The role of media in elections: is it taken too far?

BY DARCEY PAGEContributor (And Politics Society President)

Media has often been praised within political arenas for its ability to tell the story of society by offering a link between institutions and the public. Regarded as the ‘fourth branch of government’, the press is controversial and yet invaluable during the volatile time of an election. How did we get to the stage where journalists became preachers of the political gospel and Rupert Murdoch ruled the world? 

Unlike institutions of government, the role of media is dynamic and often radical. It is able to alter our perceptions of reality- very much a real life ‘Allegory of the Cave’. They have the power to assist citizen engagement more effectively than the ballot box and change the way political leaders communicate with their people. 

The 2019 General Election has been no exception from the power of media; everyone and anyone has something to say online, ready and waiting with their phone cameras to catch the latest scandal. Mass media knows this, and has been able to pit political parties against each other through outlandish headlines and controversial comments. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I see our friends ‘the Guardian’, ‘Daily Mail’ and (forgive me) ‘the Sun’ discussing antisemitism one moment and selling off the NHS another. The role of the media in 2019 paints a very bleak view about how politics has evolved. We believe in caricatures of political leaders and parties, over sound policy and manifestos. The average voter is more likely to vote for a candidate over party ideology; few people actually know who is standing in their own constituency. The power of the media has the ability to shape our perception of what it means to hold an election: that is that parties stand on the grounds of a manifesto and are voted for accordingly. This is a far cry from the rivalry of Johnson versus Corbyn. 

It is regarded that there are two forms of mainstream media: legacy and new. The term ‘legacy’ speaks of the mass media institutions that predate the Internet, like newspapers and news channels. Before the rise of new media, politics would be seen through the prism of media attention, controlled by editorial gatekeepers. New media perpetuates a new kind of storytelling: how quickly can information spread? A key example is the recent images of a young boy lying on a pile of coats on a hospital floor: a symbol of the struggling NHS. Within hours, more people had seen photos like this than actual policy campaigns. New media has the power to do good: it is undisputed that social media has the power to spread good messages and powerful symbols of reform. However, it can be dangerous: controversial events can spread faster on the Internet than a government can control. These events are often unpredictable and saturate the discourse, leaving other ideas misinterpreted or lost. 

The strategies of mass media are pertinent to how elections are won- unless voters sift through party manifestos and draw their own conclusions, most of the mood toward candidates comes through the scope of the media. It also has the ability to influence community building (whether that’s right- or left-wing ideology) and can help people find common causes for political actions. It is often regarded that the press is used as a mouthpiece in the exchanges between the public and politicians; the reactions of both sides are voiced through journalists, editors and reporters. The concept of the publicity machine has greater implications than we realise- should this be a concern for those studying political discourse? 

Most importantly. Mass media has consequences in a post-truth society. Post-truth society is the notion that a universally claimed truth can indeed be contested. How do we know that what the media is telling us is true? The issue with media power is that it is often unchecked. This oligarchic system can be dangerous if the wrong information is released to influence a certain agenda. The lack of regulation of media is a part of society that is capable to flawed democracy. It opens up many questions about how citizens make their ‘informed’ choices about voting and participation. This issue is then strengthened by the institutionalised system that media is entrenched in. Furthermore, the post-truth society and the unchecked media also has implications for marginalised groups like ethnic minorities and women- who can be influenced for and against an agenda by media. 

This general election has made many reflect on the power the media holds over voters- particularly because of the height of social media influence we experience today. It can be so easy to be convinced of political ideology through the use of soundbites and headlines. However, it should be said that the power of media can only be truly witnessed after the election has taken place and how the vote share has been influenced by the political discourse. It is clear to see however how important it is to make independent decisions whichever way you vote and to make choices with as little influence from mass media as you can.

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