American transcendentalism is dead. Arguably, it has been for decades, but especially in today’s society, technology’s monolithic presence is seemingly inescapable. All devices, including cellphones, televisions, radios and computers, display media on a 24/7 basis. Their importance in the workplace and home has created a symbiotic relationship between us and the producers of media.
But is this relationship really symbiotic? According to a Gallup poll from September 2019 by Megan Brenan, Americans’ trust in mass media has edged down to 41%. This is a 4% decrease from the previous year. The polarization of politics has played a large part in the dwindling of trust in mass media. In addition, partisan stations like Fox News, MSNBC and others have contributed to this distrust too. But one could argue that intense political separations have existed in America forever; so, why has public faith in mass media taken such a hit in recent years?
Producers of partisan news outlets have set the agenda on what is considered newsworthy for decades, and their manipulation of journalism has resulted in a decrease in public trust, as Americans continue to learn about the tactics used by these companies. This viewpoint of critiquing what is broadcasted is called Agenda-setting theory, and it essentially states that the media doesn’t explicitly tell you what to think, but rather what to think about.
“I would say it’s hard to find unbiased reporting of any news,” said Colin Dunn, an economics and history scholar at West Virginia University. “It’s not profitable to report unbiased facts or sensationalized media, it doesn’t make economic sense for the media to do that.”
Dunn is certainly not alone in his sentiments of weariness. Jonas Hesse and Vishal Baloria of the Harvard Business Review explored the reach of partisan media in an article published in October, 2017. They found that the rise in partisan broadcasters, especially cable television networks, affected everything from public opinion to how truthfully corporations report firings and workplace reductions.
When Dunn, and others, speak of “the media”, they are mainly referring to corporations who conscientiously mass-produce partisan, entertainment-style news. While every news source has a slant or bias in some degree, arguably, the slant of companies like CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC is way more apparent, defined and intentional than local news programs. These sources also are commonly described as “mainstream media”.
But it is not just experts who accuse the media of agenda setting. In a small poll sent out via social media that collected 15 responses, every respondent stated that they believed “the media” was biased in some regard. Interestingly, all the respondents also stated that the media has power in determining the election, with 60% saying that the media has “a lot of power” in determining the winner.
With the 2020 presidential election coming up, the media is undoubtedly going to have an effect on the public discourse of issues. Think of all the current issues that are common features on cable news: socialism, drug legalization, celebrity drama. Agenda-setting theory helps shed light on reasons why these issues are showcased, as opposed to why other issues are usually not. The 2020 election will be no different, as certain issues, like immigration, will likely take precedence over more abstract issues like the handling of the national debt.
Whether the motive of “the media” is more economical (e.g. making a profit by increasing viewers), more ideological (e.g. protecting the ideas of capitalism) or both, it can be difficult to argue that mass-media producers do not have an interest in using their platform to help their business.
When it comes to the 2020 election, some instances of agenda-setting have already taken place. Look at how often Bernie Sanders is tied to socialism, or how often Donald Trump is associated with Russian interference. While these issues are important in their own regards, cable news networks are especially notorious for dramatizing the candidates and issues, making them seem more sensationalized than perhaps they deserve to be.
“Modern news is a spectacle pandering to their respective ‘tribes’,” explains Noah Heinrich, who is a West Virginia University Honors College student and an amateur historian, “it’s created a feedback loop of radical headlines creating more radical people”.
Heinrich, like many Americans, is skeptical of the mainstream media’s impartiality when it comes to covering the 2020 election. “Fox News will demonize the Democrats, pulling right-leaning conservatives out of the center. CNN will do the same for anyone leaning left,” Heinrich predicts, “I hope that as time as goes on, elections will rely less on cable news and people will see it more as a radical front than anything else”.