Media theories

What is the impact of the media on elections?



Any question like this or one which asks you to assess the role of the media requires that you to answer a broader question:

· Why do we vote the way we do?

What do you know about the way voting behavior has changed?

Class alignment and dealignment. Any look at voting in Britain will have to acknowledge the alignment between voting and class. The simplest classification of class when compared with voting, show two things. One, that the is a long-term historic alignment between class and voting and two, that this is still a feature of voting behavior in Britain but less so. The weakening of the alignment between class and votng, is called ‘class dealignment’. In 2017 the alignment between class and voting was the least aligned for 50 years.

Partisan dealignment. The second change which has taken place in Britain during the 20th Century is the progressive decline in the number of voters who feel a strong attachment to on of the major parties.

What’s this got to do with the media?

Over the long term the media may have been at least partly responsible for theses changes. It can be argued that the press and television, particularly since the 1960s, has encouraged a more critical analysis of parties and governments Beginning in the 1960s there has been a decline in deference (the polite respect and reverence) shown towards politicians. From That Was the Week that Was to spitting Image in the 1980s to Have I Got News for You. Politics is treated with satire. Politicians can expect tough cross examinations by interviewers and even rather cruel person observations. (Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich!) Scandals from Profumo to MPs expenses have also contributed to a decline in the esteem the public hold politicians.

You might acknowledge that there may be a range of other reasons for party and class de-alignment, including:

The changing nature of the UK economy as we deindustrialized and became a service-based economy. The decline of union membership and the decline of traditional heavy industries also led to a decline in the appeal of the politics of solidarity (class identity). This certainly undermined traditional Labour loyalty, however the grow of the public section created a middle class which saw it best interests in support for Labour.

The perceived failure of the radical left during the 20th Century to offer an attractive and economically successful alternative to free market capitalism (see Francis Fukuyama and ‘The End of History’)

The convergence of the two main parties around a post war consensus in the 1950s or the adoption of some aspects of Thatcherism by New Labour in the 1990s seemed to leave the electorate with little real choice.

The greater education level of the electorate and greater access to information has led to greater cynicism with traditional party politics.

More issues which people care about cut across traditional party ideologies- gender politics, the environment, Brexit. The rise of ‘populism’ may be an expression of the

Over the short term, particularly during campaign it could be that the media is more significant if people are less bonded to parties by strong ties of class and personal identification. It may be that class and artisan dealignment really does mean ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Does the unexpected defeat of Neil Kinnock’s Labour party in 1992 or the unexpected swing to Labour in 2017 show that the electorate are much more volatile (changeable)?

It is worth remembering that even when class alignment was much stronger there were unaligned voters. If this were not true, then Labour would have won almost every election since the working class outnumbered the middle class. There have always been instrumental voters whose vote was motivated by their own best interests. Traditionally governments announced generous budgets as elections approached. These are contrasted with expressive voters who are motived to vote for the party whose policies they think are in the best interest of the community or even the world, such as policies on the environment or crime. It is of course very difficult to disentangle instrumental and expressive motives and most voters are likely to see their own self-interest and the interest of the wider community, as the same thing.

There have also always been rational choice voters who act like ‘savvy consumers’. They weigh up the policies which most appeal to them.

Just as the middle class has always contained the left wing- liberal intellectuals who are attracted by socialism, the working class has always contained the ‘deferential working class’ who are attracted to conservatism and its identification with the monarchy, patriotism and Britishness. (The character Alf Garnett in the 1970s sitcom Till Death Do Part)

What other long-term factors influence voting?

Generally, four are identified as significant: age, gender, ethnicity and region. There’s a clear correlation between age, region, ethnicity and voting, but only a slight difference in gender voting preferences.

How does this help answer questions about the impact of the media?

Well, because ethnicity, region and age are longer term factors it means it provides an argument that the media is less significant in changing people’s voting behaviour. If older people are more likely to vote conservative it is unlikely that this will change in response to media stories, campaigns or publicity.

How do media theories and models help to understand the impact of the media?


How do media theories and models help to understand the impact of the media?


Three theoretical models are useful

Effects model- This emphasizes the effect the media has on the audience. It explores the way attitudes and views might be changed by propaganda or bias in the media. The most famous is the hypodermic effects model – which sees the audience as passive recipients who have messages ‘injected’ into them by the media- influence by behaviorism (Pavlov’s dog) and studies such as the Bobo doll experiment. It suggests that the media can be hugely powerful and places particular emphasis on opinion leaders such a editors and journalists. The Sun’s claim that it was ‘The Sum Wot won it’ 1992- is making a strong claim for the hypodermic power of the Sun newspaper. The Two-step flow model is another effects model which unlike the hypodermic syringe model above this model takes the view audience is not directly influenced by the mass media but is influence by opinion leaders- people of high status.

Uses and Gratifications Model: this emphasizes how audiences use the media. For example for entertainment, consumer information (Denis Mcquail 1987) and not necessarily as a source of political guidance. Half of Sun readers when polled claim not to know its party support. In Scotland the Scottish version of the Sun supported Labour when the English Sun supported the Conservatives- this suggests newspapers follow their readers views rather than make them.

