Bee Staff Reports
Oakdale High School senior Elizabeth Erwin has won the 2012 American Heritage Scholarship program, sponsored by The Bee, Modesto City Schools and the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
High school juniors and seniors in Stanislaus County were invited to attend a lecture, then write an essay. Keith W. Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific, spoke about the 2012 presidential campaign.
Students were asked to write on the theme of whether the media has advanced or hindered voters' ability to make informed decisions. Erwin won $2,000 for her winning essay, "An Abundance of Information: the Effects of the Media on Today's Voters," which follows below.
Other scholarship winners in the program are: Madison Lane, senior, Oakdale High, $1,500; Chandni Mistry, senior, Oakdale High, $1,500; James Warwick, senior, Modesto Christian High, $1,000; Janki Mistry, senior, Oakdale High, $1,000; Chris Ng, senior, Oakdale High, $500; Sarah Lesan, senior, Whitmore Charter High, $500; Sara Kim, senior, Oakdale High, $500; and Delaney McNeill, junior, Whitmore Charter High, $500.
Cash awards of $100 were given to: Emma Andreini, Haley Benson, Martin Coleman, Jonna Pagaduan, Joshua Tanis and Melissa Van Dyke, all of Oakdale High; Katie Butrica of Central Valley High; Ethan Cuthbertson of Modesto Christian High; Jocelyn Ann Rodrigues of Turlock High; and Marivel Torres of Johansen High.
An Abundance of Information: the Effects of the Media on Today's Voters
In many ways, presidential elections provide fertile ground for the analysis of political processes as a whole. Incumbent to these political processes is the information put forth by various media outlets and, more importantly, the way in which those outlets shape the decisions of voters. Today, the sheer volume of this information has reconfigured the public sphere, leading the news to become a more significant and more pervasive part of people's lives. Exposure to information regarding the 2012 presidential election is so saturated that to not possess knowledge on the matter would be an act of what Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Keith W. Smith calls "willful inattentiveness" (Smith 12). It is therefore the responsibility of the media in all its ubiquity to espouse bipartisan, relevant information that will enable voters to reach rational, informed decisions. In the context of this year's presidential race, this sense of purpose is markedly absent from the mainstream media. The problem is not that voters are receiving too little information; rather, it is that they are receiving it in excess. This excess is characterized by a multitude of conflicting opinions, instilling both the public and the media as a whole with an acute sense of subjectivity. It is this subjectivity that effectively inhibits voters' ability to make an informed decision in the upcoming presidential election.
The question may then arise concerning the presence of systematic bias in the media. This illuminates an important aspect about the nature of the media: that it is perceived as a monolithic block (Allen and D'Alessio 2000). In reality, the media is comprised of a wide range of sources propounding an equally wide range of beliefs. It is from the impact of these disparate sources their combined ability to influence voters and thus affect elections that the idea of the media as a collective unit is born. "The media" is therefore a term that may be applied to a vast array of mediums. Given the current availability of these mediums in both digital and traditional forms, the consumption of information plays a substantial role on voters' lives. According to Pew Research center, 71 percent of Americans watch television news, read a print newspaper or listen to radio news daily. In addition to these rates of consumption, nearly 15 million Americans receive information through word of mouth ("Trends in_News Consumption" 2012). Furthermore, 88 percent of registered voters own a cell phone or other mobile device of some kind. Of these voters, 27 percent have used their phone in this election campaign to keep up with news related to the election itself or to political issues in general ("The State of the 2012 Election" 2012). In a normative model, the goal of these various informational sources is to offer the public objective reports on current events. Many of these sources, however, exhibit systematic variations in coverage, leading to a prevalent sense of bias throughout the media as a whole. As with the scope of the media, this bias is far from one-dimensional.
One approach toward bias in the media deals specifically with the issue of gatekeeping: that writers and editors select from a body of potential stories those that will be presented to the public. (Allen and D'Alessio 2000). In the case of presidential campaigns, media outlets are expected to cover topics that will facilitate voters' ability to decide amongst candidates. Recently, the emphasis on political strategies rather than issues is one of the primary failings of campaign coverage. Such is the case in the media's presentation of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. From November 2011 to April 2012, the coverage devoted to the strategic elements (horse race, tactics, strategy, money and advertising) of the GOP primaries outnumbered the combined attention to all foreign and domestic policy issues by about 6:1 ("How the Media Covered the 2012 Primary" 2012). The power of the press lies not just in its ability to convey useful information, but its choice to distribute this information in full. The notable absence of relevant information in the coverage of Romney's campaign therefore exemplifies the idea of gatekeeping bias, a phenomenon that is innately harmful to the formation of the well-informed voter.
