The influence of mass media in the shaping of public opinion. An analysis of the political polarization in the United States during the presidential campaign of 2016

Term Paper, 2019

20 Pages, Grade: 2,7


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Increasing role of mass media in electoral campaigning through the mediatization of political communication
2.1 Mass media as information resource for the electorate: Image management of the candidates through the media’s news coverage
2.2 Persuasion and advertising: targeted address of specific electoral groups
2.3 Personification of the electoral campaigning: self-presentation of candidates and negative campaigning

3. Role of mass media in the shaping of public opinion during the presidential campaign of 2016 in the United States
3.1 Role of mass media in the news coverage and in the managment of the Clinton’s and Trump’s public images during the electoral campaign
3.2 Use of„big data“ in social networks as important strategy of targeted advertising
3.3 Role of the rivalry between Trump and Clinton in social networks in the building of public opinion and candidate images

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The presidential elections of 2016 have definitely marked the beginning of a new political era in the United States. But most importantly, they serve as an example of the increasing impact of mass media in political communication and in the performance of basic democratic mechanisms, such as electoral campaigning. Both Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s electoral strategies reflect the rising influence of social media and other forms of traditional media in the shaping of public opinion. This paper attempts to analyse what role did the mass media play in the formation of public opinion and in the accentuation of the political polarization in the United States during the presidential campaign of 2016.

The most essential elements of the political communication in an election contest, such us the image-building of a candidate, the news coverage, the persuasion effects and strategies, as well as the negative campaigning, should be examined on detail in order to ascertain the actual media impact in the last presidential campaign. On one side it should be evaluated, how the candidates Clinton and Trump used mass media and especially social networks to persuade and mobilize voters, or to discredit their political opponent. On the other it should be investigated, how media itself shaped the public opinion and perception of each candidate through the news coverage. The concrete effects of these strategies in the political polarization in the United States during the electoral campaign should help to conclude how mass media keeps playing an increasing role as a political actor.

Quantitative data that helps to verify the correlation between the media news coverage and the image-management of each candidate and the building of a particular opining among voters, which at the same time may have aggravated the political polarization; were obtained from primary data resources such as reports, surveys and studies carried out by research centres and institutions. These statistics may serve as proof of particular developments and tendencies observed in regard to the popular perception of the candidates and the exhaustive use of traditional media forms, such as television and printed press on one side, and new media, such as social networks on the other hand, during the entire electoral process. After determining which particular effects and strategies were employed by both media actors and presidential candidates, it should be concluded if these had an actual impact in the construction of polarized opinions on the way this remarkable presidential race should have ended.

The influence of mass media in the political development and in the presidential campaigning specifically has been widely researched in the field of political science and communication and media science. Niedermayer (2000) presents the modernization thesis as a general change of the political communication process between candidates and voters. This change is specially reflected on the increasing amount of media contents and actors and in the personification of the whole communication management. Kepplinger (1998) introduces the concept of persuasive communication and emphasizes on the mediating function of mass media, which consists in the influence of opinions, preferences and behavior of the voters, as well as in the conveyance of perceptual patterns of the reality. Holtz-Bacha (2002) also points out the mediation function of mass media in an electoral process, however she stresses the symbiotic character of the relationship between the mass media system, the political system and the voters, and pictures the electorate as the most crucial actor in the making of political decisions. Brettschneider (2002) provides more information about the media effects on the perception of political reality and presents some of the most important ways of shaping public opinion and the image of a particular candidate through the news coverage: Agenda-setting, faming and priming. Finally, Sarcinelli (1987) broaches the issue of the negative campaigning and brings out important reasons for the success of the campaigning process through the delegitimization and discrediting of the political opponent.

Even though some specific case studies, like the analysis of television in American opinion by Iyegar and Kinder (1987) achieved a more practical approach of the effects of media in the public opinion building; an extensive research of the influence of mass media in the intensified polarization of the American population during the presidential campaign of 2016 has not been fully completed yet.

2. Increasing role of mass media in electoral campaigning through the mediatization of political communication

2.1 Mass media as information ressource for the electorate: Image managment of the candidates through the media’s news coverage

The campaign communication can be regarded as a triangular relationship between the political system, the media system and the voters (vgl. Holtz-Bacha 2002: 42). The mediatization of political communication, as a result of the social modernization, the digitalization of communication and the exponential growth of Internet have turned mass media in an important actor in the political system. By addressing or ignoring certain political issues and building personalized images of the candidates, mass media manages to process the massive flow of information and filter the most crucial facts. This, also known as the “Gatekeeper” function, reduces complex political processes and developments to easy understandable images of the political reality and shapes correspondingly public opinion (vgl. Voigt 2017: 142-143/ Wolf 2007: 130).

