Media influence on public policy
Media influence on public policy
Abstract and Keywords
News media play a central part in contemporary Australian politics. A great deal of political reporting and analysis canvasses policy issues. But the role that the media play in policy-making is less well understood.State and national level Australian politics routinely produce issues and events that seem to suggest that governments do directly respond to media coverage of issues.Yet much of what governments do is uncontroversial. A great many policy decisions and outcomes go unreported.Against this backdrop Australian public policy scholars have been reluctant to assign prominence to the media. As in other countries, they have not displayed any deep understanding of the effects of the media on the shaping and execution of public policy, which is the concern of this chapter.
It is widely agreed that news media play a central part in contemporary Australian politics (see Craig, 2004; Economou and Tanner, 2008). A great deal of political reporting and analysis canvasses policy issues. However, the role that the media play in policymaking is less well-understood. State- and national-level Australian politics routinely produce issues and events that seem to suggest that governments do directly respond to media coverage of issues. Yet, much of what governments do is uncontroversial. A great many policy decisions go unreported. Against this backdrop, Australian public policy scholars have been reluctant to assign prominence to the media. As is the case elsewhere, they have not displayed any deep understanding of the effects of the media on the shaping and execution of public policy (Wolfe et al, 2013, p 175).
In this chapter, I suggest that our capacity to understand the place of the media in the policy process is frustrated by the different meanings that the terms ‘media’ and ‘public policy’ can each have. Rather than asking about the media’s capacity to influence public opinion or set the policy agenda, attention might be better focused on the public discussion of issues that the media allow and on the incentives and capacities that political actors have to take part. One key to a deeper understanding of the part they play in shaping public policy in Australia lies in recognising that the media - both old and new - constitute an arena in which rival political actors, including government agencies, interest groups, parties and even news organisations themselves, compete to prioritise and frame issues. ‘Going public’ is no longer a last resort pursued by outsider interest groups without direct access to decision-makers and the influence that this confers. ‘Insiders’ treated by governments as stakeholders now also seek favourable media coverage and mount advertising campaigns in an effort to secure their preferred policy outcomes. Just why this is so requires a revisiting of the assumption that policy emerges from relatively stable networks of policy actors. In Australia, as elsewhere, policymaking has devolved to specialised sub-arenas. Indeed, this is just as much an explanation of why many policy matters go unreported as is the lack of resources and available space that confine political journalism. A further key to grasping the importance of media lies in understanding why stakeholder (p.184) groups may conclude that they are unlikely to achieve their preferred policy outcomes within the confines of these specialised sub-arenas.
There are several barriers to answering the deceptively simple question ‘What part do media play in influencing public policy?’ The very question is ambiguous: ‘media’ has no single agreed meaning: ‘Literally speaking anything that communicates may count as media’ (Strömbäck and Esser, 2014, p 11). In Australia, journalists are sometimes referred to as ‘the media’. The term can also refer to ‘transnational corporations, communication technologies, policy and regulatory frameworks, the practices of journalists, gossip columns, the nightly television news’, as well as to subscriber television, advertising, magazines, ‘music radio, the local newspaper and the Internet’ (Craig, 2004, p 3).
Australia has media system mixing commercial and public broadcasting. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) (with a AUD1.2 billion annual budget) is a Commonwealth-funded, editorially independent statutory corporation that broadcasts throughout Australia and boasts its largest news operation. ABC editorial policy requires its news coverage to be fair and impartial. Privately owned media are not similarly obligated. Australia has no equivalent of Fox News and commercial television bulletins steer generally away from partisan reporting. However, commercial talkback radio, especially in Sydney, is a populist force and a significant influence on policy. Newspapers can also aggressively crusade for or against particular policies. Hence, Manne (2011, p 5) describes Australia’s influential national newspaper, The Australian, as having become ‘an active player in both federal and state politics’.
The question of media influence upon policy is clouded because ‘journalism comes in many forms, from the entertainment driven and celebrity laden to the more serious and politically focused’ (Fenton, 2009, p 3). The changing economic and technological media landscape has seen the rise of ‘infotainment’ at the expense of the serious coverage of issues. The accelerating 24/7 news cycle prioritises breaking news over sustained investigative reporting (Carson, 2013, p 18). Furthermore, recent rationalisation of newsrooms has left news organisations less able to meet the costs required to authenticate, or even to attract an audience for, complex stories. Special fields of journalism do survive, although they are increasingly dependent on public relations (PR) (Crikey, 2010). It is noteworthy that dedicated business sections in major newspapers and the business-focused Australian Financial Review allow an ongoing public discussion of economic policy. Areas such as social policy have no similar, dedicated coverage. This points to a particular difficulty in establishing the role that media play in policymaking: what goes unreported may be just as significant as what is published.