Furthering the presence of media bias regarding the presidential election is the idea of statement bias, that is, when members of the media interject their own opinions into the text of the coverage of an issue (Allen and D'Alessio 2000). Journalism as a whole has been proved to be populated by individuals who identify themselves as being politically more liberal than average. In a 1985 poll done by The Los Angeles Times, newspaper staffs were found to be twice as liberal as their readers (Prather 1988). Given the magnitude of the media today, these personal biases are an inescapable component of political processes. In the 2012 election, statement bias has played a significant role in shaping the coverage of incumbent candidate Barack Obama. Negative assessments of Obama have outweighed those that are positive in nature by a ratio of almost 4:1 ("The Media Primary" 2011). News coverage that is decidedly ideological in nature proposes a genuine hazard to the democratic system as a whole. The effects of this may be witnessed in the candidates' approval ratings subsequent to October 3rd's Presidential Debate. Amongst individuals who viewed post-debate analysis, Romney's approval rating reached 50 percent, while Obama's personal favorability rating fell from 55 percent to 49 percent ("Romney's Strong Debate" 2012). Insight into political analysis throughout the mainstream media yielded similar results: "Romney Takes Fight to Obama," read the headline of the Washington Post lead story, while the The Denver Post declared "Round 1: Romney." ("Social Media Debate" 2012) Here, bias takes the form of a simple, declarative sentence, which possesses the ability to strongly influence individual voters. In trials involving news material that was deliberately biased, participants reported altered voting preferences that existed in conjunction with the direction of the bias they encountered (Hoffman & Wallach 2007). The presence of bias in any form thus furthers the inhibiting nature of the press, as the direction of this bias may significantly alter the outcome of a presidential election.
Such was the case in the election of 1968, when the man who suffered defeat eight years before gained the favor of the news sources he so adamantly criticized. The media's unexpected backing of Republican candidate Richard Nixon existed largely because of his "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. The media at the time was dominated by reporters who strongly opposed the war, resulting in coverage that was decidedly biased in the direction of those who promised to put an end to American involvement, This was a difficult stand to take for Democratic nominee and incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who felt bound to the policies of President Lyndon Johnson due to his role in gaining Humphrey the candidacy. Although Humphrey's support of the war made up only a small fraction of his platform, the media's heavy focus on this support doomed the Democratic candidate and his chance to effectively convey his message to the people (Gould 1993). This unfavorable coverage may have played a significant role in the outcome of the election, which ended in Humphrey's overwhelming defeat. With this election, there came a sense that the press existed to meet the interests of politicians rather than the needs of the public. Rather than supplying voters with relevant, objective information, the majority of media outlets exhibited an irrefutable sense of favoritism. It is this subjectivity that lends itself to one of the most indelible hindrances to the formation of rational voters: personal bias.
It is in regards to the development of this personal bias that the unmitigated vastness of the media proves to be most harmful. Given the immensity and availability of news sources today, the world of politics exists in the eyes of the voter his or her conception of it. Accordingly, individuals are able to make the scope of this world as varied or as narrow as they choose. In a, lecture given on October 9th, 2012, Dr. Keith W. Smith imparted the idea that the general availability of media and news makes it easy for one to close off his or her own space, leading individuals to receive information where they'll be told they're right. This tendency to search for information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions exemplifies the idea of confirmation bias. This form of partisanship is most readily apparent in individuals known as early socialization voters. Early socialization causes voters to passively gather information that contributes to a biased perception of the media based upon dispositions formed at an early age (Lau and Redlawsk 2006). This approach to the voting process may be easily cultivated given the accessibility of today's media, causing many voters to lack the informedness necessary to participate in the election of the nation's leader.
It is this personal bias in conjunction with other forms of partisanship that strongly influences the public's perception of the media as a whole. This perception, although widely acknowledged, is characterized by a strong sense of disparity regarding the direction of the bias. The believability ratings of individual news organizations similar to the general state of the media are largely divided along partisan lines. Republicans rate the believability of nine in thirteen news organizations less positively than do Democrats, with Fox News being the only news organization that is rated higher by Republicans (67 percent of Republicans vs. 37 percent of Democrats) in regard to believability ("Further Decline in Credibility" 2012). This angle was expressed by Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who stated in a recent Fox Arms Sunday interview that "it goes without saying that there's definitely media bias" (Shapiro 2012). By contrast, Democrats generally rate the believability of news organizations positively; majorities of Democrats give all news organizations tested ratings of 3 or 4 on the 4-point scale, with the exception of Fox News ("Further Decline in Credibility" 2012). These dissonant opinions illuminate a clear deviation from the normative purpose of the media. In essence, the division along partisan lines concerning the believability of the news exists because the news itself is partisan. This partisanship permeates the press, and, by extension, the people with abounding frequency. It is this frequency home to a milieu of conflicting voices and beliefs that most aptly embodies the negative effects of the mainstream media.
The constant flow of information put forth by the media is a critical aspect of a functioning representative democracy. Given the abundance and and subjective nature of information available in the 2012 election, the question may arise: what body should exert the most influence over the upcoming presidential election? The answer, it would seem, is the voters themselves, For individuals in today's society, it is important to act as a filter, not a sponge. Only then can voters overcome the biases inherently present within both the media and themselves. The development of a personal belief system is an integral part of life both in and outside of the context of politics. So long as this system of beliefs is based upon rational values, the nation may rest assured that voters will reach the best possible decision regarding the 2012 presidential election.