News Media Functions in Policy Making

John R. Fischer (Athabasca University)

Sometimes called the "fourth branch of government," the mass media serve a number of functions within the context of government policy making. As indicated by Fletcher and Taras (1984, p. 208), "politicians need publicity to promote themselves and their programs and reporters need information and quotes for their stories." In addition, mass media coverage of policy meets a number of other needs (Fletcher & Taras, 1984, pp. 194, 208). It gives citizens the necessary information for "effective political participation" and provides a forum for "debate on public issues." It helps governments circulate "vital information about public services--and government accomplishments--while providing opportunities for opposition parties to criticize government and propose alternative policies." Governments will also often use the press "to test public opinion by leaking proposals to a reporter who will value the "scoop."

This paper describes a study of news media functions in the policymaking process. The study relates policy stages to mass media functions, a list of which is developed through a content analysis of news items about education. Propositions are then developed about the effect of mass media functions on policy decisions.

Functions of the Mass Media in the Policy Process

A policy is a decision implying impending or intended action (Bauer, 1968, p. 21). In analyzing policies, two aspects are generally considered most significant process (policy making) and content. The mass media are among the external groups which influence the policy process at its various stages. For this study six policy stages were identified from four works (Almond & Powell, 1978, pp. 14-15, 180; Dunn, 1981, p. 48; Jones, 1977, p. 12; Wirt & Mitchell, 1982, pp. 6-7). These stages included: (a) problem identification (articulation); (b) policy recommendation (aggregation); (c) policy decision (adoption); (d) policy implementation; (e) policy evaluation; and (f) policy resolution or change.

Communications researchers have analyzed mass media political functions which correspond to the stages in the policy process. In studying reporter influence, Lambeth (1978, p. 12) used a five-part framework developed by Jones' (1977) to structure 10 possible media functions in the policy process: (1) anticipating problems in advance of public officials, (2) alerting the public to problems on the basis of official warnings, (3) informing the public of the stakes the competing groups had in solving problems, (4) keeping various groups and the public abreast of competing proposals, (5) contributing to the content of policy, (6) deciding the tempo of decision making, (7) helping lawmakers decide how to vote, (8) alerting the public to how policies are administered, (9) evaluating policy effectiveness, and (10) stimulating policy reviews. From a survey of legislators, Lambeth concluded that the impact of the press on elected officials is low to moderate.

In his study of lawmakers' use of reporters, Fico (1984, pp. 795, 799) adopted Lambeth's framework, replacing Lambeth's functions 4 and 5 with "informing affected groups of their own stakes in the problem" and "informing the public of proposal content." In Fico's study, reporters were more influential in the five functions involving their potential impact in transmitting information to the public than in the functions involving personal or professional influence in the legislative setting.

In the present study, a content analysis of recent newspaper items about education tested and then modified the functions of Lambeth and Fico. Also considered was the relationship between functions and the kinds and purposes of articles.


Items were classified under two major headings: news items--breaking news stories, features, interpretive news stories, and context-setting stories; and editorial materials--unsigned editorials, columns, letters-to-the-editor, and cartoons. Items were also classified according to purpose as either informative, persuasive, or entertaining (Windhauser, 1973, p. 562).

The study considered articles about education published in Alberta newspapers and magazines during one calendar year and gathered by the communications branch of the Alberta Department of Education. Gathered on a daily basis, these clippings are circulated to the Minister of Education and other education officials. A sample of 24 days from the year was drawn at random using a table of random numbers.

Articles from the first six days were used as a pilot to modify the classification system. The pilot showed at least six more possible areas of news media functions not included in Lambeth's and Fico's lists: problem identification by stakeholder groups and by the public, identifying policymaker proposals, describing how policies will be administered, reacting to policy, and proposing change or termination. Because of apparent overlapping between the functions, two of Fico's categories, "informing the public of the stakes competing groups had in solving problems" and "informing affected groups of their own stake in the problem" as well as Lambeth's "keeping various groups and the public abreast of of competing proposals" were collapsed into one classification--"identifying stakeholder groups and proposals." Once the classifications were established, the remaining 18 days of clippings became the basis for the study.

The article technique of content analysis was chosen because it is "easily and quickly applied" to both volume and slant of news and editorial content and, more importantly, it has a high degree of predictability (Windhauser & Stempel, 1979, p. 152). Each newspaper item was identified by kind, purpose, and function in the policymaking process.


The content analysis considered 216 items about education from the 18 dates analyzed during the year. The number of items per day ranged from only three items on a Saturday to a maximum of 22 items on a Tuesday.

Figure 1 shows the breakdown of the items by kind. The two major kinds, news items and opinion items, are represented as shaded bars; subclassifications under each kind are represented as white bars. Of the 216 items, 167 (77%) were news and 49 (23%) were opinion. A majority of the items (134 or 62%) fell into the category of breaking news; 27 (12.5%) into the category of features; and 21 (9.7%) were editorials. Most items were informative rather than persuasive. All of the news items and 14 (28.6%) of the opinion items were informative. Editorials were divided: nine informative and 12 persuasive. Columns included four persuasive, one informative, and one entertaining. Letters included 14 persuasive, four informative, and one entertaining. Cartoons were classified as entertaining.

Sixteen mass media functions were categorized under six policy stages. Table 1 shows the typology developed through this content analysis, listing the functions with their policy stage and giving frequency, percentage, and major purpose.

