Media Coverage Influences Public Opinion

Political candidates obviously seek as much media coverage as possible, but it doesn’t end there. Elected officials are increasingly using media strategies to influence the outcomes of their initiatives and bills. The relationship between the media and government officials is coming under greater scrutiny by the day.

Social media is fanning the flames today. Some argue that media coverage is turning some legislators and regulators into publicity hounds to advance their own policy agendas, while other public officials can’t earn any media coverage. The disparity is obvious.

Scholars across politics and communications have wrangled with questions aimed at better understanding issue salience and attention. For media scholars, they found that mass attention across issues was a function the news media’s power to set the nation’s agenda by focusing attention on a few key public issues. Policy scholars often ignored the media’s role in their effort to understand how and why issues make it onto a limited political agenda. What we have is two disparate definitions describing, on the one hand, media effects on individuals’ issue priorities, and on the other, how the dynamics of attention perpetuate across the political system. We are left with two notions of agenda setting developed independently of one another to describe media and political systems that are anything but independent of one another.

Communications scholars have long understood the agenda setting potential of the news media, but have neglected to extend that understanding beyond its effects on mass public. The link between public opinion and policy is “awesome” and scholarship would benefit from exploring the implications for policy, media, and public opinion.

Both policy and communication studies would benefit from a broadened perspective of media influence. Political communication should consider the role of the mass media beyond just the formation of public opinion. The media as an institution is not effectively captured in a linear model of information signaling because the public agenda cannot be complete without an understanding of the policymaking agenda and the role of political elites. And policy scholars can no longer describe policy process without considering the media as a source of disproportionate allocation of attention and information. The positive and negative feedback cycles that spark or stabilize the political system are intimately connected to policy frames and signals produced by the media.

Studies of the media agenda can be traced back to Walter Lippman’s (1922) observation that the news media filter reality and provide the “pictures in our minds” concerning the course of public affairs and current events. While, for much of the 20th century, communications scholars operated under a “limited effects” media model, arguing in favor of the media’s inability to affect public perceptions, scholars soon came to realize that the priorities of the news media strongly shaped those of the mass public. This literature argues not only that the media influences public opinion, but also that the media also has the capacity to influence the direction of public opinion.

In their seminal study of media agenda setting, McCombs and Shaw (1972) compared the level of issue-related newspaper coverage in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with public responses to Gallup’s question about the most important problem facing the country. In effect, McCombs and Shaw explored the early stages of opinion formation and information acquisition, finding that the public’s perception of the most important problem facing the country closely reflected the patterns of issue coverage in newspapers. This finding launched media agenda setting research and many subsequent studies have confirmed the hypothesis that the media has the capacity to set the public agenda. Furthermore, comparative scholars of the media have found similar effects across the world.

Although scholars of political science and communication have long studied agenda setting dynamics by exploring patterns in attention, there has been a lack of connection between studies of the media and studies of public policy processes. In particular, “agenda setting” remains more or less a homonym between the two disciplines rather than a research topic with a common theoretical base.

Political scientists have studied agenda setting in the political system by exploring the formation and accessibility of the political agenda, as well as the causes of policy change and stability, often absent of a discussion of the media. Within political science, the public policy field’s analysis of the media provides a different perspective from that of communication scholars. Policy scholars suggest that media attention—similar to policy attention—is episodic, providing high levels of attention to some issues, but ignoring most. Furthermore, studies indicate that the media is a major player in the policy cycle, inserting positive feedback (increased levels of coverage) and negative feedback (low levels of coverage, or no coverage) into the system, potentially corresponding with changes in the intensity of policy-making activity. This perspective argues in favor of pursuing studies of the relationship between the media and the policy process by focusing on exchanges of information between the two bodies, an information processing approach.

Communication scholars have focused on the impact of media coverage on the public agenda—how the public believes, feels, and acts. Scholars in this tradition have studied public opinion formation, evaluation, and engagement. They report finding that the media influences the national (public) agenda through its tendency to focus attention on a few key issues and thus determine the issues, and direction of the issues, that the public cares about. Scholars of political communication extend this inquiry to examine the extent to which the media’s agenda-setting capacity drives public attitudes, evaluations concerning the political system, and decision-making within the political process. This research focuses on the quantity and content of media coverage on public perceptions of television advertising in campaigns, candidate evaluations, vote choice, political engagement, and more, finding that the media is a key player in deciding what, and sometimes how, the public thinks about political issues and whether or not one will engage in the political process.

By 1981, the field of political communication had matured enough to warrant comprehensive treatment in a handbook. The authors characterized the field as experiencing “a healthy, thriving, and burgeoning state.” One is struck by the much broader set of topics captured by the 1981 handbook compared to this compilation, and the lack of emphasis on the mass media as communication systems in the earlier volume. But the 1981 volume was far more diffuse and suggestive of possible research directions compared to the coherent summaries of strong bodies of research that characterize the present volume.