A further complication lies in the different communication technologies to which the term ‘media’ is applied. Debates about media influence upon the policy agenda date to the latter decades of last century, when mass media, (p.185) comprising newspapers, radio and especially free-to-air television, were thought to be influential because of their capacity to simultaneously deliver the same news coverage to, and therefore influence the thinking of, a mass audience. Australia has now entered a still-unfolding new age of political communication characterised ‘by the proliferation of the main means of communication, media abundance, ubiquity, reach and celerity’ (Blumler and Kavanagh, 1999, p 213). A multiplication of channels of communication has been matched by audience fragmentation. Newspaper sales have dwindled. Evening free-to-air TV bulletins can still attract up to 1.5 million viewers Australia-wide, but younger voters especially are abandoning television as a news source. Online and digital social media have emerged as alternative sources of news. By 2014, the Internet had become the main news source for a third of Australians (Department of Communications, 2014, p 24).
Political communication has now acquired an interactive dimension that the old media cannot replicate. Originally, researchers considered mass media likely to influence public policy because they were ‘megaphones’ that amplified the voice of a few and commanded the attention of many. However, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube dissolve the boundary between those who generate and those who consume news. Audiences can contribute to news stories. Social media allow many-sided conversations about social and political issues. Issues are canvassed online, often independently of news media. These developments have diluted the capacity of journalists and media organisations to serve as gatekeepers controlling the public discussion of policy issues. Moreover, new technologies have seen new forms of political expression, and even the aggregation of new interests through platforms such as GetUp! and change.org. Political leaders, parties, public servants and interest groups are all actively exploring the potential of social media. Yet, the rapidity of change and diversity of new media have restricted the capacity of practitioners and scholars alike to grasp the full implications of the changing media landscape. While online social media clearly have a growing importance, there is much we have to learn about their part in policymaking.
In considering their part in policymaking in Australia, Haigh (2012, p 139) argues that the media enable information-sharing and are thus integral to the political agenda. Mostly, scholars who ask whether media can shape public opinion and the policy agenda ultimately have in mind the political ramifications of the public discussion of issues that occurs via the media, both old and new. Schudson (2003, p 29) describes the news media as an amplifier: ‘When the media offer the public an item of news, they confer on it public legitimacy. They bring it into a common public forum where it can be known to and discussed by a general audience.’ Given the different ways in which media are understood, and the challenge that new media present to the gatekeeping role of broadcast and print media, it makes sense to ask not about the influence of media upon policymaking, but about the nature and consequences of the public discussion that media allow, and to which governments, interest groups, politicians, public servants, experts, (p.186) think tanks, activists, individual journalists and media organisations, among others, may contribute.
Public policy as the problem
Governments often now use focus groups and polling to establish how to best represent policy initiatives. The recent spate of Commonwealth bills with sloganeering titles (Orr, 2006) underscores that policymakers well-understand that how policies are publicly portrayed can be integral to their acceptance and successful implementation. Yet, public policy scholars have been slow to see media as having a central place in policymaking. In Australia, as elsewhere, this idea was ‘met with some scepticism on the part of public-policy analysts’ (Kriesi, 2004, p 104). It does appear to have currency in subfields of policy study: witness education policy studies such as Thomas’s (2006) demonstration of the influence of media representation on education policy reform in Queensland, or Blackmore and Thorpe’s (2003, p 593) account of how education policy and relations between the state, schools and parents were mediated through the print media in Victoria during the 1990s. Yet, it is only relatively recently that Australian public policy textbooks (eg Haigh, 2012; Maddison and Denniss, 2009) have included chapters examining the role of the media in the policy process.
Some texts still pay the media little attention. For example, Wanna, Butcher and Freyens (2010, pp 240–1) acknowledge that ‘public sector agencies are acutely sensitive to the media cycle’ and observe that all have a communications or media relations arm to monitor print, broadcast and social media, and to insert messages about current policy issues in an effort to explain and mobilise public support behind policy initiatives. Yet, their account of the delivery of public services otherwise overlooks how ‘news media have become an influential, external force that shapes … organizations providing public services’ (Schillemans, 2012, p 18). Fenna’s (2004) Australian public policy textbook has an index entry for ‘media policy’ but not ‘mass media’. It lists ‘agenda-setting’ but Fenna does not credit media with a key role in explaining why ‘some problems or events’ become political issues (Fenna, 2004, p 129).
