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Indirect Media Effects: The Unknown Quantity in Policy Making

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Photo Credit: Flickr User queenkvWhen you're advocating for a better understanding of the media's role in policy making and governance reform, nothing is as disheartening as a well done study that questions the media's role on the basis of sound evidence. Even when you can make a good argument that the study doesn't tell the whole story - you just know that experts in policy making and in academia will buy into what that study argues. That is why I found reading John Kingdon's excellent book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies rather less enjoyable than the book deserves.

Kingdon analyzes policy making processes in the United States throughout the 1970s. He interviews policy makers and explores case studies, showing how issues get on the policy agenda, how alternatives are found, and how decisions are made. A major part of the analysis looks at groups that have the ability to make government officials focus on a specific issue. Long book short, it's not the media, not by far. Kingdon posits that "the media report what is going on in government, by and large, rather than having an independent effect on government agendas." And "the media’s tendency to give prominence to the most newsworthy or dramatic story actually diminishes their impact on governmental policy agendas because such stories tend to come toward the end of a policy-making process, rather than at the beginning." It's the administration that sets the agenda, and - surprise - interest groups that are well equipped with resources.

Kingdon does admit, however, that the media may have an indirect influence on the policy agenda. To the extent that public opinion affects policy makers, media can have a part in shaping the policy agenda by influencing public opinion. But then - the electorate is not considered to be all that influential either. Public opinion ranks way behind the President, Capitol Hill, and interest groups in their importance for policy making in the 1970s in the U.S. Moreover: since, as Kingdon argues, the media mostly report on what the government does, it's actually the government that influences public opinion via media coverage, which then feeds back to the government, leaving the government as the key player in the end.

Kingdon agrees that the administration pays more attention to issues that are covered in the press. He also shows that policy decision makers base their decisions on what they perceive as the "mood of the nation." Their perception of that mood is shaped by, among other sources, newspaper editorials and issue coverage in general and specialized media. His conclusion: the media shape and structure issues that someone else brought up, but they can't create them.

Directly rebutting the latter statement, we have evidence from all over the world how investigative journalism brought up issues that subsequently became a priority on the policy agenda and led to substantial political changes, without the government initiating any of it. At the Harvard-World Bank Workshop on The Role of the News Media in the Governance Agenda, Sheila Coronel told us about the Second People Power Revolution in the Philippines, where the media helped bring down a corrupt president by making his excesses public. The coverage incited public protests, which eventually led to the president's ousting - indirect effect no. 1. Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess found in a study that governments are more responsive to citizens' policy preferences in areas where newspaper circulation is higher, and therefore government accountability is greater - indirect effect no. 2. And behold, citizens' preferences were not based on government action, but on their very own and very real circumstances: acute food shortage.

The problem is: Kingdon's book is an excellent study, a thorough study, an impressive analysis. The problem also is: Kingdon does not paint the entire picture, at least not when it comes to the role of the media. I believe that he does not give sufficient credit to the media's ability to indirectly influence the agenda. Communication researchers have long given up on the believe that we can find any strong direct and immediate media effects. The media's relevance lies in its ubiquity, and in the ubiquity of its messages. The media are part of our lives, and of our elected officials' lives, they're everywhere, all the time. In the 1970s, George Gerbner put forward his "cultivation theory," arguing that the media (in particular television) shape our attitudes and behaviors by communicating a very specific picture of the world, and by communicating it constantly, permanently, and everywhere. Empirical evidence for this theory is significant, but not at all impressive. According to a meta-analysis by Swiss communication scholar Heinz Bonfadelli, cultivation effects explain about 1 % of the difference in attitudes between people who watch a lot of television and people who hardly watch any. But here's the point: if you find a significant effect at a given point in time, this effect will accumulate over time. From the time we start watching television as children until, say, middle age or so, television will have affected our beliefs substantially - 1 % at a time, all the time. Indirect media effects may be hard to disentangle from other factors that shape policy making, but there are good reasons to believe that they may be substantial. Indirect and over time, that's how media shape our world, including politics - and that's why we need to take them into account.

Photo Credit: Flickr User queenkv

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