Reception Model: This suggests that audiences are active rather than passive suggested by effects models. It suggests audiences can respond by ‘reading’ texts differently. Different social classes and ethnic groups draw different conclusions from the same text. Sociologist Stuart Hall identifies three different audience receptions: Dominant (hegemonic or preferred reading) in which the reader accepts the message encoded by the sender; negotiated where the reader accepts some and rejects other parts of the message and oppositional (counter hegemonic) where the reader rejects all the message. Reception theory suggests texts are polysemic- (John Fiske) and contain multiple messages which may be quite contradictory- Think of American Dad on the Fox Channel!

There are four models which try to examine how the media influences politics

The pluralist model : Rather like the pluralist view of pressure groups it see the media as a market place for competing ideas. The role of the media is to debate issues and educate the electorate. This model is optimistic and see the media a neutral, not because individual news sources are unbiased but because in a free society all view points can be heard and so non-are dominant.

The dominant-ideology model: This take the view that there is a clear bias in favour of the powerful elites- particularly those who own and control the most powerful parts of the company. They point to the powerful media groups such as News Corporation- they promote a dominant (hegemonic) ideology. This is associated with a leftist view of the media. Cultural effects theory is used to explain how this works– this approach argues media influence on its audience isn’t immediate but occurs over a long steady build up over a significant period of time. This process is sometimes known as the drip, drip, drip effect and is popular with neo-Marxists in explaining how hegemony is achieved.

The elite-values model; This sees a professional elite of journalists and editors who promote values of left wing-liberalism. Conservative critics of the BBC regularly see a bias of this kind.

Both the dominant ideology model and elites model see the media as a powerful influence on opinion. You might note Trump’s complaints about an unfair press and fake news which he blames on the liberal elite.

The market model. Rather like the Uses and Gratifications model this view see the media as primarily giving people what they want. People read newspapers which reflect their views and newspapers give their readers the news they expect and want. So the market model plays down the importance of the media in leading opinion.

What is the impact of the new media?


What is the impact of the new media?


The internet, social media and the decline of traditional newspapers has led to much discussion about the impact of new media. by 2010 was the rise of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. By 2015 these platforms had been joined by Snapchat and Instagram, and this was the first general election in which social media played a major role. The parties were certainly aware of the potential of the new media. For example, the Conservatives reportedly spent £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising.

These developments have helped parties to reach the young. A survey on the eve of the 2015 election indicated that 79 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds relied almost totally on online sources to inform themselves, while 59 percent depended on social media to discover others' opinions on politics. In 2017 Labour was seen as much more effective in its use of social media.

Labour won the Social Media Election 2017

In 2017 social media seemed to work well for Labour as a means of motivating their supporters to vote rather than winning over conservatives. Critics of social media see it as an echo chamber which echoes the views of the user. This may be contributing to the polarisation of politics as voters only hear views which reinforce the views they already hold. This may explain why supporters are so enthusiastic about Labour’s more radical agenda and it may also contribute to the greatest ever difference in voting between the young and old in 2017.

salience’ and ‘valance’.

salience’ and ‘valance’.


Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo

Salience is the theory that certain policy areas are more important to voters than others. This may change over time but is more consistent than the electorate’s response to personalities of slogans. See The Overton Window

Opinion polling shows that the most salient issues in most elections are:

· The economy

· Law and order

· Health and the NHS

· Education

The Conservatives have tended to be seen as most successful on the economy and law and order, while Labour tend to lead on Health and Education. Blair’s famous new Labour slogan ‘tough on crime and tough on the cause of crime’ was a successful challenge to the traditional Tory advantage in law and order.

This may also help to explain why the two main parties dominate elections since minor parties, particularly the Liberals are less clearly identified with any of these issues. In recent elections immigration and the environment have become more salient.

Valance is the image of the party and how well they are liked and trusted. Theresa May identified the Conservative’s valence problem after 1997 when she described them has becoming seen as ‘the nasty party’.

Valance and salience can combine to refer to how well or badly the parties are in tune with mood of the times (the Zeitgeist) For example Donald Trump was appealing to an anti-establishment mood and desire for change. Watershed elections such as 1945, 1979 and 1997 can be seen as occasions when the winning party appealed to a new mood.

How does salience and valence help to explain the impact of the media?

Both theories tend to marginalise the media’s short-term impact since a loss of trust or a party’s historical advantage in a policy area may not be easy to change. These theories will also tend to suggest that election campaigns are less significant.

However over the long term the media may have a greater influence on salience and valence- see Cultural effects theory above –The drip, drip, drip effect may explain how certain policy areas become salient- You might think of the Daily Mail and their fears of immigration.

Another factor to consider is the image of the party leaders. Historically this was less important and the example of the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945 when Winston Churchill was by far the most popular leader is used as evidence. However, the ‘presidentialism thesis (Michael Foley) and the increasing significance of the media are used to suggest the leader’s image is now a more significant factor.

Michael Foley suggested that Prime Ministers have become more like presidents and he used the change in media coverage particularly the increasing dominance of leaders during campaigns as evidence. The leadership TV debates seem to support this.

Twenty-four-hour news and social media have seen a shift to personality politics and a concentration on the likeability, family life and personality of the leaders. In 2017 the One Show appearance of Jeremy Corbyn was seen to boost his likeability. The press characterised Theresa May as the ‘Maybot’ in response to her repletion of the slogan ‘strong and stable’ and her awkward personality.