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Media Effects on Foreign Policy

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Recent events in North Africa have intensified speculations about the role of traditional mass media as well as communication technologies in shaping political events and cultures across the world. Media influence on policy, foreign or domestic, has been the subject of some research, but is not generally taken seriously in the relevant disciplines. We have discussed on this blog before that the lack of systematic research and acknowledgement of media influence on policymaking may be due to the indirect nature of this effect. Media do not necessarily influence policymakers directly, but may work through public opinion by shaping what people know and believe about foreign politics. Public opinion, embodied in predominant political views or in election results, can have considerable influence on policymakers that need approval from the electorate.

I recently had the honor of contributing a book review on media influence on foreign policymaking to the foreign policy journal IP Global Edition, published by the German Council on Foreign Relations. I discussed three relevant books: "Unreliable Sources" by John Simpson, "The Al Jazeera Effect" by Philip Seib, and Bella Mody's analysis of "The Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News." You can find the full review here.

Simpson's book is a well-researched chronicle of British journalism from the Boer War through Britain’s involvement in Iraq. Simpson, world affairs editor at the BBC, presents a wealth of information and historical analysis showing that throughout the last century the British media, well capable of shaping public opinion, mostly shaped it in favor of the government’s foreign policy. This seemed to have been especially the case during times Britain was engaged in war - while journalists may have had some shaping influence on foreign policy in the build-up to armed conflicts, during the actual crisis military censors and government ideology prevailed throughout media and population. The acquiescence of the media has changed, however, with the advent of the Murdoch empire in Britain. His dailies have been known - and feared - for their clamorous response to politicians and policies, especially during election times, and are assumed to have substantial influence on their readers.

"The Al Jazeera Effect," introduced by Philip Seib from the University of Southern California, discusses “new” media, in particular satellite television and the Internet. Unlike Simpson, Seib posits that the media are indeed able to change the status quo of foreign policy by shaping international and domestic public opinion. Seib’s main idea is the “virtual state:” disperse communities achieve an unprecedented cohesion that puts them on the political map internationally. Satellite media and the Internet foster “virtual sovereignty” by cultivating a shared identity among disperse members of ethnic or religious communities. This is relevant for foreign policy because virtual states can affect the stability of traditional states and regions. Media can also alleviate tensions and conflict by providing new perspectives to an unprecedentedly large audience. Seib recommends that, if policymakers want to take advantage of the media’s power to create communities, cooperation is a better approach than competition, and international media, such as Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, become relevant tools of foreign politics.

While Simpson and Seib provide mostly anecdotal evidence and theoretical arguments, Bella Mody presents a systematic analysis of the coverage of the genocide in Darfur by ten news organizations in Africa, China, Europe, and the United States. Mody represents a strongly normative perspective, arguing that an informed citizenry is necessary, although not sufficient, for preventing conflict and humanitarian crises. In her argument, media influence foreign policy by putting issues on the public agenda and by framing them in a way that catches the attention - and sympathy - of a large audience, which then demands action from their elected representatives. She argues, for instance, that both the Somalia humanitarian crisis and the conflict in Darfur were not on the agenda of international politics until the media started paying attention. Mody understands media as “mobilizing conscience,” shaming policymakers into reacting to a crisis; creating incentives to act while at the same time raising the risk of not acting. However, the media are constrained by their own environment: geopolitical history, national interest, state ownership of the media, and audience explain almost all of the variation in reporting on Darfur between 2003 and 2004 in the analyzed news outlets.

As is so often the case, there is no causal evidence for media influence on foreign policy in any of these books. However, all three authors posit that the media shape foreign policy by shaping public opinion. All three authors urge policymakers to pay attention to the media: If they do not, their constituents certainly will.

The book review titled "Indirectly Potent: Media's Effect on Foreign Policy" was first published in IP Global Edition 3/2011, pp. 54-57.

Picture: Flickr user oswaldo