For Fenna (2004, p 3), ‘public policy is about what governments do’. Defining public policy in this conventional way predisposes analysts to focus upon what Kraft and Furlong (2013, p 90) call the institutional agenda - upon those matters that policymakers will give active and serious attention to. A difficulty with this approach is that contemporary governments clearly do a great deal. Each year, the Commonwealth Parliament considers some 200 bills and approves 6,000 pages of legislation. Ministers, departments and agencies issue even more pages of subordinate legislation. State-level governments also issue regulations and legislation on a similar scale (see Berg, 2008; Novak, 2013, p 30). An obvious conclusion to draw is that a great deal of public policy will go unnoticed (except by directly affected stakeholders). Sometimes, policy, as Fenna (2004, p 5) suggests, will be highly visible, discussed in Parliament, raised during elections, reported in (p.187) the news media and canvassed online. Nonetheless, much policymaking occurs below the ‘summit of the political system’ (Fenna, 2004, p 5), away from the ‘systemic agenda of which the public is aware’ (Kraft and Furlong, 2013, p 90) and beyond media scrutiny. This may explain why accounts of policymaking may overlook the role of media.
Public policy scholars have long understood that the expanding scope of governmental responsibility and increasing complexity of the issues that governments are now asked to address has seen ‘policy-making in all modern governments [tend] to fragment and specialise’ (Campbell et al, 1989, p 86). As Marsh (1995) demonstrates in his account of Australia as a pluralised polity, the last century also saw a proliferation of the numbers of claimants for ‘a place in the policy process’. In turn, this helped ‘diffuse the focus of political and administrative leadership’ (Heclo, 1978, pp 94–5) and ushered in an era of governance by networks. Within the Australian public service, broader policy networks linking stakeholders and the public sector have emerged, and much authority has devolved to individual agencies (Shergold, 2008, p 14). Consequently, ‘the bulk of government decision-making will usually be handled by a limited number of participants’ within specialised policy sub-arenas (Campbell et al, 1989, p 86). This analysis suggests that it is the institutional agenda of stakeholders and policymakers that will weigh heavily in these sub-arenas, and, accordingly, that the media will have little or no influence.
Mediatised politics and its implications for policymaking
If governments take countless decisions in specialised decision-making sub-arenas, mostly without media scrutiny, then a key question to ask is why do some, but not other, issues become the subject of public discussion and debate? Maddison and Dennis (2009, p 2) point out that ‘what we hear described as “policy” on the nightly news’ is, in fact, a ‘complex process involving a range of players with competing interests, facing an array of pressures’. That complex process is usually permeated by politics. Head (2008, p 5) suggests that even in an evidenced-based regime, policy will potentially be decided by a mix of political judgement, practical and professional field experience, and evidence generated by rigorous scientific and technical investigation. Where technical matters or a public service agency’s experience - the institutional agenda - are overriding considerations, then policy decisions often escape media coverage. However, media attention is likely when political considerations are paramount, or where stakeholders see an advantage in fostering a wider public discussion of an issue.
Australian government departments and agencies employ numerous media advisors and public affairs specialists and, with the ‘growth of public affairs departments’ (Haigh, 2012, p 141), have a considerable capacity to monitor, intervene in and manage the news coverage of policy debates. Interest groups in this era of strategic campaigning will also use PR and even advertising campaigns to steer public opinion (Bennett and Manheim, 2001, p 280). Much political (p.188) debate has been transferred from party backrooms into the public arena. More and more, political action becomes public action. This is, Kriesi (2004, pp 184–5) argues (without having Australia specifically in mind), a hallmark of a new era of audience democracy in which public opinion is given political expression, not every three years via parliamentary elections, but near-continuously via polls, focus groups and, now, social media. Clearly, not all issues attract media coverage and ‘different qualities of policy debate may occur on different issues’ (Bennett and Manheim, 2001, p 283). It is also true that the capacity of some stakeholders to secure favourable publicity and thus to frame policy debates far exceeds the capacity of others. Nonetheless, news - and now social - media have become a forum in which policy is publicly debated, and even potentially decided.
Public policy scholars will likely see the suggestion that the media have become an arena in which policy may be decided as problematic. European political communication scholars widely accept that media ‘have become increasingly influential and deeply integrated’ into politics. Political actors who rely upon the media to communicate with other policymakers and to ‘reach out to larger groups in society’ have come to realise that they must ‘adapt to the media and the media’s logic’ (Strömbäck and Esser, 2014, pp 4–8). Mazzoleni and Schulz (1999, pp 249–50) insist that political actors ‘who wish to address the public must negotiate with the media’s preferred timing, formats, language’, and even adapt the content of their communication, which results in a mediatised politics that ‘has lost its autonomy, [and] has become dependent in its central functions on mass media’. From this perspective, print and broadcast media do not merely report politics; they have become an integral, even defining, part of contemporary politics, and thus a forum in which policy decisions may be contested and even settled. This is to take the argument a step further than Australian public policy scholars such as Maddison and Dennis (2009, p 237) do in describing ‘communicating through the media’ as ‘essential’ for ‘modern governments’.
