Policymaking is a political process which is affected by various social and economic factors and the media plays an integral role in shaping the social context in which policies are developed. Through the media, citizens learn how government policies will affect them, and governments gain feedback on their policies and programs. The media acts as the primary conduit between those who want to influence policy and policymakers controlling the scope of political discourse and regulating the flow of information. Policymaking follows an orderly sequence where problems are identified, solutions devised, policies adopted, implemented and lastly evaluated. In reality, the policy process is more fluid, where policies are formed through the struggle of ideas of various advocacy coalitions. The policies, on which the media focuses can, and often does, play an important role in determining the focal issues for policymakers.

One of the fundamental roles of the media in a liberal democracy is to critically scrutinise governmental affairs: that is to act as the ‘Forth Estate’ of government to ensure that the government can be held accountable by the public. However, the systematic deregulation of media systems worldwide is diminishing the ability of citizens to meaningfully participate in policymaking process governing the media . The ensuing relaxation of ownership rules and control, has resulted in a move away from diversity of production to a situation where media ownership is becoming increasing concentrated by just a few predominantly western global conglomerates.  Obvious problems arise for democratic processes, when huge media conglomerates also fulfil the role of powerful political actors; their close links with the corporate economy are widely considered to limit their ability to investigate the government and represent all points of view. The media are active participants in the policymaking process and the ability to stimulate change or maintain the status quo depends on their choice of subject or policy issue and how they frame it. Active (investigative) reporting attempts to shape policy outcomes, but this does not necessarily mean that it always represents the most successful approach for gaining policy changes . In fact, sometimes passive (straight) reporting can have a greater influence on policy choices. When this occurs, media independence is largely bypassed, as the news generated depends solely on the information released (as public relations material) from legitimate news sources. The media may also influence policy outcomes through their ability to exclude certain policy options from the media, which sets the boundaries for legitimate public debate . Such analyses have led some researchers to posit that the media has a powerful monolithic influence on all policy processes, while others suggest it plays an insignificant role in policy making processes; a more likely scenario is that its degree of influence varies considerably, being issue based in nature .

Media selection of legitimate policy actors

The media acts as a powerful political actor, with its interests strongly tied to the status quo and that of other corporate policy actors, instead of the general public.  Journalists and editors shape policy agendas by actively filtering issues, so that reporting conforms to their dominant news values - selecting what issues are covered and which sources are used . This tends to confine policy debate to the strict boundaries of current accepted wisdoms set by the major political parties or institutional policymakers. The conservative nature of these perceptual screens is strengthened by the media’s need for concision, which is especially dominant on television, with its appetite for sound bite politics. Creation of credible policy frameworks influence journalists in much the same way, leading them to rely on institutional actors (encountered on daily beats) who support their perceptions of a successful policy framework.

Development of such close relationships with sources is very important to the policy process, and often results in what is described as “coalition journalism” .  Support for policies is also reinforced by, (1) credentialing supportive sources and disregarding opposing sources, (2) using labels to shorthand information about policies by placing them within frameworks (with their associated assumptions), and (3) by the way sources are then in a sense forced, to reflect these perceptions accepting the commonsense interpretation of these policy frameworks to protect their own reputations in the mass media .

Outsider groups find it difficult to voice opinions in the media and even when they do, official sources are contacted to balance these stories to ensure objectivity. These, often resource-poor groups, are compelled to use the media as a means of gaining recognition as trusted policy actors. However, due to the media’s reliance on established sources they may need to resort to different methods to capture media attention - which may cause distractions to their legitimacy, as the news may focus on a group’s event and not its politics. Media stereotypes of policies, individuals or groups can influence their respective abilities to determine policy outcomes. Furthermore, even if certain policies turn out to be successful, they may still be subjected to unnecessary reform, if their legitimacy has already been undermined in the media by the creation of negative stereotypes. Furthermore, is often difficult for citizen campaigners to reframe official policy frames once they have been adopted by the media.

Even if the media can set the actual policy agenda in some circumstances, this does not necessarily mean that they influence policy. Political rhetoric may appear to signal media impact, but if it does little more than pay lip service to media coverage, effecting only minor policy outcomes, then to what degree has the media really affected the policymaking process?

