012). Advertisement thus becomes crucial to a political campaign, possibly at the expense of the political message.

During the 2008 presidential elections, Obama spent nearly twice the budget of McCain on broadcasting TV commercials during the presidential election (Scheinkman, Mclean and Weitberg, 2012). Similarly, in 2004, the Republican National Party outspent the Democrats by approximately the same margins (Federal Election Commission, 2005). At the beginning of the Democratic primaries in 2007, Obama’s TV advertisement budget exceeded that of Hilary Clinton’s by almost $2,000,000 (Healy, 2007). In all cases, the biggest spender on TV commercials won the election. In 1972 however, McGovern lost the Ohio presidential primary to Humphrey despite spending more on his media campaign (Weaver, 1972). This pattern suggests a link between the volume and quality of advertisement in the media in a majority of the cases, and the political message seems a secondary concern.

Not only commercials, but also the reporters and news themselves can be used to influence voters if fed the right information. Suskind claims that political consultants ‘have produced a new kind of candidate – attractive, well-connected and docile – attractive enough to come across on television, well-connected enough to bring in the kind of money needed to buy television time and docile enough to tailor words, and even ideas, to a consultant’s instructions’ (The New York Times, 1984). Suskind also argues that consultants limit the way the press can cover their candidate and thus manipulate the coverage to a certain extent.

Both in commercials and in the role of the consultant, TV is a central channel of communication because it is an ideal arena to present an image or political persona, rather than an ideology. Consequently, the politician himself can become more important than his politics. The image of the politician presented through the media can generate economic support, which in turn generates more press, with an electoral win as the ultimate outcome. In this way, the media is crucial to the economy of politics.

Diana C. Mutz argues that in addition to the impact of political advertisement, the sheer volume of information generated by the ever-expanding media machine can influence elections by increasing the risk of so-called “biased assimilation of information,” meaning that people end up choosing only news sources that reinforce their own preexisting political opinions (2006). Thus voters are not exposed to enough diversity in information to allow them a fully educated choice in who to vote for. Muntz’s argument suggests that the media was therefore more of an objective intermediary when it was a less influential one as it paradoxically accommodated the full picture better.

The pendulum of influence swings both ways however, and the issues the media chooses to focus on outside election time can shape the agenda and electoral platforms the candidates will run on during the political contest. According to research, the media focuses more on the elections themselves as a horserace and concern themselves less with political issues (Ridout and Smith, 2008).

What the news outlets report in the years between the political contests however, can hugely influence what the voters will deem important when deciding on their candidate. In the 1972 presidential election, McGovern ran on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam, a huge issue devoted a lot of news coverage over several years. Obama’s 2008 campaign suggested more government involvement in the country’s welfare in the middle of a global economic crisis that saw a decline in capitalist ideology in the US. When Bloomberg was elected Mayor of New York in 2001, one of the key themes of his campaign was that with a city reeling economically after 9/11, it needed a mayor with business experience. Because big news is generally also big issues to the public at large, how much of the press is devoted to these stories can decide how much the public cares, and in turn how much the politicians should care.


The perception of the media as an observer of the political world is still relevant to some extent, but the role of influencer and arbiter between the public and the politician has superseded it. Not only does the media provide an outlet for politicians to filter their agenda through, but the press can also contribute to shaping those agendas though selective news coverage.

Though political consultants are becoming increasingly important in controlling the media, the explosion of social media heralds a shift in the public consciousness. With more access to political figures and more bloggers outside the news institution opining about political candidates, the role of the media seems destined to change again, and according to Comscore the change is already upon us in the 2012 elections (Comscore Inc, 2012).

Reference List

  1. Cater, D., 1959. The Fourth Branch of Government. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  2. Comscore Inc., 2012. The Digital Politico: 5 Ways Digital Media is Shaping the 2012 Presidential Elections. April 30 2012
  3. Cook, T.E, 1998. Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Federal Election Commission Press Office, 3 Feb, 2005. 2004 Presidential Campaign Financial Activity Summarized [online] Available at: [Accessed on 20 August, 2012].
  5. Gordon, B.R. and Hartmann, W.R., 2012. Advertising Effects in Presidential Elections. [PDF online] Available at: [Accessed on 20 August, 2012]
  6. Healy, P., 2007. Iowa Saturated by Political Ads In 11th-Hour Bid for Undecided. The New York Times, 28 Dec. pp. A1, A21.
  7. Muntz, D.C., 2006. How the Mass Media Divide Us. In: P.S. Nivola and D.W. Brady, eds. 2006. Red and Blue NationCharacteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. pp.223-248.
  8. Ridout, T.N. and Smith, G.R., 2008. Free Advertising: How the Media Amplify Campaign Messages. Political Research Quarterly [e-journal] Volume 61 (4),
  9. pp.598-608. Available through: JStor [Accessed 20 August 2012]
  10. Scheinkman, A., Mclean, A. and Weitberg, S., 2012. The Ad Wars. The New York Times Online [online] 23 May. Available at:
  11. [Accessed 20 August 2012].
  12. Suskind, R., 1984. The Power of Political Consultants. The New York Times, 12 Aug. p.SM32
  13. Weaver Jr., W., 1972. Ohio Vote Will Test Value of Media Campaign. The New York Times, 2 May. p.30.

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