What role has been played by the media in US political contests?

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In democratic societies the media has traditionally played the role of intermediary in electoral contests, disseminating information from political campaigns and candidates to the voting public. However, some political scientists believe that, in contemporary US elections, the media act not merely as a medium through which campaign information is filtered, but as a agent which shapes the campaign agenda and influences voters perceptions of candidates.


This essay discusses the various roles which the media play when reporting on elections in the United States. It traces the changing perceptions of the role of the journalist and media, from the theory of the fourth estate to the practise of agenda-setting within a partisan media organisation. The rise of social media within election campaigns allows candidates to become the medium, connecting with voters directly.

Media Role

In The Fourth Branch of Government, Cater described the role that reporters and the media play in the political system (quoted in Cook, 1998). He believed reporters were a ‘recorder of government, but also a participant’ (Cook, 1998:1). Cook himself saw the media as a political institution in its own right, without whose interaction with the other branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary), democracy could not function. The relationship between media and government is, Cook believes, a ‘co-production’ and the reporter ‘a key participant in decision-making and policy making’ (1998:3). The political news media themselves see their role as that of the Fourth Estate, a collective watchdog which holds government and politicians to account and plays an educator role in keeping citizens informed about the key issues shaping their economy and society. At no time is the media’s role as instrumental as during an election campaign. As Dalton, Beck and Huckfeldt (2008b: 111) point out, ‘the media’s role as an intermediary is most evident at election time, when the media are the primary conduits for information on the campaign’.

In the US, the commercial media play a dual role during political contests – as well as scrutinising the behaviour and policies of candidates, it carries paid-for political advertisements. These adverts constitute a significant source of income for news media: the Campaign Media Analysis Group estimate that $2.6bn was spent on political advertising during the 2008 Presidential election. The media, especially television, therefore also plays a commercial role in US elections. The commercial nature of the candidate’s relationship with media affects the coverage given to candidate’s campaigns, with media bias or partisanship now prevalent within most major US media outlets (DellaVigna and Kaplan, 2007). Broadcasters such as CNN and PBS, along with print and digital media such as The New York Times, Newsweek and The Huffington Post are perceived to have a bias toward Democratic candidates, while news media such as FOX, The Washington Post and Time magazine give more favourable coverage to Republican candidates.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, there was a widespread assumption that citizens voted along predictable, partisan lines, and therefore media reporting of campaigns had little or no impact on election outcomes (Lazarfeldt referred to by Finkel, 1993). The decline of partisanship in US politics since the 1960s (Abramson 1982, referred to in Finkel 1993) has seen this theory of minimal effects replaced with a belief that media can influence and change voter orientation (Finkel 1993). This acknowledgement of the influence of media has led to renewed focus on the role the media plays in elections. Shaw has highlighted the distinction between the media as medium and the media as agent (2001:16). In the 2008 primaries, for example, it is widely believed that the Democratic-leaning media forced John Edwards out of the nomination race, while advocating the candidatures of both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. In such cases, the role of the media as agent becomes apparent. Stromback and Dimitrova, after conducting a comparative content analysis of election coverage in selected Swedish and US newspapers, concluded that while Swedish media focused on campaign issues, US media treated political contests as more of a ‘strategic game’ or ‘horse-race’ (2006: 132). Their contention was that the media had come to see a political race almost as a sporting event, prioritising trivia and personalities over the substance of policy and ideology. Dalton, Beck and Huckfeldt challenged this view however, when they analysed data from media coverage of the 1992 presidential election. Comparing issues covered by the media to issues the public professed to care about, they found a very tight convergence between the issues relevant to media, candidates and the general public (1998a). McCombs (1997) explains the rationale behind this finding. He believes that the media play an agenda-setting role by giving greater prominence or ‘salience’ to certain issues. Once in the public domain, these issues capture the public’s attention. In this way the public agenda and the media agenda have tended to converge toward a consensus.

Comscore, a US company which monitors the digital world, confirmed in a recent report entitled The Digital Politico that digital media is now a ‘formidable platform’ for political campaigns (2012). While campaign finance teams continue to spend more on TV and Radio advertising than on digital, activities such as social media (in particular Twitter), digital advertising and paid search are playing an increasingly prominent role in US elections. The use of social media as campaign strategy has given candidates more opportunities to set their own agendas and communicate directly with the electorate. Farnsworth and Lichter contend that these ‘unmediated speeches, advertisements and internet web pages … qualify as the more substantive, more useful and more accurate forms of campaign discourse’ (2007:6).


The ideal of the media as a watchdog on power is still relevant to some extent, as many media outlets do hold candidates to account through scrutiny of campaign finances or probing of a candidate’s commitment to a policy. However, the commercial nature of media and cable television in particular, means that media organisations have become increasingly partisan. Most political scientists today agree that the US media influences the campaign as a political agent, and is no longer just a medium through which the public receives news and analysis.


Cook, T.E, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution, University of Chicago Press 1998

Comscore Inc., 2012, The Digital Politico: 5 Ways Digital Media is Shaping the 2012 Presidential Elections, April 30 2012

Dalton R.J, Beck P.A, Huckfeldt R. 1998a, A Test of Media-Centered Agenda Setting: Newspaper Content and Public Interests in a Presidential Election, Political Communication Journal, Vol 15, Number 4, 1 September 1998 pp 463-481 (19)

Dalton R.J, Beck P.A & Huckfeldt R. 1998b, Partisan Cues and the Media: Information Flows in the 1992 Presidential Election, American Political Science Review, Vol 92, Number 1, March 1998

DellaVigna, S & Kaplan E. The Fox News Effect, Media Bias and Voting, Quarterly Journal of Economics 122 (August 2007)

Farnsworth, S.J & Lichter S.R, The Nightly News Nightmare: Television’s Coverage of Presidential Elections, 1988-2004, 2nd ed. 2007 Rowman and Littlefield

Finkel, S.E, Re-examining the Minimal Effects Model in Recent Presidential Campaigns, The Journal of Politics, Vol 55, Number 1 (Feb 1993) pp 1-21

Roderick P.H & Shaw D.R 2001, Communication in US Elections, Rowman and Littlefield

Stromback J & Dimitrova D.V 2006, Political and Media Systems Matter, A Comparison of Election News Coverage in Sweden and the US, The International Journal of Press/Politics, Fall 2006 Vol 11, Number 4, pp 131-147

McCombs, M, 1997, Building Consensus, The News Media’s Agenda Setting Roles, Political Communication, Vol 14, Issue 4, pp 433-443

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