Public diplomacy and journalism Research Paper


Media plays a powerful role in politics in a variety of ways. Social media allows individuals to communicate ideas to followers. President Trump used social media—particularly Twitter—to great effect on the campaign trail, often firing off tweets to attack his political opponents. Supporters and critics alike have used social media to alter the way people view politics. One group in particular that has received a lot of focus from the media is the African American population. The African American vote is a very important vote in politics because this population has the potential to swing an election, to turn a blue state red or a red state blue. The media, however, is only as powerful as those who wield it. That is why whether it is CNN, Fox News or Twitter users, the aim is always the same—to alter the views of the target audience and sway them to embrace the message that is being delivered. The research question this paper asks is: Has the media altered the way African Americans view politics? The answer it proposes is that the media is always attempting to alter the way African Americans view politics, both on the right and on the left. CNN, for example, will run stories about how Republicans do not care about blacks. Fox News, on the other hand, will run stories about how Trump has put African Americans back to work in increasing numbers. Kanye West will tweet about his love for President Trump while wearing a red MAGA hat. In short the media is a powerful tool that is constantly being used to alter the way in which African Americans view and feel about politics. This paper will show how that is done in more detail by looking at the idea of soft power, at what both right and left spectrums of the media are doing, at popular media, and particularly at what Robinson (2002) calls the “CNN effect”—the use of images and stories of human desolation typically used to garner support for humanitarian interventions abroad but also useful for rousing ire and antipathy against political opponents at home.

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Soft Power

Soft power refers to the ability to sway the opinions of people by using subtle, non-forceful and non-coercive images and studies to shape a narrative and move public opinion. Soft power is something that media is especially good at. Seib (2009) notes that “the effective exercise of soft power depends largely on its being a part of a comprehensive, well-designed public diplomacy effort” (p. 780). Today’s media conglomerates are part of a large industry that is really dominated by a handful of families and corporate entities. Dreier (1982) pointed out decades ago that by concentrating the power of the media in the hands of a few, it was easier for these groups to control narratives and the flow of information. People did not have to be hit over the head with batons like in a Soviet State. Instead, they could be moved to think the way the owners of mass media wanted them to think by always turning on their TVs and listening to the stories on the radio.

For this reason, the media has been called the “fourth estate” because of its ability to frame political narratives and paint political problems in the shades and shadows of its own choosing (Dreier, 1982, p. 298). In the old world, three estates dominated the way people thought about things: the church, the noble class (kings and dukes and lords and so on), and the common class (the rabble). Today, the fourth estate—the mass media—has perhaps the most powerful voice of all, for it is everywhere one looks—restaurants, bars, airports, bedrooms, living rooms, dens, cars, phones, computers. Whereas dukes and lords would in the past use force to get the public to do something, the media can use its soft power—its subtle manipulation of the mind through stories designed to have an emotional impact—to move them.

The soft power effect can be seen on both sides of the right and left political spectrum. If CNN represents the left and Fox News the right, the stories that these two mainstream media sources put out to capture the attention of African Americans are telling of how they use soft power to steer this demographic. Maxine Waters and Cory Booker are two examples of African Americans who are widely given media coverage; however, Waters has been both critical of President Obama and President Trump—Obama for not doing enough to help African American communities and Trump for just about everything (Dyson, 2016). However, when it comes to how Waters is covered, it depends on the network and the message they are trying to get out. Fox News, for example, will replay footage of Waters calling on supporters to “get in the faces” of people in the Trump Administration in order to build a narrative about how insane the left is and how biased they are from a political point of view (Flood, 2018). This is an example of how the right uses soft power. CNN, however, takes the same story and spins it in a sympathetic light to show that Waters’ remarks were taken out of context and that she is entitled to her opinion (Erhlich, 2018). This is how the left uses soft power. Both have an impact on the African American community and its perspective on politics.

Popular Media

The study by DellaVigna and Kaplan (2007) showed that African Americans make up only a small percentage of the viewership of Fox News: the primary demographic consists of white conservatives. CNN on the other hand scores bigger with African Americans: indeed, both CNN and The New York Times employ “a handful of Black journalists” and “by all measures, African Americans enjoy more power within the media industries” (Squires, 2009, p. 10). By representing African Americans among their ranks, left-leaning media outlets can hope to capture more of that audience, which aligns with the custom of the Democratic Party to typically appeal to the African American community. CNN is thus able to better appeal to African American voters and craft narratives that favor their sensibilities.