Cohen (1963: 13) focuses on the influence of the media on how citizens understand, think about, and evaluate their government and other political actors, “it [the press] may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think. But it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”. The most important effects of media in the building of public opinion are: the educational effect, the agenda-setting effect, the framing effect, the priming­effect and the persuasion effect (vgl. Jilson 2019: 159).

The educational effect implies the important role of news coverage in the understanding of political issues by the public that uses traditional or new media as main information source. Both traditional forms of communication, such as television and printed press, and new media, referring to the digital media like social networks; continue to play an enormous role on providing information about political issues and candidate-images to the electorate. Before discussing the concepts of “Horse race” and “Fake news”, and their importance on the image­management, a key term should be defined in order to understand other related theoretical concepts. Fuchs (1978: 289) characterizes an image as: “Bild, Vorstellungsbild, Bezeichnung für die Gesamtheit der Vorstellungen, Einstellungen, Gefühle usw. die eine Person oder Gruppe in Hinblick auf etwas Spezielles [...] besitzt”. These images are constructed within the interpersonal or public communication process and stay in direct relation with the image construction in the public sphere (Bentele 1998: 657/Althoff 2008: 72).

The „Horse Race“ appears as an effect of the personification of the media coverage and can be defined as a form of news coverage, in which the competition of candidates and other non­political characteristics stay on focus, rather than the factual issues. The orientation towards conflict and controversy dominates the news reporting instead of the policy positions and experience of the candidates (vgl. Althoff 2008: 67-74/ Jilson 2019: 150). On the other hand, “Fake news” can be defined as fake reports, which deliberately intend to propagate fabricated facts and endorse already existing prejudices in specific target audiences (vgl. Bieber/Kamps 2017: 97).

Moreover, there are other modern theories of the media impact research that are also linked to the news coverage carried out especially by printed press and television. Commanding the public’s attention through the selection of particular political issues over others, in such a way that the media’s agenda also becomes an important subject of the public awareness and concern, is called “agenda-setting” Additionally, “agenda-cutting” attempts to avoid the thematization of unfavorable topics for the own political program and “agenda-surfing”, on the contrary, focuses on mentioning recurrently relevant issues in their news coverage (vgl. Brettschneider 2002: 77-78/Althaus2017: 126).

The “priming-effect”, which also may shape public opinion, can be especially related to the judgement and opinion formation about an issue or a politician. Priming changes the standards for making political evaluations of the performance of any political actor. The electoral process, most notably, may be affected by the priming-effect, as mass media manage to draw more attention to some political aspects of political life at the expense of other. In this way, the news coverage sets the terms and standards in which a political opinion is formed and political decisions are made (vgl. Iyegar/Kinder 1987: 63, 114).

Furthermore, Maurer (2017: 85) affirms that the “framing-effect” also affects the political judgment and the perception of the political situation by selecting and emphasizing specific segments of the reality, also called “frames”. By presenting the political issue in an arbitrary and partial way, the voter is advised how this should be interpreted and evaluated. “Frames provide a schemata of interpretation or story lines that enable individuals to make sense of what they read or seen by drawing upon their previous experiences” (Goffman 1974:10).

Finally, the persuasion effect can be divided in three different strategies: the reinforcement of the own political position by mobilizing the existing political supporters; the debilitation of the opponent’s political situation by demobilizing the opponent’s political supporters and implementing negative campaigning; and the persuasion of the voters that appear not to have a strong political affiliation to any party through targeted advertising (vgl. Kepplinger 1998: 365). The specific persuasion tactics will be explained in more detail in the following chapters.

2.2 Perusasion and advertising: targeted adress of specific electoral groups

The political communication uses the persuasion as an important strategy in order to maximize the amount of votes. The tactic referring to the persuasion of unaffiliated or undecided voters will be the main subject of this chapter.

According to Kepplinger (1998: 365), a crucial requirement for an effective persuasion strategy is the support of the mass media, which play a massive opinion-forming role. An important element of the persuasion consists in the targeted contact of a specific audience in order to attract the attention of special lifestyle-communities and milieus that represent important social groups. The targeting of potential voters is a product of an intensive study of lifestyle, moral values, leisure habits as well as preferences of specific social segments. As soon as a general profile is generated, undecided voters should be addressed through personalized advertising. This may reinforce particular political perceptions, emotions and the voter’s image of the political reality, which by being triggered, increase the chance of forming an opinion in accord to the political affiliation of the entity that is carrying out the targeting process (vgl. Althoff 2008:117/129).

