Power Player: The Influence of Media

​​Lesson 7

Students will explore how the media can influence the election process.


Two 55-minute class periods


Learn about and analyze how the media can influence the election process.

Oregon Standards

HS.30: Analyze the roles and activities of political parties, interest groups and mass media and how they affect the beliefs and behaviors of local, state, and national constituencies.
HS.57: Define, research, and explain an event, issue, problem, or phenomenon and its significance to society.
HS.59: Demonstrate the skills and dispositions needed to be a critical consumer of information.
HS.63: Engage in informed and respectful deliberation and discussion of issues, events, and ideas.

Oregon Common Core State Standards

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies
4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

NCSS Standards

Theme V:  Individuals, Groups and Institutions; X: Civic Ideals and Practices


  1. Teacher background handout Lesson 7
  2. Student Handout: Hurricane Katrina photos
  3. Teacher background handout: Media as the "Fourth Estate"
  4. The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2008 - http://www.livingroomcandidate.org
  5. Newseum: http://w​ww.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/
  6. Links for political cartoons/images:
    1. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff02.htm
    2. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff05.htm
    3. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff22.htm
    4. http://www.cagle.com/politicalcartoons/
  7. The Living Room Candidate Admaker: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/admaker 


  1. Teacher provides background on the media’s role as the "Fourth estate." See information in Media as Fourth Estate handout. Discuss the Watergate scandal with students to provide an example of the media in the role of the Fourth Estate. For background:
    1. The Watergate Story 
    2. History Channel video Watergate Brings Down Nixon​ 
  2. Class Discussion: Show images of Hurricane Katrina (refer to Hurricane Katrina photos document) and view current articles at Newseum. Teacher should facilitate a discussion of how keywords/images are used to influence/manipulate how situation may be viewed.
  3. Political cartoons as Manipulation Techniques.
    1. The first three have to do with Women’s Suffrage in Oregon. Do not let students see the write-up about the political cartoon under the image until they complete the questions.
      1. For each image have them answer the following questions:
        1. What is the statement the author of this image is trying to make?
        2. How convincing is the statement? Why?
        3. What group(s) would support this image?
      2. Show the following images:
        1. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff02.htm
        2. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff05.htm
        3. http://bluebook.state.or.us/facts/scenic/suffrage/suff22.htm
        4. For additional political cartoons, or alternatives, go to http://www.cagle.com/politicalcartoons/
  4. (Optional) Group Project: Using the Living Room Candidate Admaker ​website and gain an understanding of political advertising by creating a presidential campaign commercial using historical video footage and images.

Extension Activities

Have students gather 5-10 articles from different periodicals that discuss a political issue. Have them paste the articles on a sheet of paper. Under each article students should identify the central issue and indicate whether there is a conservative or liberal slant to the article and explain the rationale for choosing that slant. Students should then trade papers to agree or disagree with each other’s opinions. Have student pairs discuss the reasons for any differences in opinion. Culminate with a classroom discussion on how each article’s slant may have influenced the readers’ view of that issue.

Teacher Background Handout

Media As Fourth Estate Example

The Watergate Story (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/#chapters) provides an in-depth look at the Watergate scandal by giving a detailed look at how the media was able to expose corruption in the Nixon White House.

Watergate Brings Down Nixon (http://www.history.com/topics/watergate/videos#watergate-scandal-brings-down-richar-nixon), a 2 ½ minute video clip discussing who Washington Post reporters were able to expose corruption in the White House. 

Optional Group Project

The Living Room Candidate website provides for viewing more than 300 commercials from every presidential election since 1952.

Teacher Background Handout: The Media As "Fourth Estate"

Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or "Fourth Estate"). That is because it monitors the political process in order to ensure that political players don't abuse the democratic process.

Others call the media the fourth branch of government because it plays such an important role in the fortunes of political candidates and issues. This is where the role of the media can become controversial. News reporting is supposed to be objective. However, journalists are people, with feelings, opinions and preconceived ideas.

How the Media Helps Shape Public Opinion

A clever choice of words can make things seem different than they are. For instance, during the Vietnam War, the Defense Department of the United States used many misleading phrases in news reports. Instead of "forced transfer of civilians," they said "relocation." Instead of "lies," they said "elements in the credibility gap." By using carefully chosen phrases, the Defense Department made their war efforts seem less harmful to the people in the United States. Another example is the use of "opportunity scholarships" rather than  "vouchers" and "tax relief" rather than "tax cuts."

