This essay will go on to answer the question on what is public opinion and how the media plays a role in shaping public opinion.
It will also discuss the different factors that contribute in shaping this opinion. The focus will be on how media gives birth to these opinions and how this can lead to significant changes in perception and standing. It is known that media plays a major role in shaping public opinion but what is public opinion?The process of forming public opinion begins with the basic thought process of the common people regarding an event that has surfaced in the limelight. when a large group of people have the same opinion this forms a public opinion. Charles Horton Cooley describes public opinion as ‘a process of interaction and mutual influence rather than a state of broad agreement’ as opposed to the generic description. This essay will link the different ways in which media plays a role in shaping public opinion to Cooley’s definition. The media is vital but also instrumental in shaping public opinion. More importantly it is responsible for the formation of an opinion as the media facilitates it by spreading awareness.
Technological advancement allows people to connect with each other and obtain information swiftly via the Internet. Being connected to the media allows people to become aware of a situation and hence form an opinion. This makes media an integral part of modern day life. Social media is a great platform for people to share their views and often leads to the formation of a public opinion. One category of public opinion could be formed by the majority that may have not experienced that same situation themselves.
The truth of the situation and our reactions are experienced indirectly through the images and audio-visual realism created by the broadcasters. Media leads us to rely on these sources that put forth a conceptualised illustration of the events. The ‘Cultivation Theory’ elaborates on such media influences (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1980).
This theory states that popular forms of media are influential and is “primarily responsible for our perceptions of day-to-day norms and reality” (Infante, Rancer & Womack, 1997, p. 383). Television has been one of the popular source of information for a long time.
One of the ways in which audio-visual media assists the formation of public opinion is by having a person of a large following being vocal about their thoughts and opinions on a matter at hand. This usually tends to persuade people who identify with that person to base their opinions on similar grounds. Along with television, other forms of audio-visual media such as Youtube or music through music videos also play a similar role in the shaping of public opinion. Younger viewers, who tend to be easily influenced, may support a similar cause or have a similar opinion to that of a famous youtuber.
The broader the following the easier it is to share thoughts, opinions and ideas with large groups of people. Similarly, artists tend to share their opinions with their music. For instance, the band ‘Scorpions’ share their thoughts about the fall of the Berlin wall in the song ‘winds of change’ released in the 1990’s. The theory also has its critics. Especially, people who believe, that the role the media plays in shaping public opinion is often exaggerated.
Another theory first applied to print media by Bernard Cohen is called Agenda-Setting. This is when selected issues are available to the public to form opinions on. The theory focuses more on what issues are made public and lays less emphasis on impact media has on public opinion. (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). Cohen stated “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (Cohen, 1963, p. 13). Another determinant that assists the formation of public opinion is ‘Framing’.
This occurs when the media focuses on chosen facets of an issue. Enough importance is placed on these aspects thus making them predominant. By manipulating which aspects should be more exposed, the media is able to create a rather overwhelming perception of the matter at hand. It is due to this reason that opinions usually end up being adopted by the public. For instance, street interviews are often used as a way of displaying the publics opinion by media outlets. This may not be a method with any drawbacks.
Media outlets tend to manipulate their content by editing some information out, especially, in the cases when it is not fully compliant with the perspective they are trying to put forth. This is a drawback because the media is falsely reflecting public opinion to benefit the media’s financial prospect. Therefore, only people whose perspectives coincide with that of the media outlets will be reflected through the media, making it very convenient for the outlets. This is one of the many tools that the media uses to shape public opinion. Certain aspects of print media can also be manipulated or controlled to influence public opinion. One such factor is the use of placement and headlines in newspapers.
Normally stories placed on the front page or early in the newspaper are thought to be more prominent both by the public and news agencies. The effect of headlines used in these articles are of great importance. It is popular knowledge that readers tend to scan over articles as opposed to reading each sentence. in this case it is often the headlines and a few paragraphs that are paid attention to. Such readers use minimal and usually sensationalised information to form opinions. Therefore headlines can be misinterpreted often resulting in a false message being spread.
This is due to the fact that headlines may not always accurately represent the information, instead choosing to highlight the dramatic features mentioned in the article. For the readers who ‘scan’ newspapers rather than read all of the story, such sensationalised information is likely to have a higher influence on their perspective of the news story. Additionally, the use of specific tags and titles to illustrate various elements of the story can also have an impact on the shaping of public opinion.
It is the nature of these tags and titles that depict the tone the writer has used. This can impact the readers judgement of the focal points of the story. For instance, a negative message can be provoked if terms such as terrorist, scandal or criminal are used as tags or vice versa. The portrayal of the characters and the environment in media can also influence public opinion. In television programs fro instance, more often than not characters with an outlook are used to uphold the existence of capitalists elites. Ideologies that do not match theirs are not shown and it is this restriction in ideology that gives the viewers no other choice but to back the elites. This is the reason why some concepts never surface as public dominion.
Ultimately this influence from the capitalists allows them to influence the viewers opinion while allowing them to protect their own interests e.g. profit. Media also has a strong influence on public opinion, even when it comes to politics. One particular case involves the use of photos regarding the U.
S.A’s anti-terrorism war in the middle eastern countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. In their article called ‘Remapping the Visual War on Terrorism’, Kozol and Decola (2006, p.180) suggest that the U.S.A used specific photos as reports on the war while also using them as a tool to influence the audience to side with a particular political stance.
In this case, the U.S.A used the photos as a means to advocate their moves in the war. The stated purpose of this war from the U.S.A’s perspective was to spread ‘Western democracy’ and equal rights in these nations. Photos of ‘oppressed’ citizens, especially women being vulnerable, which was managed by taking a photo of women mourning, were used to condone this reasoning and therefore justify their wartime actions.
Such photos were used to shape the viewer’s opinion about inequality in these middle eastern nations. Additionally, the U.S.A presented images of women in Afghanistan, smiling while being uncovered, to show the ‘happiness’ that the U.
S.A’s intervention was bringing to the local people of these nations. The use of uncovered women in the photos were also used as a symbol of the women no longer being under oppression due to the military actions of the U.S.A.
As an act of rebellion against the propaganda created by The USA, the Iraqi resisted and defended themselves using similar media tools used by the Americans. Their use of photos portraying Iraqi women in colourful clothing suggests they are against the American military being in their homeland rather than the speculated oppression they were facing from the Iraqi government. These photos suggest that the illustration of female oppression created by the American media is largely a ploy by the american government in order to obtain backing from the public for their actions in the Middle East.
In conclusion, both the Cultivation Theory and the Agenda-Setting Theory contribute to the understanding of the role the media plays in affecting public opinion. A conclusive understanding to the degree that the media determines public opinion of stories is not easily established. On the other hand, evaluation of the media, news and entertainment, suggests that it is often the case where a predominant power determines the creed that the media chooses to present. In television the capitalists elites influence the messages portrayed by their programs in order to protect their profit gain and their reputation. Unlike the entertainment industry, the role of the media in politics is controlled by a different power, often, governments and officials. The use of propagated media is an effective tool to influence public opinion and therefore gain increased backing for their protocol. Ultimately, research suggests that media plays an integral part in shaping public opinion, as long as it coincides with the ideologies of the dominating powers in society.