Mass Media and Policy Making

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Mass Media and Policymaking
Stuart Soroka (McGill University)
Andrea Lawlor (McGill University)
Stephen Farnsworth (University of Mary Washington)
Lori Young (University of Pennsylvania)
Forthcoming in Routledge Handbook of the Policy Process, edited by Wu Xun, M Ramesh, Michael Howlett, Scott Fritzen & Eduardo Araral

Mass media can, and often do, play a critical role in policymaking. The typical view of media is that they matter in the early stages of the policy process — that media can help to set an agenda, which is then adopted and dealt with by politicians, policymakers, and other actors. The impact of media is rarely so constrained, however. Our argument here, in short, is that media matter, not just at the beginning but throughout the policy process.

Many of the standard accounts of policymaking have a much too narrow view of the timing of media effects. That said, the ways in which mass media can matter are relatively well understood. Existing work tells us that media can draw and sustain public attention to particular issues. They can change the discourse around a policy debate by framing or defining an issue using dialogue or rhetoric to persuade or dissuade the public. Media can establish the nature, sources, and consequences of policy issues in ways that fundamentally change not just the attention paid to those issues, but the different types of policy solutions sought. Media can draw attention to the players involved in the policy process and can aid, abet or hinder their cause by highlighting their role in policymaking. Media can also act as a critical conduit between governments and publics, informing publics about government actions and policies, and helping to convey public attitudes to government officials.

Allowing for the possibility that any and all of these effects can be evident not just in the early stages but throughout the policy process makes clear the potentially powerful impact we believe that media can have on policy. Indeed, mass media are in the unique position of having a regular, marked impact on policy, but from outside the formal political sphere, often without even being recognized as a policy player.  

This chapter reviews the state of the literature on media and policymaking. It reviews two of the most prominent theories in the study of media and

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policymaking: agenda-setting and issue framing. It then considers some of the normative implications of the regular impact of media on policymaking. Is the fact that media matter to policymaking a good thing? There are benefits, to be sure, but also costs, and we consider below the costs associated with the wellknown event-driven, sensationalist tendencies in media content. We then finish with a brief example from Canadian environmental news coverage; an example which illustrates some of the problematic tendencies in media content, and highlights some of the issues with media as a policy actor.

Agenda-Setting and Issue Attentiveness
The policy agenda-setting literature has its roots in early work in political behaviour focused on how media coverage of political events impacts electoral outcomes. Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee’s (1954) seminal study on voting, for instance, notes that media persuades individuals by prioritizing particular stories over others, or by airing a greater volume of stories related to some policy domains, but not others. McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) Chapel Hill study, which spawned a vast literature on public agenda-setting, examines the media’s role in focusing public attention on particular issues, concluding that the media can effectively “set” the public agenda by consistently and prominently featuring issues in their news coverage. Cobb and Elder’s (1972) early work is the policyoriented equivalent; and these authors were followed by a growing body of literature focused on the sources of the policy agenda, that is, the “general set of issues that are communicated in a hierarchy of importance at a...
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