Opinion makers

The question of the influence of opinion makers on public opinion is one of the most difficult subjects of study due to its complexity. There is a multiplicity of intervening factors around it. However, from another perspective it might be possible to cast light on the issue of media and power.

A Finnish study titled Media in the Networks of Power examined the relationship between the media and power by asking what kind of influence the media have in the circles of social power. The power of media is not primarily perceived as power to influence public opinion or action. Instead, the study asks how the decision-making process is mediatised. The research question was examined through three specific cases. The focus is on the pertinent media material, including interviews of the parties concerned (60) and the survey data (n=419), which gauges more extensively the views of the Finnish decision-makers on the role of the media in the exercise of power (Kunelius & Reunanen 2016).

The study shows that Finnish decision-makers perceive publicity quite instrumentally. In the power holders’ opinion, it is not worthwhile to discuss issues with sincerity in public. Rather, one should consider in advance what type of reduced messages might best promote one’s own interests. The decision-makers’ own policy networks may instead offer a much better medium for discussing real issues and finding the best possible solutions for them, or at least worthy compromises.

The Finnish decision-makers, especially politicians, spend considerable time monitoring the media. However, the range of the media they monitor is surprisingly narrow. The most important media for the decision-makers and their activities consist of the big media houses of the Helsinki metropolitan area: the news and current affairs programmes by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, MTV3 news by the MTV company and Helsingin Sanomat newspaper by Sanoma Corporation. These three news media constitute a fairly common and homogeneous daily media agenda and the public arena for the decision-makers.

The study shows that interaction between decision-makers and journalists is abundant, though in the decision-makers’ mind journalists can be divided into different groups. Confidential background discussions are conducted with editors-in-chief and special reporters, while reporters with lesser expertise and experience are considered less useful. Relations to the former types are marked by intensive interaction, personal relationships and far-reaching confidence in both parties’ ability to act according to the rules of the game.

The decision-makers and journalists often have background discussions and an information exchange that goes both ways. Journalists, for their part, provide speculation on political events and situations and feed the decision-makers’ imagination on what kinds of interpretations their moves in the media may generate.

Both sides recognise the rules of the game and aim to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation within the framework of their professional roles. This is especially significant to politicians and organization leaders, because their mandate is based on the trust of members and voters. It is also clear that the attention, reputation and credibility acquired through the media will increase their leverage during the decision-making processes.

The media’s daily agenda does not seem to significantly shape the long-term policy definitions in societal decision-making.

In the decision-makers’ minds journalism, and especially in its current phase, favours sensationalism, short-term results and nit-picking over details at the expense of the whole. The decision-makers themselves seem to by their own nature embrace an instrumental and deliberate course of action in their public activities. It seems that the strategic side of politics, which instrumentally seeks to create positive images of itself, and the part in journalism that competes for audiences by means of tabloidisation, have found each other.

However, politics and journalism have also a clearly critical, solution-seeking and argumentative side to them. In journalism, this stance is maintained especially by journalists who have contacts within the establishment, and who persistently follow their own focus areas in society. From journalism’s communicative power perspective, the pertinent question is how well critical journalism can open up the processes of policy networks to public debate.

If one tries to clarify who and which are the individuals or groups that influence the public opinion outside the media with the help of social media, at least in Finland the picture looks very fragmented and diverse. There is a vast amount of blogs, websites and networks. For instance, there are a lot of blogs dealing mainly with matters having very little to do with the public opinion.

It seems that using blogs teenage girls and young women have more opportunities to express themselves - a chance that did not exist before. However, the real reach, not to mention the influence gained with new social media cannot be measured with quantitative methods.

Mainstream news organisations in Finland are politically non-partisan and journalists have strong codes of professional conduct, valuing objectivity and independence. The heated debate on immigration policy, however, has cast doubt on the neutrality of the media. On the other hand, this same debate has highlighted the role of news media as a trustworthy alternative to disinformation online.

As to the Finns, 65 percent trust news (”I think you can trust most news most of the time”), 47 percent trust news organisations and 51 percent trust journalists. Also, 47 percent of Finns believe media is free from undue political influence and 41 percent believe media is free from undue business influence (Digital News Report 2016/Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 53; 93-94.).

In countries where trust is high, such as Finland, political identification does not tend to have an impact on trust, with each group equally likely to trust the news. There is no significant difference between the different political orientations by the respondents then the support to trust news was given by the left with 65 percent, by centre 67 percent and by right 64 percent.

However, almost everywhere younger people tend to trust the news slightly less than older people, even after controlling for variables such as gender, income, education and politics. In Finland, two-thirds or 67 percent of over-35s say they trust the news, but this figure drops to 58 percent among under-35s.

The trust in news organisations is the most important driver of overall trust, and is significantly more important than trust in journalists and freedom from undue governmental influence. Trust in the news is almost synonymous with trust in news brands. Perceived freedom from commercial influence was the least important driver of trust in most countries.