Outliers like Kanye West and the social media YouTube sensations Diamond and Silk, who have appeared on Fox News to show that “black people are behind President Trump” (Fox News, 2018) have to carve out their own niche by using social media—i.e., independent media—to gain an audience. West does so using Twitter and Diamond and Silk, who are die-hard Trump supporters have done so with YouTube. West, Diamond and Silk differ in their messages to African Americans from the message cultivated by the left-leaning mainstream media sources. They generally put out messages that are very favorable of President Trump and they attack the Democratic message. This has an effect on the African American community too. Rasmussen polls show that Trump is polling at 36% among African Americans (Cummings, 2018). In response to that new item that showed Trump was actually more popular among the African American community than the left-leaning media would have that community think, the left-leaning Washington Post put out an article that denied the poll completely with the headline: “No, one-third of African Americans don’t support Trump. Not even close” (Tesler, 2018). This back and forth between right and left, with each denying the news that the other creates has led to the “fake news” effect, which Trump himself has cited, often pointing to his antagonists in the media as being the sources of fake news and even going so far as to ban CNN’s Jake Acosta from the White House recently because of the latter’s refusal to hand over the microphone to an aid after Trump wished to move on to take questions from another reporter. There is an obvious tension in American politics at the moment and the media is front and center of it—or rather right at the heart of it. The African American community is being targeted by all sides of the media, and their opinions matter because they make up a large voting segment.

Part of the problem for left-leaning media is that the black vote was unmotivated by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and thus did not turn out to support her in great enough numbers for her to win (Jackson, Davis & Alston, 2017). Jackson et al. (2017) found that “the lower black turnout itself is attributable to several factors, but one factor specifically in the LIS realm was the prevalence of low-quality information and rhetoric and a susceptibility that some black voters had to this low-quality information and rhetoric” (p. 236). The “low-quality information” that the African American community was being fed is a subjective conclusion, as there is no great digital divide in the U.S. barring the African American community from gaining access to information from the Internet or from television and radio news sources. The problem in 2016 was simply that blacks were not drawn to Hillary as they saw her as fake and unappealingly different from her husband, who blacks supported in large numbers when he was elected to office in the 1990s, according to Kurtzleben (2016) who ran a positive article for NPR that talked about how blacks loved Bill and they actually loved Hillary too: at the top of the online article was a large picture of Hillary surrounding by adoring black female voters, patting her shoulder. The image conveyed the idea that Hillary was loved and this piece was meant to show the African American community that it should come to its senses and vote for Hillary.

However, a prominent black critic of Hillary and the Clintons and of Obama was former NFL safety and CEO of the Brewer Group, Jack Brewer (2016), who was featured on CNN in the aftermath of the election to explain why Hillary did not win. CNN which had been solidly behind Hillary leading up to the election now had to find a reason for why their selected candidate did not win and in doing so appealed to a critic who could be used to throw her under the bus. Brewer argued that Hillary never cared about blacks just like her husband and just like Obama—none of them had done anything for the African American community. Brewer cited statistics such as incarcerations and jobs and so on to make his point: this was CNN’s way of cutting ties with their losing candidate and using an African American to do it—because they wanted to retain their African American audience while shedding their lost candidate.

All this indicates that the media operates on both spectrums, right and left, to create a narrative that will hit its target audience and get them to accept the message that is being delivered. For the African American community, they are free to accept or reject the message—and since two different messages are coming at them from the two ends of the political spectrum, both in mainstream media and in social media, blacks get conflicting news and must determine which is real and which is fake. Even non-black audiences are caught in the crossfire because the media cannot be restricted to one target audience. So when Rasmussen says Trump as more than a third of the support of blacks in the country and the Post comes out and says it is false, these two narratives create a conflict for all people in the nation who see it. Which is telling the truth and which is lying? What are the aims of these media? What is the purpose of a poll? What is the purpose of newspapers? These questions have to be asked by the audiences. Yet with social media now playing a greater role in how people process information, the African American community can find representatives of its people here as well—and whether they turn to Kanye or to Diamond and Silk or to myriad others, the story is the same. Media is in conflict with itself, and that creates room for the African American community to have its view altered one way or another.

The CNN Effect

The CNN effect is also important to consider. This is a name applied by Robinson (2002) for what all media does—not just CNN—but CNN originally did it best, so that is why the name stuck. It refers to the process of creating stories that might not be completely true or that only show one side of a story to create a narrative that supports the message the media is trying to convey. The CNN effect is really what Trump is referring to as “fake news” whenever he tosses that term around—but every media outlet does it.