One more example. If we didn't know better, we would think that the dogs have gone crazy and started attacking humans in unprecedented numbers (as in Hitchcock's The Birds), when in fact dog attacks on people are down. It is simply that the Diane Wipple story has drawn public attention (and media focus) to the dog-bites-man story.

Media's Influence on Politics

The influence of the mass media impacts politics in the United States greatly. The public's point of view can be changed by the way the news is reported. When the public's views are affected, the voting polls often are too. In turn, when votes are changed, different public officials are elected. The government officials are the men and women who make the laws and generally run the country. The mass media is at the beginning of a long chain, but nonetheless, the media has a powerful effect on politics in the United States.

The role of the media during the election cycle and beyond...

  • Primary season: Importance of doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire...goal is not necessarily to win, but to win over expectations (Clinton in '92). Candidates who exceed expectations win. Those who fall short lose.
  • Horserace coverage: Typical of media coverage of elections. Not coverage of issues, but report of who's ahead, statistics, and percentages of public opinion.
  • Sound bytes: We often are accustomed to issues and campaigns being summed up in seconds. No time for content in a 10-second sound byte.
  • "Line of the Day" begun by Reagan White House. Pre-empted the press. Executive branch attempts to set the agenda before the media can decide what to cover.
  • Importance of a good White House Press Secretary: The creation of this position represents the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the people and the press. Theodore Lowi describes the Press Secretary as "the apex of a huge public relations apparatus in the executive branch which devotes an extraordinary amount of staff, resources, and time to generating a positive image of the president." Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry: important to build good relationship with White House Press Corps. Tough job: must balance loyalty to president and appearance of being "on board" with maintaining trust and respect of press (so that they will cover you favorably).

Consequences of "media politics"...

  • Decline in party influence: Foremost among the changes brought on by the new media politics is the declining influence of political parties, particularly in presidential elections. During the 40s, when social scientists first investigated the impact of media on the outcome of presidential elections, party allegiance was the most important determinant of the vote. Today, the candidate as a personality is the primary determinant, and party affiliation comes in close to last. When voters base their decisions on a candidate's personality, character, or stand on the issues, the media becomes a very significant player because they are the chief source of information about these matters. As image becomes more important, the role of parties naturally declines. When voters can see and hear candidates in their own living rooms, they can make choices that differ from those made by the party. The role of party as campaigner for the candidate has become almost obsolete. More candidates enter the races and campaign on their own strengths, raising their own money and building their own organizations.
  • Increase in power of media in elections and campaigns (media as "king makers"): More than ever, media personnel can influence the selection of candidates and issues during election time. The selection process begins in the primaries when news people, on the basis of as yet slender evidence, must predict winners and losers in order to narrow the field of eligible candidates. Concentrating on the front runners in public opinion polls makes the media's task more manageable, but it often forces trailing candidates out of races prematurely. Example of little known Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter. NBC called Carter "the man to beat." Afterwards, he appeared on the covers of Newsweek and Time. Conversely, the media has been known to destroy candidacies: Joe Biden and Gary Hart in 1988.
  • Marketing imperative: The type of candidates who emerge has also been altered by the new media politics. Political recruiters have become extremely conscious of a candidate's ability to look impressive and to perform well before the cameras. People who are not telegenic are eliminated from the pool of available recruits. Abraham Lincoln's rugged face probably would not have passed muster. Franklin Roosevelt, who was keenly aware of the likely harmful effects of a picture of him in a wheelchair, which would make him appear weak, never allowed photos to be taken while he was being lifted to the speaker's rostrum.
  • The post-modern campaign: Mass media coverage has become the campaign's pivotal point. Campaigns are arranged for the best media exposure before the largest suitable audience. To attract media coverage, candidates concentrate on press conferences, talk show appearances, or trips to locations that serve as good backdrops for photo ops. Appearances on various entertainment shows are now routine (anyone remember Clinton blowing his sax on the Arsenio Hall Show?). Candidates plan their schedules to dovetail with media coverage habits. They spend disproportionate amounts of time campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire where media coverage is heavy.

Source: http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/boaz/pol326/feb12.htm

Media Influence and Bias: Hurricane Katrina Coverage

Media Influence and Bias - Hurricane Katrina Coverage 

Dueling Photo Captions

"A young [black] man walks through chest deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans..."

"Two [white] residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans..."