Today, the research is far more extensive; for example, the 1981 handbook included a single article, by Max McCombs, on the media and public opinion, whereas today there is a whole set of papers describing media effects on the public as well as a separate section on the effects of political campaigns. A similar contrast applies to the media-public policy nexus; the 1981 volume featured a single entry (by Cobb and Elder), while this collection includes five articles with a policy focus.

Cobb and Elder centered a major part of their discussion on policy subsystems, distinguishing between communication essential to subsystem maintenance and incremental policymaking and that associated with major mobilizations and policy changes—those associated with the idea of agenda-setting so ably set out by Cobb and Elder elsewhere. This dual role of the media in the policy process remains just as critical today.

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Author Timothy E. Cook explores these relationships in his book Making Laws & Making News, 1989, The Brookings Institution. Cook examines the relationship between the media and elected officials, which influences the news, the legislative process, and the laws enacted. Instead of focusing on who reporters decide who and what to cover and how news is presented, Cook looks at the other side of the equation—the relationship between media strategies and legislative strategies. He discusses the structure of congressional press corps, local versus national media, print versus broadcast and reelection campaigns. The book won the 1990 Benjamin Franklin Award for Excellence in Independent Publishing. Cook concludes that making news and making laws are all part of the same process. Those elected officials who have mastered media relations usually enjoy public support for their favorite issues and initiatives.

Media as an Institution Within the Policy Process

Building on recent approaches that have begun to integrate media and policy studies, we argue that researchers must consider the role of the media as a political institution in studies of the political system, public opinion and policy process. Political institutions have norms that shape daily interactions with the policy process, and media outlets are one of many policy actors whose routines and organization lead to a regular presence in the political system. The media’s organizational process is characterized by institutional incentives, such as attending to elite actor and consumer demands. Just as daily subsystem interactions may affect the policy process, so too do the daily decisions that occur within the newsroom. Media scholars have often studied the role of newsroom interactions and institutional norms on the production of news and its impact on citizens, but these institutional patterns have lasting effects for the policy process that remain largely unknown. Meanwhile, the media is increasingly recognized as an integral part of the feedback systems that characterize the policy process but meso- and micro-level studies of the effects of journalistic norms and practices require additional attention. For instance, is the shift toward a more professionalized media and the responding growth of communications staff within Congress a critical factor in the types of issues that make it onto the policy agenda? Or do they impact the nature of those issues, as in the speed, timing, and context surrounding proposed measures? Shifts in digital media—a 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, blogs, and social media—have all changed the way politicians interact with the media and the public, but what does this shift mean for the policy process? A closer link between the routines of journalists and their role as a political institution must be integrated with studies of elite policy actors and their relationship to the policy process as a whole.

Media as a Mechanism for Disproportionate Information

Even more important than understanding the media as a formal institution within the policy process, we should begin to understand the effects of media actors’ interaction within that process. The media serves as part of a complex information-processing system that influences the public policy process throughout. Scholars have argued that the political preferences of journalists, economic pressures, and industry standards are major factors in the process of determining the quantity and content of news coverage. Since the quantity and content of news coverage have significant implications for the public policy process, these factors deserve extensive study when considering the role of the media as a potential disseminator of disproportionate information.

Despite standards of unbiased reporting, the political attitudes of journalists and editorial decision makers may be a major source of bias affecting the topics covered by the news (Hackett, 1984). Researchers have explored this relationship domestically and comparatively, finding a significant correlation between journalists’ personal beliefs and their respective news decisions in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. While this relationship is more significant among newspaper journalists than broadcast journalists, partisanship maintains a modest impact across all news decisions. Some studies have suggested that media coverage in the United States is characterized by a liberal bias; for example, Groseclose and Milyo study partisan bias in the media by comparing media citations of think tanks and other policy groups to the citations of similar think tanks and policy groups by Members of Congress, finding a strong liberal bias.

The patterns of news generation by journalists and editors combine to produce both positive and negative feedback cycles that characterize how and when elite attention is allocated among issues. Negative feedback is the process by which changes in the political system are “corrected” or “countered” by an opposing shift back toward equilibrium. In the context of news generation, negative feedback is produced by daily or routine media coverage that maintains the current allocation of attention across issues and the type of frames used to present the issue. Positive feedback mechanisms reinforce changes that may rapidly alter the political agenda, replacing the current policy image or definition with a completely new frame.

The media can shape public opinion, which shapes the public policy agenda.

The media has only recently been integrated into agenda setting studies as a major source of information, and as an integral institution in the political system. Writing in 2006, Bartholomew Sparrow noted that policy scholars typically fail to consider the potential role of the media. He went on to propose an agenda for research, suggesting that scholars should consider the media’s role as a public diplomat, its patterns of interpreting, normalizing, and disseminating political information, potential disconnects between political issues as presented by the media and as understood by the public, and how the media is able to maintain its impact (relationships with lobbying groups, key legislators, FCC, and the judiciary), both inside and outside of the United States. Sparrow’s contribution was to highlight a gap in the literature that continues to persist—scholars have been slow to consider the role of uncertainties facing the media in the policy process, and until recently, few had explored the role of the media as a wide-reaching political institution.

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