The mediatisation thesis stands apart from another well-established body of political communication scholarship. It finds that, via their capacity to shape public opinion, media can set the policy agenda. Rogers and Dearing’s (1988) widely cited model describes how the gatekeeping choices that news organisations make establish a pattern of news coverage (a media agenda) that moulds public opinion (the public agenda) and ultimately determines those matters that policymakers attuned to public opinion will prioritise (the policy agenda). This agendasetting model fixes the importance of news media in their capacity to influence those issues that the public regards as important. Although none are Australian, numerous studies exist which suggest that media are able to tell people what issues to think about, if not what to think. However, it is less certain that shifts in public opinion will shape the priorities of policymakers.
Burstein (2010) questions the commonplace assumption that policymakers in democracies are strongly influenced by shifts in public opinion. That policymakers monitor and respond to public opinion is a widely accepted view based both upon a democratic assumption that they should and upon research (p.189) findings seemingly showing that public opinion can influence policy, sometimes powerfully so (Burstein, 2010, p 63). However, Burstein argues that this research is often methodologically flawed. The ‘strong effect’ conventional wisdom, in fact, ‘rests upon a weak foundation’ because studies mostly examine ‘issues on which government responsiveness is especially likely’ rather than a genuinely representative sample of public policy issues (Burstein, 2010, p 64). Furthermore, in examining the impact of public opinion, studies have often overlooked the complicating role of interest groups, elections and party competition, which likely leads to ‘overestimating the impact of public opinion on policy’ (Burstein, 2010, p 673).
Although it is central to agenda-setting theory, it may be that the capacity of media to shape public opinion is not the only, or even the central, consideration in understanding the place of media in policymaking. The influence of media may lie elsewhere, namely, in the arena that media provide for rival political actors, interest groups, parties, governments and even news organisations to compete, to prioritise and to frame issues. Davis (2003, p 673) insists that elites, and not the public, ‘are simultaneously the main sources, main targets and some of the most influenced recipients of news’. From this vantage point, the debate of public issues that occurs within the media, both new and old, involves a contest in which ‘opposing stakeholders try to gain public and policymaker support for their positions’ (Miller and Riechert, 2001, p 107).
Strategic political communication
Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council of Australia observes that a profound shift has occurred in policy development in Australia, with a ‘public contest through the popular media’ emerging alongside, even displacing, ‘rational, considered, effective consultation and debate’ (Keane, 2011). There is now some scattered scholarly evidence to support his general point. Australian interest groups are employing more media advisers (Maddison and Denniss, 2009, p 191). Even well-resourced stakeholder groups with direct access to policymakers in Canberra are publicly arguing their case (Zhang, 2010, p 80). For instance, business lobbying can now often involve media campaigns (Warhurst, 2007, p 59). This is consistent with a small, but growing, body of international research suggesting that issue expansion and the strategy of going public are not confined to resource-poor interest groups - that the larger a group’s resources and membership, the more likely it is to pursue media campaigns to influence policymaking (Grant and Maloney, 2007, p 152). This begs the question of why well-connected, established insider groups may nonetheless publicly press their case through the media.
In their account of the media’s part in setting the Australian policy agenda, Maddison and Denniss (2009, p 191) suggest that interest groups pursue the strategy of using the media in order to place pressure on policymakers. This is a familiar and plausible argument. Yet, the public discussion of issues potentially extends beyond pressuring policymakers. The rise of professional advisers to which (p.190) Maddison and Denniss (2009, p 191) point is a clue. Bennett and Manheim (2001, p 282) observe the scientific management of the public discussion of issues in the media and suggest that this is now a commonplace feature of politics in the US. Interest groups with the requisite resources can manipulate the democratic system for their advantage: by stage-managing events for the media to report and analyse; by mobilising public opinion and ‘creating publics’; or by using ‘astroturf’ to fashion the illusion of public support. The purpose of strategic political communication extends beyond pressuring policymakers: it aims to create publics, authenticate political claims and damage opponents (Bennett and Manheim, 2001, pp 282–3).