Table 1
Media Functions in Policy Making
Policy stage/Media function N % Purpose
1. Problem identification/articulation:
a) Identification of problems by media 5 2.3 Information
b) Relaying problems to the public:
r1 l n n n n l.
2. Policy recommendation/aggregation:
a) Identification of groups and proposals 57 26.4 Information
b) Identification of policymaker proposals 9 4.2 Information
c) Media suggestion of content 7 3.2 Persuasion
Subtotals 73 33.8
r1 l n n n n l.
3. Policy decision/adoption:
a) Setting tempo of decision making 0 0.0
b) Recommending how to vote 1 0.5 Persuasion
c) Informing public of content 22 10.2 Information
Subtotals 23 10.6
r1 l n n n n l.
4. Policy implementation:
a) Describing administration 22 10.2 Information
b) Alerting public to problems 39 18.0 Information
Subtotals 61 28.2
r1 l n n n n l.
5. Policy evaluation:
a) Evaluating effectiveness 17 7.9 Information
b) Reacting to policy 14 6.5 Information
Subtotals 31 14.4
r1 l n n n n l.
6. Policy resolution or change:
a) Stimulating review 4 1.9 Info./pers.
b) Proposing change or termination 0 0.0
Subtotals 4 1.9
Not related to policy 6 2.8 Information
r1 l n n n n l.
Totals 216 100.0

In this study the mass media functioned most often during the stages of policy recommendation (by identifying groups and their proposals), policy implementation (by describing administration and alerting the public to problems), and policy evaluation (by evaluating effectiveness and reacting to policy). In addition, during most stages the mass media functioned in informing rather than persuading.

Of the 216 items analyzed in this study, all but six were related to policy making. Of the six not tied to policy making, three were letters pointing out errors in reporting or criticizing the media about their handling of education stories, one described introductory speeches by politicians at an educational conference, another described the Minister of Education's behavior in the legislature, and the last was a profile of a new school superintendent.


While most news and editorial items about education can be related to educational policy or policy making, the number of items having an impact on policy decisions was few.

This study seems to support Fico's conclusions that reporters are more influential in functions involving transmittal of information to the public and have less impact in functions involving personal and professional influence in the legislative setting. In addition, the study seems to bear out Lambeth's conclusions that the impact of the press on elected officials is low to moderate.

In practice, more items were published for information purposes than for persuasion. Most items were news rather than opinion, and most were related to information transmittal rather than influence. Items related to information transmittal, such as the description of policy administration, reactions to policy, and identification of policymaker proposals had higher item frequency than those involving persuasion, such as recommending how to vote and stimulating review.

One of the areas of greatest potential for media contribution to the policymaking process is in contributing to policy content, which Lambeth included as a function and Fico did not. This analysis showed the publications giving less attention here as well.

News publications seemed to perform a greater function in identifying and relaying stakeholder group proposals to the public than they did in articulating and identifying problems. Problem identification overall was not as important as might have been expected. While Almond and Powell (1978, p. 180) emphasized a media role in articulation, this study seems to suggest a much greater role in policy aggregation.

Kinds of items seemed to correlate with purpose. Items falling into functions of contributing to content and recommending how to vote, in which the major purpose of the item was persuasion, were editorials. Items in which information transmittal was the purpose were mainly news. If it is true that persuasive items (opinion) have more impact than informational items (news), then press impact on policy making is moderated by the nature and kinds of items the mass media publish or broadcast. Because most items are informative rather than persuasive, the impact of the mass media is less than might be expected. This proposition ignores other factors such as legislator receptivity to news and opinion and the influence of the mass media on the public and interest groups.

This study suggests four propositions which require further testing:

  1. 1 The mass media function more in relaying information than in influencing the policy process.
  2. 2 The mass media function less in policy areas of greatest impact.
  3. 3 Press impact is moderated by the nature and kinds of items published or broadcast.
  4. 4 Because most items are informative rather than persuasive, the impact of the mass media is less than might be expected.

The approach used in this study seems appropriate for further studies. This study suggests that content analysis can serve as a starting point for studies in communications effect. Through content analysis, a conceptual framework for the study of mass media impact on policy making was developed and tested. The small number of items in some categories suggests the need to replicate this study using a larger sample.

In summary, in its development and implementation, policy goes through a number of stages. At each stage, the mass media perform functions, although the functions seem more important in relaying information than in influencing the policy process. Thus, the mass media have less impact on policy making than the average reader might think. An understanding of the media functions and their relative importance may lead to a better assessment of the impact and the relationship of the mass media and policy making.


Almond, G. A., & Powell, G. B. (1978). Comparative politics (2nd ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Bauer, R. A., & Gergen, K. J. (Eds.). (1968). The study of policy formation. New York: Free Press.

Dunn, W. N. (1981). Public policy analysis: An introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fico, F. (1984). How lawmakers use reporters: Differences in specialization and goals." Journalism Quarterly, 61(4), 793-800, 821.

Fletcher, F. J., & Taras, D. G. (1984). The mass media and politics: An overview. In M. S. Whittington & G. Williams (Eds.), Canadian politics in the 1980s (2nd ed.) (pp. 193-228). Toronto: Methuen.

Jones, C. O. (1977). An introduction to the study of public policy (2nd ed.). Boston: Duxbury.

Lambeth, E. B. (1978). Perceived influence of the press on energy policy making. Journalism Quarterly, 55(1), 11-18, 72.

Windhauser, J. W. (1973). Content patterns of editorials in Ohio metropolitan dailies. Journalism Quarterly, 50, 562-563.

Windhauser, J. W., & Stempel, G. H. III. (1979). Reliability of six techniques for content analysis of local coverage. Journalism Quarterly, 56(1), 148-152.

Wirt, F. M., & Mitchell, D. E. (1982). Social science and educational reform: The political uses of social research. Educational Administration Quarterly, 18(4), 1-16.

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