These conventional targeting procedures and data analysis of potential voters are being refined with the use of “big data”. “Big data” can be defined as “[...] any large-scaled numerical, textual, visual or geographic data, which can be analysed to reveal patterns and trends of human behavior” (Jomini Stroud/McGregor 2019: 2). This resource enables to address a political message much more precisely to elected potential voters, whose interests and viewpoints have already been exhaustively evaluated. Additionally, it facilitates the prediction of the responsiveness and support, as well as the voting behaviour of the selected target group with the help of complex modelling of data (vgl. Voigt 2017: 151).

The concepts of “paid media” and “earned media” should be differentiated in order to understand how advertising forms have been adapted to our modem and digitalized society. Paid media refers to an advertising strategy that pursuits the direct approach of a wide audience through paid communication channels, which can be either physical or digital. On the contrary, free media rather focuses on the attention of the mass media and on diverse techniques in order to increase the thematization of particular issues or the transmission of selected images and messages. Third parties, such as news channels and social network’s influencers play a crucial role in the viral spreading of the contents, free of cost (vgl. Althoff 2008:121).

The importance of social media in the targeting process lies in the fact that the resources invested on online advertising keep increasing; leaving traditional paid media in the second place. According to Hamburger (2019: 241), the easiest and most effective way for a political figure to earn media in the modem age is through social media.

Campaigns develop their own channels for media as well, though usually these aren’t paid. Social media includes using a campaign Facebook page or Twitter account, Instagram, and email list development, even the campaign’s own website are all ways campaigns get their message out in ways that are new and would have been previously generated through paid advertising in years gone by (Hamburger2019: 234).

2.3 Personification of the elctoral campaigning: self-presentation of candidates and negative campaigning

The other two techniques of persuasion, namely the consolidation of the own political position by mobilizing the existing political supporters and the debilitation of the opponent’s political situation by demobilizing the opponent’s political supporters and implementing negative campaigning; are going to be described in this chapter.

As a result of the increasing personalization of politics and communication, the candidates and their respectively images are central in the campaigning process, the media news coverage and the electoral behaviour and decision making (vgl. Niedermayer 2000: 195). On one side, the positive self-presentation of the candidates attempts to reinforce the commitment and support of traditional voters. The candidates focus on highlighting their positive personality virtues and expect to be judged by the public opinion according to the persuasiveness of their emotional self-presentation. Nevertheless, the media coverage and consequently, the public response on this behaviour are clearly lower than the one achieved when thematising negative aspects and candidate-images(vgl. Sarcinelli 1987: 175-178).

A contrary strategy, which intends to win the support of the traditional voters of the opposite party or the sympathizers of the political opponent, is the so-called “negative campaigning”. This form of campaigning concentrates in the discrediting of the opponent and in the rapid response to attacks and other kind of declarations in the public sphere, which may have a negative impact in the own image. The communication strategies mentioned in the first chapter can also be found in connection of the negative campaigning. By highlighting particular, generally negative aspects of the opponent’s campaign, political agenda or personal character and ignoring unfavourable issues for the own image; political candidates often use framing tactics in order to generate a negative image of the opposite candidate or at least to aggravate the existing unfavorable images in the public sphere, (vgl. Althoff 2008: 67/121/ Müller 1997: 296).

Althoff (2008: 129) affirms that negative information that puts the opponent’s reliability and qualification in doubt appears to have a bigger impact potential than positive information. These are easily and longer kept in mind and prevail against contrary statements. The successful scandalisation and controversy of particular aspects in the mass media gives proof of the effectiveness of negative campaigning in the political dispute. Negative images possess a higher news value than positive descriptions, as they attract more effectively the public’s attention and dominate the news headlines (vgl. Kepplinger 1998: 365/ Sarcinelli 1987: 174).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The influence of mass media in the shaping of public opinion. An analysis of the political polarization in the United States during the presidential campaign of 2016
University of Regensburg  (Philosophische Fakultät Lehrstuhl für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft (Schwerpunkt Westeuropa))
Einführung in den Vergleich westlicher Regierungssysteme
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Presidential elections 2016, Mass media, Polarization, Persuasion and advertising:, Image management of the candidates
Quote paper
Daniela Forero Nuñez (Author), 2019, The influence of mass media in the shaping of public opinion. An analysis of the political polarization in the United States during the presidential campaign of 2016, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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