A democratic society relies upon a free press to provide news and information so that the people can remain informed about important issues and evaluate the actions of their elected officials. Contemporary U.S. news media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet—do more than function as simple conduits of information, however; they have it within their power to determine what is considered news, to set the public agenda for what issues are discussed and debated, and to influence public opinion in editorial pages and broadcasts.
Up until the mid-19th century, U.S. newspapers were financed and published by political parties or by individuals with partisan affiliations. They did not claim to be neutral or objective, aiming instead to persuade readers by presenting strongly opinionated views on specific issues.
The founding of the New York Sun, the New York Herald, the New-York Daily Tribune, and The New York Times in the 1830s–1850s ushered in a new era of newspapers as business enterprises independent of partisan control and financed by advertising revenues. This made more impartial news coverage possible. Horace Greeley, who founded the Tribune, used the editorial pages of the paper in an effort to pressure President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery. The so-called yellow journalism and muckraking styles of reporting in the late 19th century sought to expose abuses of power and society's ills—while at the same time increasing newspaper sales—by publishing sensational stories of crime, scandal, and corporate greed.
Around the turn of the century, in opposition to the trend toward sensationalism that made such papers as the New York Journal and the New York World popular, The New York Times set the professional standard for modern journalism by establishing a reputation for objective, unbiased, and accurate reporting.
In the 1920s, radio became a popular medium for news and entertainment. It also provided a vital link between politicians and the public.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used radio broadcasts to speak directly to people in their homes in what became known as fireside chats. His conversational style reassured the public while he talked about the policies his administration was putting into place to get people back to work and get the economy going again. Few politicians were as successful with their use of radio as Roosevelt was, and after his death radio became less and less important as a medium for political use.
That trend was reversed, however, after the Federal Communications Commission repealed the fairness doctrine in 1987. Suddenly, stations were no longer required to provide equal time to individuals and groups holding opposing views, and politically oriented talk shows began broadcasting in cities around the country. Still popular today, most talk shows feature partisan hosts discussing issues with guests and listeners who call in.
When the television set became a fixture in U.S. households in the 1950s, it marked the beginning of a new era in political campaigning. The potential to reach a mass audience with images, voices, music, and sound effects drew the attention of advertisers and political strategists alike. In 1952, television was used for the first time in a presidential race, as candidates appeared on television and ran advertisements. Television ads have their drawbacks for the political process, however. It is not possible to fully address complex topics in 60 seconds or less, and critics believe that leads to oversimplification of the important issues facing the nation.
Television's influence was further increased with the emergence of 24-hour cable news channels. The first news network to offer 24 hours of programming was CNN, which went on the air in 1980, and has since been joined by such networks as MSNBC and Fox News. With 24-hour programming came the 24-hour news cycle, which, for the first time, allowed people to access news, including political stories and breaking news, 24 hours a day.
The Internet has expanded the reach of information and the 24-hour news cycle. With the Internet, websites for newspapers, cable news channels, and other news outlets can publish news 24 hours a day and have a far wider reach than print or television. In addition, political parties, interest groups, and advocacy organizations also take advantage of the Internet's wide reach, distributing information more widely than was possible before.
In the 2000s, Americans increasingly used the Internet to gather information about political candidates and political news, communicate with others about political issues, and volunteer or contribute to political campaigns. This made the Internet an essential tool for political candidates and organizations. In addition to campaign websites containing information about candidates' backgrounds and policy positions, candidates must now have a major social media presence on such outlets as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in order to reach voters.
As the 20th century progressed, some of the nation's most respected newspapers took on an additional role: defending the public interest by publishing in-depth, investigative reports when elected officials and government agencies were suspected of illegal activity and corruption. One of the most notable examples of investigative journalism ultimately led to the downfall of a president and his administration by exposing the Watergate scandal.
In 1972, two reporters for The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, were assigned to cover what appeared at first to be a minor story about a break-in at the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate hotel complex. They slowly uncovered a conspiracy of political espionage, burglary, money laundering, and illegal wiretapping that involved officials in the highest levels of government—including the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. In the end, dozens of officials were indicted, and Nixon resigned from office. The episode confirmed—for the public and politicians alike—the power of the press to hold government accountable.
In recent years, more and more newspapers have been bought by large media companies. Finding themselves under economic pressure to make large profits in order to satisfy stockholders, some papers have had to cut back on investigative reports, since in-depth stories of that kind require substantial time and resources.
One of the greatest challenges for consumers of mass media is being aware of—and accounting for—media bias, or media coverage that is somehow impacted by the opinions of the news outlet or reporter producing it. Such bias can impact both how a story is covered and which stories get covered—or ignored.
No reporter or news outlet can be 100% objective, and so consumers of media must be aware of any possible bias in the sources they go to for news. Media that is biased, whether intentionally or not, can shape consumers' opinions. On the other hand, it is also possible for consumers to favor media outlets that share their own opinions or biases. For this reason, media experts advise consumers to seek out information from a variety of different sources in order to be as informed as possible.