Thursday, November 1, 2012

Media and the Political Process

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 do have the ability to influence foreign policy process as presumed is the subject of intense debate among scholars, journalists and policy makers. 

Cable News Network/ CNN/ Effect, as it is called by scholars, however, demonstrate the impact of new global real time media. CNN effect regards the role of media as typically substantial if not profound. Some radicals even define CNN effect as a loss of policy control on the part of policy makers because of the power of the media; a power that they can do nothing about.

Their thinking is a major deviation from the already existed and almost hegemonic thinking of the propaganda model.  According to propaganda model the relation of media and the political process was rather seen as a 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 relation with powerful sources of information as symbiotic. Thus, the effect of their relationship goes beyond to a moral division of labor; officials have and give facts and reporters receive. State politicians take the responsibility of comforting media practitioners 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 the government agenda is not seriously challenged in their reporting.

But in recent times, technological developments in the field of mass communication being a key factor, a shift in ideology seems to happen. Following the introduction of internet technology, the media are becoming 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 state monopoly of news source 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 media conglomerate and/or dependent on advertisement revenue as means to filter news are weakening, if not brought to an end. Since the relationship between the filters and media power is opposite, 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 in 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 an accelerant to policy decision making.

Hence, media as policy agenda setters may make an issue prominent which it really deserves or make it more prominent than it deserves. Thus, the media place an issue to the attention of the public, politicians and decision makers. Through follow up stories, again it accelerates the concerned bodies to act accordingly. Whether they like or not, for all the cameras are towards them, the respondents will be urged to give response in a relatively shorter time. Once a response is given, based on its interest, the media impede the implementation of policy meant to address a problem.

This effect of the media is more apparent in cases of crisis and disasters. It can shape the political environment towards humanitarian activities. It do so through presenting the details of the phenomenon and the damaged caused on the victims in full and sensational way to generate the maximum emotional impact on the audience. 

Historical instance of Ethiopia during the 1984 – 1985 famine confirms what is described above. During this severe famine, which costs the life of millions, international relief agencies received plentiful donation from many Western countries. Through the images of dying children moral virtue of the public was raised and it tended to be easily manipulated. And these same images are still the icon of Ethiopia in the screens of the western media despite astonishing developments going on in the country for the last decade.

Media influence is 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 give people access to be able to chose a political party, devise attitude on government parties and manage their own interest. 

As I mentioned earlier however, the power of the media is not yet to be fully named as counter balance and revolutionary to the political process. James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs in CNN, argues that “media’s effect on policy making is conditional and specific to policy types and objectives.” It means that the media knows when and where to be a revolutionary force or to take a deaf ear to the political process bearing in mind its immature power or knowing its interest is unharmed. 

To conclude, the relationship between media and the political environment cannot be put in clear terms as action and reaction. Nor the media cannot be judged as a watchdog to the political environment. Rather the magnitude of the power media can exert on the state politics is in continuing debate. 

But what is clear is the media’s tendency to shoulder more societal responsibilities like amalgamating the public and urging governments to humanitarian activities. Its influence as an accelerant to policy decision making and implementation is also unquestionable. 

But, what needs yet to be practically shown is its role as a real impediment to the achievement of policy goals that are against the public interest.
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