‘Agenda setting’ painting the pictures in mainstream news

Discussing the way media and politics intersect is integral to understanding American democracy. Inevitably, when exploring this issue, we arrive at this question: Does media influence politics, or do politics influence media? If you’ve taken any sort of political science class, you’ll know the answer is obviously the former. This kind of influence over conversation and culture is called “agenda-setting,” and it is literally the media’s role when it comes to politics. Especially when considering the recent one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, we should be even more critical when it comes to the media’s role in how we consume our news and interpret political ideology.

With the knowledge of the media’s massive role in our political culture, we then turn to another question: Should we be worried about the media’s influence on how we consume political news and ideology?

The answer: Of course we should. We should always be critical of how we consume media, especially when it comes to something as important as our news. Our media consumption influences more than just our knowledge of current events; it shapes the way we see and interact with the world around us. It is integral that we question what we read, hear and see, even from trusted sources. What I really want to address is how the media’s role in politics affects our perceptions of current events, history and the government.

We’ve all been told that certain news sources write with bias; for example, Fox News leans right-wing, while “The New York Times” tends to lean liberal. Unbiased news sources are extremely hard to come by, as even seemingly innocuous wording can present a biased view.

Much of the time, agenda-setting is not intentionally malicious. Sensational stories tend to grab viewer interest, which is why we see scandals, tragedies and disasters exhaustively reported on. But sensationalism is fickle; for instance, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, dominated the news cycle for months in 2018, while school shootings in 2019 receive little coverage in comparison (and there have been around 22 this year). Along with this example, certain areas of California are still being ravaged by wildfires, yet media coverage has been scarce. But it is to be expected. Media interest dies down as the novelty of a tragedy wears off, and as viewers become more and more desensitized to shock value.

So, along with intent, we must consider the consequences of mainstream media on our perception of politics. Take the Parkland shooting I referenced earlier. Without the media’s intensive coverage of the shooting, it would have been almost impossible for the resulting gun control movement to gain as much prominence and traction as it did. During the 2016 election, many criticized mainstream news for their handling of Donald Trump’s candidacy, arguing that the incessant coverage and commentary aided his ascent to the presidency. I agree with this, actually. Even though much of these media sources harshly criticized Trump, this constant media attention just gave him more exposure and credibility as a candidate. This double-edged sword of exposure leading to popularity can also be seen with the media’s coverage of contemporary white supremacist movements. Giving white supremacists a platform on national television, radio or newspapers — even if it’s not a positive platform — only serves to spread their message, attract potential supporters and give them legitimacy. Some horrific people and events can even be glorified by constant media attention, a phenomenon called the “media contagion effect.” This effect can lead to disaster, such as the surge of copycat school shootings and suicides. All of this sounds really dark and hopeless, but it can be changed.

Media controls the way we see our own democracy, which can be a scary thing to think about. But we are privileged in that we have access to many sources of media from which to obtain our news. Instead of swearing off mainstream news sources and living as a hermit in the woods, everyone should strive to get their information from different sources, check the facts and question the motivations behind a particular piece of reporting. And we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize biased and false media; in fact, that should be encouraged. This is how we keep information transparent and our democracy intact.