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The media play several important roles in the campaign and election processes. This lesson examines the media’s function in presidential campaigns and elections and other government activities.

Media as an Informant

How did you use the media in the last presidential election? Did you read articles about the candidates? Did you watch live coverage of a debate? Did you receive election results through social media?In our American democracy, almost all citizens get their news and information from the media. Media shape how we interpret and observe political information, such as election coverage and other political events. In America, the media play an important role in the campaign and election processes.

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In fact, the media play many different roles. Let’s first take a look at the media’s most obvious role. We all use the media to inform us.

Here, the media report news and information to the general public. This is the most significant role of the media in a democracy because citizens play a crucial role in the political process and must be informed in order to make educated political choices. The media, therefore, must do a thorough and impartial job when informing the public on all government activities and political events.Elections pose a special challenge for the media in this area. The media must remain neutral and objective in order to properly educate the public.

Media coverage should be unbiased rather than favoring any one candidate or point of view in order for the voters to make informed decisions.Political journalists can be especially helpful in this role. Many cover candidates and the elections as a full-time assignment but can provide both positive and negative glimpses into the candidate’s life.These journalists often use Twitter and other forms of social media to send personal, up-to-the-second campaign updates. For example, I remember reading Twitter updates that contained journalists’ reflections from President Obama’s various campaign stops during his 2012 reelection bid. Much of the information contained ‘behind-the-scenes’ quips that didn’t necessarily make a sound bite on the evening news or a quote in a newspaper article.

Media as a Watchdog

These political journalists also facilitate the media’s watchdog function.

In this role, the media function to protect the public from incompetent or corrupt political officials by exposing illegal or unethical practices to the public. As a watchdog, the media act as the public’s protector or guardian. The public is then able to make informed decisions regarding the ouster of officials or changing of inept practices.Think for a moment about the Benghazi, Libya, attacks and ensuing investigation.

In September of 2012, U.S. diplomatic offices were attacked, leaving four Americans dead. The coverage regarding what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew and when she knew it continually overshadowed her possible presidential candidacy.

This is an example of watchdog media.Even when not exposing corruption, the media provide information on the successes and failures of candidates, officials and government practices. The media educate and inform the public on how they’ve performed, which helps hold the parties accountable.

Media as a Platform and Public Voice

Now let’s examine the media’s role as a platform.

In this role, the media provide an outlet for political parties and candidates to communicate their messages to the public.When acting as a platform, the media provide a forum for candidates to debate one another and present their ideas to the public. In this role, media impact our political views and opinions. We shape our opinions using the information provided to us through the platform.

The media also provide a platform for the public to convey their political thoughts and feelings – mostly through the use of social media. In this way, the media serve as a public voice, meaning the media provide an open forum for public debate and discussion. The public can communicate opinions and concerns with one another and even with the candidates and the government. In this way, the media provide an interactive experience for the voters. The audience can be participants rather than simply viewers.For example, during the 2011 presidential debates, CBS viewers were encouraged to submit questions and topics for the candidates to address. Questions could be submitted using Facebook, Twitter or email.

Media as a Public Educator

Lastly, let’s look at the media’s role as a public educator. In this role, the media inform and educate citizens on how to best exercise their democratic rights. For example, voters can go online to search for the nearest polling place.

The dates of the primary and general elections are widely published and broadcast by various media outlets.In this role, the media also:

  • Report on the development of election campaigns
  • Monitor vote counting
  • Report election results
  • Broadcast concession speeches
  • Provide up-to-date electoral vote tallies

For example, perhaps you’ve watched live coverage of an election when the network utilized an election center. In these election centers, a political journalist often uses an electoral map as a visual graphic. As states report their results, the journalist will color states red or blue depending on which political party won the state.

The journalist provides commentary on how many electoral votes are left to tally and which candidates must win which states in order to win the election.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The media play several important roles in the campaign and election processes as well as in other government activities. These roles include:

  • Informing the public, meaning the media report news and information to the general public
  • Serving as watchdog, meaning the media function to protect the public from incompetent or corrupt political officials by exposing illegal or unethical practices to the public
  • Providing a platform, meaning the media provide an outlet for political parties and candidates to communicate their messages to the public
  • Allowing a public voice, meaning the media provide an open forum for public debate and discussion
  • Functioning as a public educator, meaning the media inform and educate citizens on how to best exercise their democratic rights

Learning Outcome

When this lesson is over, you should be able to understand that the media has a variety of roles during an election and describe each of these roles, citing examples.

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