The role of the mass media within liberal democracy

Essay, 2009

4 Pages, Grade: 0.88


The role of the mass media within Liberal Democracy

This essay will describe the characteristics of the mass media and its components and further investigate the arguments that suggest that mass media either supports or undermines a democracy.

The role of the mass media in influencing the political process as well as mass and class behaviour has been a central concern among many critical writers, especially in the last decade. Some of the major issues covered in debates and studies on the mass media are its political bias, its ownership and links to big business, relationships and ties to the state, corporate interests and promotion of wars as well as its relative openness and diversity.

Coxall et al. (2003, p156) suggest that “the mass media refers to all those forms of communication where large numbers of people are exposed to an identical message”. The constituent parts of mass media is the print media, like newspapers or magazines and the electronic media, such as cinema, video advertising hoardings, radio and terrestrial television, and the most recent – multi-channel satellite, cable and digital television and not least the internet (e.g. youtube). They further suggest that the mass media are still developing to include also other embryonic modes such as mass texting.

During the late Victorian period press had experienced enormous expansion; however, the number of newspapers as well as their circulation had fallen in the next decades. By the early 1960s press and also radio was more and more replaced by the television. Television very quickly became the main source of public information. It has been claimed that there is a tendency for people to believe what they ‘see’ on television but to be sceptical what they read in the press. Nearly 70 per cent rank television as the ‘most trustworthy’ news source in contrary to the press with only 6 per cent (Coxall et al., 2003, p162). In the modern age, however, since everything is becoming accessible via the internet, it is quickly becoming the centre of mass media. A typical characteristic of modern mass media, such as the internet, is that it can convey information and other forms of symbolic communication rapidly and simultaneously to large, geographically remote and socially distinct audiences. A good example of this is the rapid worldwide popularity growth of Susan Boyle from the British talent show. Nevertheless, according to Goodlad (2003) the press has still remained a power in the land, courted and feared by politicians of all parties.

Mass media play a central role in the communication of the political information, which is an important process in the political system. There are different opinions about the extent and the character of impact that mass media have on politics. Some believe that mass media in Britain supports democracy by allowing a wide variety of views to be expressed, however, some argue that because of the power of mass media to manipulate the way people think about politics, it is rather anti-democratic (Coxall et al., 2003, p156).

The role of the mass media as a ‘watchdog’ is one of the most important ones that supports the democratic order as it would not shy away from exploring and criticizing virtually everything. As Bolton (1990, p41) states, the job of the media is to ask, what, why and how as well as report the facts, get the truth and give the public in a democracy the information to which it is entitled. There have been many examples in the past, where politicians have come under media scrutiny, the MP’s expenses scandal being the most recent and a very influential one.

A further advantage can be seen in the technological change in the media, which could result in a new, more democratic political order. Some political scientists speculate that the new technologies have increased the opportunities for a more specialised and individual political participation and that the media conglomerates will be replaced by ‘a perfect marketplace for ideas’ leading to a massive growth in the decentralised politics (Coxall et al., 2003, p159).

Another important role of the mass media in the democratic process is by helping to set the political agenda so that different issues, such us the environment, law, public or social services and others receive attention and thus are addressed by the government. For example, mass media have become influential in highlighting the need to protect civil liberties. Selby (1995, p230) gives an example, where the BBC programme Rough Justice investigated a number of criminal cases leading to the release of a wrongfully convicted person. However, as McQuail (1987, p275) argues, there may not always be correspondence between what is important for the public and politicians and what importance media gives to those issues.

Finally, there is the basic viewpoint that the media as a ‘free’ institution and being exempted from the state control is a part of democracy by facilitating free speech and unrestricted public debate. However, there is a lot of controversy around these issues. While broadcasting is bound to be impartial by the law, there are no obligations for newspapers to be politically neutral. In fact, as newspapers are commercial enterprises, the bias in the press towards the party, which supports the status quo of a free enterprise system is inevitable leading to a press that supports the existing political order (Coxall et al., 2003, pp158-160). On the other hand, however, they also suggest that the fact that until recently the majority of British newspapers have supported the Conservative Party does not undermine the democratic view of the press but simply proves that Britain had a politically represented press.

There have been further arguments regarding political influence of media and its ownership. During times of national emergency the government may extend control over broadcasting and as Whale (1977, p12) points out, the laws relating to the BBC and ITA make it clear that government can instruct them to broadcast or withhold whatever they want. While this kind of direct intervention has not been frequently used, politicians may attempt to manipulate the media indirectly, for example, by accusing television journalists of being biased in order to produce some positive results (Miller et al., 1990, p72) or by using what is known as a ‘spin’. Further Tunstall and Machin (1999, p92) are criticising the personal network that has build up between media personnel and politicians creating ‘a consensual or bi-partisan system’. According to Petley (1999, p143), the newspapers whilst portrayed as facilitators of free speech, are in fact tightly controlled by the regulations, such us Defence Notices, prevention of terrorism and others.

Another critical aspect of the media is its ownerships. According to Sparks (1999, p.46), commercial media exist in the first place to make profit, just as any other business. Further Coxall et al. (2003, pp160-162) argue that most of the media concerns are conglomerates having financial interests in various sectors of the communication industry as well as non-media interests, which can represent a threat to democracy, as this would limit the range and diversity of the views and opinions expressed, excluding those representing the least powerful social groups. Also the emphasis of the profit might be met at the expense of other more important social goals. Finally such concentration is undemocratic as it removes the media from public surveillance and accountability. Another negative impact, resulting from the media profit orientation and the fact that the providers are competing over a limited number of customers, is the trivialising of the news to make them more attractive, even entertaining. This is said to deaden intellect and harm critical thoughts, which is not good for democracy.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the mass media have a powerful influence on politics. They shape the perceptions of the political world that people and politicians hold. Thus, the mass media have enormous potential power, they could set people’s minds against or in favour of the political system and even influence the election results. It has even been claimed (McConnachie, 2001) that the mass media actually controls the political process, with a consequence that we are ruled by the media (owners, editors etc.). However, while the media will most likely be able to tell people what to think about, it will not necessarily tell what to think, as the people have their own local opinion and are not influenced by all means of the media bias. The power of the mass media is also counterbalanced by the general tolerance of the diverse and competing opinions as well as the alternative media.


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The role of the mass media within liberal democracy
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This essay will describe the characteristics of the mass media and its components and further investigate the arguments that suggest that mass media either supports or undermines a democracy.
mass media, democracy, liberal democracy
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Linda Vuskane (Author), 2009, The role of the mass media within liberal democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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