From lawmaker tweets during the State of the Union address to reality television programs featuring political heavyweights, media continues to influence how Americans react and respond to the government in ways the signers of the Constitution never imagined. Citizens, lawmakers and other government officials who have strong media literacy skills have an advantage in shaping and implementing successful political initiatives.
One of the strongest media effects on citizens and lawmakers is agenda setting, which is a theory that links the amount and type of news coverage of a particular topic to perceptions of the issue's importance. Put another way, media does not tell individuals what to think, but rather what to think about, according to researchers and professors Maxwell Combs of the University of Texas and Donald Shaw of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Agenda setting shapes public opinion, and legislators, if they want to be re-elected, must be responsive to the opinions of their constituents; citizens and lawmakers are more likely to clamor for political action on those issues that the media covers the most.
Framing is how the media shapes a news story with the inclusion or exclusion of information or emphasis on certain points or people. Media framing influences the type of response from lawmakers and citizens. For example, citizen perceptions of how the government reacted to the financial crisis of 2008 depend on whether those actions were considered a "bail out" or a "rescue plan." Those perceptions greatly impact an issue's chances of receiving government action as well as a lawmaker's re-election prospects.
While the media's escape function is more associated with movies and television than politics, entertainment's role in shaping political perceptions and actions is increasing. For example, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" has been shown to increase political awareness in individuals who rate themselves as unlikely to participate in the political process, according to Xiaoxia Cao, an author and researcher from the Annenberg School for Communication. Lawmakers and government officials are taking advantage of entertainment sources, like Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," to reach constituents and raise money. Democrats who appeared on "The Colbert Report" were able to increase fund raising by 44 percent after their appearance, according to MSNBC.com.
Connection and Access
One of the most exciting, yet not quite fully harnessed, media influences on the government is social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites increase both speech and access to information, which impacts how citizens respond to government and how political officials approach their jobs. For example, the day before his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama took questions from citizens via YouTube. Lawmakers and citizens who use social media to educate or advocate can bypass traditional media gatekeeping, which increases the amount of voices and perspectives in any political debate.