Social policy in the United States is one of the most emotional and contentious elements of political discourse. The feelings involved in formulating social policy instill a particular desire for intervention in governmental policy-making. As with all of government policy, the people express their viewpoints through the instruments of media and interest groups. While the media appears to influence social policy in the United States, formal policy making is more potently influenced by interest groups.
Social policy includes government policy on issues that relate to how society functions, and more specifically, what moral values serve as the basis for that function. Under the umbrella of social policy, specific policy issues such as abortion rights, civil rights, gay rights, social welfare programs, gambling, prostitution and many others are covered. Historically, there have been social policy movements that would appear at first glance to have been propelled by a combination of media attention and public opinion.
One such set of policies is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Childers, 1997) It would be difficult to dispute that the media portrayals of such events as the Rosa Parks arrest, and subsequent Montgomery Bus boycott and the March on Washington organized by Dr. Martin Luther King went a long way toward influencing social policy changes in the United States.
It is important to point out, however, that the media attention such events attracted was as much a result of the work of interest groups as it was a spontaneous realization of the general population of social injustice. .(Childers, 1997) Groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, headed by Dr. King, put specific efforts and resources into ensuring the media sympathetically represented their viewpoint. .(Childers, 1997) The organization’s charter called for an employee focused on public relations specifically.
The 1959 recommendations to the executive committee of the SCLC included the following: The Conference will employ on a part-time basis, a person of competent ability in public relations to make known to the public, the objectives and activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Inc. Such person will work under the supervision of the President and Executive Director. . (Childers, 1997) By the time that the SCLC reached the height of its influence, in 1965, it employed no fewer than three full-time public relations officers.
.(Childers, 1997) These officers provided specific strategies for members to get their message into the media in a favorable light. .(Childers, 1997) By advocating non-violent resistance and assuring that the media bear witness to violent responses by whites, the SCLC openly and actively used the media to shape public opinion and achieve their aims. .(Childers, 1997) The results of the efforts of these and other interest groups of the period was to cast opposition to Black equality as primitive, barbaric, and racist.
.(Childers, 1997) This proved to be an extremely effective methodology, as the public at large was treated to images of mass arrests of non-violent protesters, the use of attack dogs and fire hoses on unarmed marchers, and rallies by the KKK and other racist organizations featuring masked members carrying burning crosses. .(Childers, 1997) This episode in American history illustrates the manner by which interest groups use the media to influence public policy. .(Childers, 1997) The efforts of the SCLC led to legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. .(Childers, 1997)