By Chris Micheli
The media can play a critical role in the legislative process because they can sometimes set the agenda, or they can goad elected officials into doing something legislatively or not. They can also bring pressure to bear and they can shine a bright light on misdeeds or problematic behavior. As much as lobbyists are considered the “third house” of the legislature, the media often play a critical role in the legislative process.
The media are sometimes referred to as the “fourth branch” of state government because they play a role in government policy making. The media have a mutually beneficial relationship with politicians. For example, legislators want publicity for their legislation and themselves, and political reporters want information about legislation and public policy issues.
The California Constitution establishes the three formal branches of our state government. The fourth branch — the media — inform the general public about the activities of the three branches of government. Just like the three branches are established with a checks and balances system, so too is the media a check or balance on the other branches of government.
The media also play an important role of educating citizens. Most reporters view their role as keeping citizens informed about current events. If they are unaware or uneducated about legislation currently pending or state policy issues, citizens are less likely to participate in the government. They will be unable to debate policy issues and engage their elected representatives if they do not know about issues being addressed at the State Capitol.
Many believe that the media are an important “watchdog” regarding the actions being taken by the three branches of government. Without the media playing this role, how would the general public know what their elected and appointed officials are doing? By playing this role, the media help shape public opinion which helps influence public policy.
When a bill or issue is discussed in the media, it often results in the Legislature giving the bill or issue attention because, at the very least, there is a perception that the public is paying attention to the news media, which in turn makes legislators wanting to at least be perceived as responsive to the attention drawn to an issue.
Sometimes media attention is welcome for a bill or issue as it may help propel the bill or issue to a desired resolution. But negative media attention can have the opposite result for a bill or issue. There have been times when unwanted media attention has resulted in a bill being sidetracked or shelved all together because of the negative press that it engendered.
As a result, garnering or preventing media attention has become part of the legislative process in the modern political era. This has, in turn, created a cottage industry of consultants who specialize in dealing with the media. These are often former press officials in the Legislature or the Governor’s Administration.
Because the media play an extensive role in the legislative process, as well as with legislative strategy and ethics, they are often referred to as the fourth branch of government in California. They can help influence the outcome of legislation. Their coverage of an issue or a bill can help or hurt its chances of success.
For many observers, the media have their own biases in coverage, or lack of coverage, of state legislative issues. The media may highlight a bill or issue due to the interest of a reporter or editor, regardless of whether its readers may find it of interest to them. That attention certainly has the potential of impacting pending legislation.
Just like with political campaigns, proponents and opponents of certain legislation will attempt to create earned and paid media opportunities. In recent years, PR and public affairs firms have worked on grassroots and media efforts to supplement traditional lobbying work done in the State Capitol for or against pending legislation or regulations. This usually only occurs on major bills that impact large segments of society or industry, but even smaller measures sometimes have a valuable media component to their bill.
The media also come into play with legislative strategy as lawmakers, staff and interest groups will determine whether a bill is newsworthy. If so, they will attempt to pitch a story either pro or con, likely targeting the Capitol Press Corps or perhaps their local newspaper in the district.
In addition, they might produce an opinion-editorial piece or a letter-to-the-editor in hopes of getting their viewpoint specifically covered by the newspaper. In limited instances, the issue may be high profile enough to warrant a press conference and possible television coverage. Either side will look to capitalize on the news coverage to advance their point of view.
The media also enjoy the benefits of the newspaper’s editorial page. This is the section of the newspaper where opinions can be expressed regarding issues, events and legislation. This section can also include letters-to-the-editor that are written by citizens or interested parties. These editorials can impact the legislative process because they are statements on issues and pending bills that many newspaper readers pay attention to.
The media also play a role in state Capitol ethics because they will write stories about ethical lapses within the Capitol community. They will publish articles on FPPC investigations and assessment of fines. Similarly, the 2014 coverage of three suspended state senators created numerous opportunities for extensive news stories that portrayed the Legislature in a negative light. This press attention impacted the legislative process.
Unfortunately, there are a dwindling number of members of the Capitol Press Corps with only the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times with more than one reporter in their Capitol Bureau. With so few reporters, not many bills get written about, with the exception of a handful of high profile measure that attract statewide attention and usually have powerful interest groups on both sides of the issue.
Some media outlets may tend to ignore the press releases and story pitches by most legislative offices even though legislators and their staff generally spend significant time and effort writing press releases and attempting to get coverage of their key legislation. More often, the local newspapers will provide some coverage about the legislator’s bill.
The media also tend to cover the state budget and gubernatorial actions more than any legislation. Some Capitol staffers have said, sometimes elected officials pursue “legislation by headline” because the media creates an atmosphere in which the public takes interest and some legislators may want to appear responsive to major issues garnering press coverage that is read by their constituents.
The media also have responsibilities in their reporting of the news. These reporters should promote accuracy and fairness in their reporting of public policy issues and pending legislation. Journalists should be credible so that the public can trust their reporting as being factual and without bias. Of course, they need to make their reporting interesting for their readers, and they need their readers to appreciate why the news story is relevant and important to them.
Chris Micheli is a Principal at Aprea & Micheli, Inc. in Sacramento. He serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law.