Media coverage actually has limited consequences for actual policy decisions even when policy agenda and political discussions are affected by the media . The media is important for understanding the political agenda and the framing of decisions about special or sensational issues, but normal politics and the broader policy priorities or governmental issues are largely unaffected.  Media influence is strongest with sensational issues, and weakest in governmental issues, which are predominantly policy-driven. Likewise, when a policy issue is nonrecurring in terms of media coverage (a sensational issue), media power to influence public opinion (but not necessarily policy outcomes) is greater than with recurring policy coverage (which are more synonymous with governmental issues).

In the past it was believed that the media’s influence on policy occurred in a straightforward fashion, with journalists clearly separated from the governing processes. Media investigations (initiated by popular public sentiment) prompt widespread changes in public opinion, citizens then organise and collectively pressure the government, which capitulates to popular pressure and makes the appropriate public policy reforms. This simple linear model has recently been described as the ‘Mobilisation Model’ - while in the past it has been referred to as a ‘Popular Mobilisation’ or ‘Public Advocacy’ . This model assumes a strong democratic role for citizens in policymaking processes, a role which has been disputed by a number of political scientists who suggest that special interest groups and other political elites dominate the policymaking processes, not the public.  Policymaking changes often occur regardless of the public’s reaction” to active (investigative) reporting. Prepublication collaboration between the two groups (journalists and policymakers) may be the real driver of policy agendas, not public opinion. Prior knowledge of upcoming media attention often enabled policymakers to exploit negative media attention as policy opportunities. In this way, policymakers are able to manage their media coverage to maximise positive publicity for their policies.

This symbiotic relationship, entailing active collaboration between journalists and policymakers to determine policymaking agendas has been described as “coalition journalism” and would seem to stand in total opposition to the commonly perceived adversarial nature of investigative journalism. The media has become a vital force for legitimizing governmental institutions and free enterprise . Both parties gain by participating in coalition journalism; journalists obtain credentialed information and recognition by providing an important legitimate story, while policymakers obtain publicity for their policy agendas. Perhaps the only loser is the public, who ends up losing challenging adversarial forms of journalism.

The amount of time being spent by muckraking journalists on investigative reporting is not declining. However, there is a trend towards shorter investigations which, taken together with cuts in funding for longer term investigative reporting, is placing increasing pressure on journalists to replace adversarial journalism with coalition journalism. Investigative journalism is becoming less visible in the public sphere, as its work becomes more widely dispersed, conventional and less adversarial - staying closer to the borders of the dominant policy discourses . A further outcome of these changes is that as shorter investigative pieces are cheaper to produce, media outlets have less incentive to actively pursue policy stories for the duration of policy processes. Dominant news values, such as timeliness further strengthen such practises by working to constantly change those issues on the public agenda, preventing any form of sustained media attention to most issues .

Media corporations may set policy agendas, but as the duration of policy attention cycles continues to decrease, influence of policy outcomes will be increasingly left out of reach of the public, and safely in the hands of established policymakers. So as coalition journalism becomes more institutionalised, the general public is being pushed further towards the margins of the policymaking processes, left ever more prone to manipulation from both the media and policymakers.  It is easy for the media to mislead viewers regarding the success or failure of say environmental policies: creating unwarranted pressure for policymakers, who may feel the need to alter effective policies to safeguard their public standing, or preventing other policymakers from seeking solutions to ineffective policies. These media effects on politicians are amplified if timed to occur just prior to elections, especially if the politician(s) in question does not have clear public support.

For much of the time outside electoral campaigns, the role of the media in policymaking is more connected to the manufacturing of elite rather than mass forms of consent. The primary target of media coverage is an elite audience, who can directly influence policy, and the secondary target is public opinion. Manufacturing of elite consent also seems to be the main purpose of coalition journalism which primarily serves policymakers and media interests, before the public. Media corporations, acting as powerful corporate bodies, engage with credentialed policymakers to set both policy agendas and the legitimate terms of discussion. If there is sufficient disagreement, as to the terms of the debate among major political parties, then a fierce public debate can ensue under such limited conditions (confined that is within conventional truths). However, where official opposition voices are united, it is unlikely that the media will challenge them, and policy issues will be strongly framed to support official policy positions.


Founded on the principles of freedom of speech and private ownership, the media has been widely regarded as the ‘Forth Estate’ of government holding the Executive, Legislative and  Judiciary accountable within the democratic process. But what happens if the media predominantly serves to manufacture consent rather than deliberation?





Add new comment