Power of media in influencing policy

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The media are playing an increasing role in policy, by not only reporting on, but also creating and leading on single issue campaigns.  One example is the Daily Mail campaign for a referendum on the EU constitution, which led to the paper holding its own referendum.  Media campaigns are reaching members of the public who do not engage in formal politics and are becoming increasingly powerful.  However, concerns have been raised over the way media campaigns bypass representative democracy [1] and represent only a particular section of society.

What are the implications?

  • Single issue campaigns rise in number and impact.
  • Media increasingly shapes public attitudes towards issues and the policies concerning them, for instance on immigration and crime (see perception of threat).
  • Media can use its power and role to hold politicians and organisations to account.
  • The public may increasingly use tools such as media opinion polls for political expression rather than engaging in formal politics.
  • Media plays an increasing role in securing a high profile for campaigns such as Make Poverty History.
  • Growing importance of improving media understanding of the VCS.
  • Further marginalisation of those who aren’t able to get their voice heard.

Moving forward

The growing power of the media offers new opportunities for VCOs to get their message across but also comes with risks.

  • Would your campaign benefit from media attention?  What factors would make it attractive to the media? Can you use stories written by users, beneficiaries or volunteers to bring your organisation to life?
  • Are there existing high profile campaigns in the media that you can piggy-back on?
  • Have you taken steps to prevent negative publicity? 
  • How can you improve media understanding of your organisation?  For instance, have you made information about your organisation and campaigns clear and easily accessible?

Although the media has the potential to reach people who do not engage in formal politics, it can be selective in the views it presents and does not always provide democractic representation.

  • What is your role in listening to marginalised individuals and communities, and ensuring that their voice is heard? 
  • Should this be done through your organisation or can you facilitate participative opportunities, where people can directly contribute their voice?
  • Can you use examples that people can relate to?  Could the democratisation of the media help make your voice heard?

Want to know more?

What the media are doing to our politics

Published by: Demos – a left of centre think tank

Date: 2005

Format: Web

What is it? A blog entry that discusses the state of journalism following an event to discuss John Lloyd’s book What the media are doing to our politics.

How useful is this? This detailed blog entry outlines Lloyd’s key arguments, that the media are no longer an effective check on the political class and do not provide the public with sufficient information to allow them to act as responsible citizens.  The event interrogates Lloyd’s thesis, and begins a debate about what can be done about it.  It proposes the idea of a Media Institute or thinktank to engage with the day-to-day state of the media and develop longer term plans.

Other comments:

Manufacturing Dissent: Single-issue protest, the public and the press

Published by: Demos – a left of centre think tank

Date: 2005

Format: PDF

What is it? This report explores how the media is not just reporting dissent and protest but creating it. 

How useful is this? This detailed report argues that the media is helping to create a rise in consumer-driven, single issue politics that require a rapid response.  The introduction provides a good outline of the issue.  The following chapters give a background to single-issue politics and media protest, providing a series of case studies.  It looks at the role and effect of press activism, and the reasons that newspapers join protest movements.  It also considers the operating environment for the press and explores the roles of the press, government and public in driving and voicing public opinion.

Other comments:

BBC drops climate change special

Published by: The Guardian

Date: 2007

Format: Web

What is it? This article discusses some of the issues for the media driving single issue campaigns. 

How useful is this? This is an interesting article to consider some of the questions that arise when the media uses campaigns to influence policy.  It uses the cancellation by the BBC of ‘Planet relief’, a comic relief style day of programmes on environmental issues, and the coverage of Make Poverty History to discuss the debate over impartiality and whether it is the BBC’s role to lead on moral issues.

Other comments:


  1. Manufacturing Dissent [back]
Last updated at 16:14 Wed 23/Feb/11.

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Oliver's picture


NCVO Research Team

Surely the media has always been extremely powerful in this regard. 2 things have changed – firstly the rise in the number of negative stories to positive stories. I can’t remember the figures exactly but it was something like 2.5 negative stories to 1 positive story in the seventies and is now around 7 negative stories to every 1 positive story. This is a shift not in trying to gain influence (which has always been there), but a shift in the way they are trying to gain influence by keeping people in a perpetual state of moral outrage.
So what’s the solution? It lies in the second change – the rise in the internet. The internet has supposedly ‘democratised’ media. Yet if you look at the sites most people read for news, they read traditional media sites on-line so at the moment using the internet to bring about this change has, quite simply, failed. (and if you are reading this on this website you are not ‘most people’). Of course this is not true of social networking sites which are different. Or of a few big campaigns which have taken off helped by the internet – but big, modern campaigns have been around since at least 1971 and the first big charity concert (for Bangladesh, led by George Harrison), long before the internet.

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