How successful is the CNN effect today? Usually it is used to create stories about what is happening overseas because Americans are not as close to these events as they are to events at home. However, it is also used domestically because media has a need to control the narrative at home as well. Media is a powerful industry. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Disney—these are all big corporations that make a lot of money and have a vested interest in creating narratives that will support the power structure they want to see kept in place. All of them use the CNN effect, just as Fox does, to tell stories that will get a reaction from their target audiences—and African Americans are a target audience. Disney’ Black Panther proved that African Americans are watching and paying attention to what the media is producing—but the 2016 election showed that African Americans are not necessarily buying what Facebook, Twitter, Google and Disney are selling when it comes to news.

The reason for that is because here in the homeland, controlling the narrative is not as simple as it is in the Middle East where Americans cannot see for themselves on the streets and in their own lives what is happening. When Disney through one of its various media outlets tries to create a narrative that tells the black community that they need Democrats to save them from Trump who wants to end welfare and cut them off from health care, there is an equal push back from other media voices (such as Kanye) which tells the black community that Democrats want to keep them on the plantation and that blacks need to wake up to what the reality of the situation is. So what happens? The African American community, some of which is opposed to Kanye’s message and some of which embraces it, has the opportunity to investigate the message and validate it by doing its own research. Since the issue is life in America, this community can look into its communities, look into who is committing crime, look into the drug problem, look into the culture that is all around them and arrive at conclusions based on their own homework. They have two sides telling them the way things are, but they are not obliged to listen to either and as free-thinking individuals with the ability to use reason and logic, they are perfectly capable of forming an opinion.

Thus, media is not the sole factor in altering the views of African Americans with respect to politics. They are one factor amidst a slew of several others. Culture, family, church, peers, and groups all play a role in forming the opinions of people, as Bandura (2018) points out in his theory on cognitive development.

Still, the media does attempt to be the biggest factor, which is why it crafts stories that use words, images, video footage and anything else that can create an emotional impact on the viewer to shift a viewer’s perspective. By planting a picture at the top of an article online or by using statistics to show how the African American community overwhelmingly supports the Clintons (if you are NPR in the run-up to the election in 2016) or how African Americans never really supported the Clintons at all (if you are CNN in the aftermath of the election and want to distance yourself from the loser you supported). The media is not so much interested in facts in every case as it is in maintaining a narrative that will enable it to have power.

Power structures are real in America and the African American population plays a role in determining the extent to which those structures will continue to exist. That is why West has become so outspoken in recent months regarding his love for Donald Trump. He wants to see the Democratic power structure broken because he feels it is not good for African Americans. He was disheartened to see how little Obama did for the African American community and he is cheered by what Trump has done for them so far. For that reason he takes to social media to tell his followers about why he loves what Trump is doing for black people. That is his side of the story—it is how he perceives the reality. Some of his followers will listen to what he says and compare it to the version of reality that they themselves experience and see if what he says aligns with what they experience. Others will reject what Kanye says because it does not fit with the narrative that they have embraced from left-leaning media outlets like the Washington Post, CNN, or The New York Times. The same goes for what Fox says, what CNN says or what any other media source says: African Americans will weigh the information and judge it according to their experiences, what their peers are telling them, what their political affiliation has been in the past, what it is now, where their sympathies lie, and so on—just as Bandura (2018) explains. Understanding what causes an individual regardless of race to change a perspective is a complex matter that involves multiple variables and their interplay.


To answer the question of whether the media has altered the way African Americans view politics, the answer must be unconditionally yes—of course it has. It alters everyone’s view all the time. Everyone learns from some sort of media, whether it is print, digital or audio. Everyone forms an opinion, including opinions based on politics, by interacting with media. It is one way people have of making up their minds about what is going on. It is not, however, the only way. Mass media would prefer if it was because then it would have all the power and communities like the black community would be eating of its hands. But today thank to the rise of social media, there are now alternative voices. Thus African Americans have even more options for turning to news when they want to get a perspective to think about. Yet, the type of soft power being demonstrated by Fox or CNN or Google or Facebook or Twitter is only part of the story. The CNN effect is only so effective domestically because people can get out and see for themselves the way things are. African Americans have done this—and, depending on whether you believe Rasmussen or The Washington Post—a third of them have made up their minds to support the President.


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Problems, 29(3), 298-310.

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