Often, strategic communication specifically targets other government officials and policy elites rather than public opinion (Bennett and Manheim, 2001, p 281). As Kunelius and Reunanen (2012, p 72) note, media coverage may exert influence on the level of actor relations within policy networks because it ‘directly affects the assumed amount of power an actor has (in the eyes of others)’. It follows from this analysis that the mediatisation of politics and the accompanying professionalisation of political communication has transformed the public discussion of issues in the media, rendering it a tactic that stakeholders will choose in an effort to steer decision-making within policy networks. This argument would seem to apply to Australia, where the same rise in professional advisers is apparent, and where, during the last several decades, the focus of established interest groups seeking to influence policy has shifted from the backrooms and corridors into the media (Zhang, 2010, p 80).
Contesting issues via the media
Ministers invariably have overfull in-trays and busy schedules. One obvious motive that interest groups will have for going public is to generate sufficient media and public attention to elevate their concern to the top of the minister’s agenda: those ‘interested in influencing policy may first need to influence the media’ (Maddison and Denniss, 2009, p 191). However, the reason that ministers have overflowing in-trays points to a further attribute of policymaking and, in turn, suggests a further explanation for why groups will publicly press their case. As Novak (2013, p 44) demonstrates, by a range of different measures, ‘governments in Australia have grown in size over the long run and especially since the second half of the twentieth century’. The sheer volume and widening spread of matters that contemporary governments are now expected to address has given rise to an era of governance by networks. The development and implementation of policy is no longer contained within the formal institutional structures and processes of government itself. As Shergold (2008, p 14) records, ‘more complex institutional structures of governance’ have emerged in Australia. Inevitably, policymaking has devolved to more specialised and often extra-constitutional sub-arenas (see Miller and Demir, 2007, pp 137ff), where interest groups, companies, think tanks and third sector community organisations are represented as stakeholders and (p.191) engage directly and routinely with public sector bureaucrats and policy advisors in a collective decision-making process. Ministers at the centre of the processes of cabinet government are unlikely to play a part in policymaking that has been devolved to such specialised policy networks (or sub-arenas) in this way.
Where it occurs, the glare of media attention and the associated prospect of public controversy may give ministers a political incentive to intervene. However, most policy decisions are settled without media scrutiny. The very nature of policy networks suggests why. Public policy analysts disagree about the precise shape and role of policy networks; they are differently defined and described. However, a common thread in much of the literature is the idea that since they transcend the formal, hierarchal structures of government, networks need a common understanding of policy problems and agreement about the shared rules of the game. In short, policy networks are sustained by recognition among the various stakeholder groups, experts and public sector agencies forming them that there is a mutual advantage in acting collectively. Hence, they rest heavily upon trust and reciprocity. While a shared understanding exists and stakeholders are able to achieve their desired ends via collective action, policy will be quietly settled within specialised policy networks away from the glare of media attention.
To grasp the importance of the public discussion of policy issues in the media, we need to revisit two long-term continuing trends in Australian politics: the intervention by governments in an expanding range of policy areas and the proliferation of stakeholder interest groups. These developments make it progressively more difficult to sustain agreement within policy networks about the policy agenda and rules of the game. Richardson (2000, p 1008) argues (although not specifically about Australia) that policy networks are less stable, more fluid and less predictable than is often suggested: first, ‘interest group activity begets yet more interest group activity’; and, second, the ‘tendency for closer linkages between policy problems across different policy sectors’ means that ‘stakeholders from other policy communities demand and get entry’. The result, Richardson (2000, p 1008) suggests, is that policy networks are increasingly overcrowded, linked via a messy and unpredictable chain of actors, and assemble actors who do not know each other well. In turn, policy debates are difficult to control and their outcomes are often unpredictable. In these circumstances, established stakeholder groups accustomed to being heard and exerting influence will have an incentive to seek to re-establish their authority. This may explain their propensity to go public, for the public discussion of issues provides an opportunity to frame (or reframe) a policy issue to their advantage.
Public policy scholars have long understood that the way in which an issue is named and framed can dictate in which particular policy arena it will be decided, which evidence will be brought to bear and even the form that an appropriate solution might take. As Haigh (2012, p 140) notes, media frames often suggest necessary actions to address the problem. It seems clear that where policy issues are contested, ‘politicians and pressure groups try to control the shape and tone of debates because they seek to structure outcomes favourable to their political (p.192) interests’ (Callaghan and Schnell, 2001, pp 183–4). Haigh (2012, p 139) sees the Australian media as enabling information-sharing. However, Miller and Reichert (2001) contend that the public discussion of issues that occurs in the media is often not a genuine dialogue or sharing between elites. Rather, it is a struggle in which rival groups engage in strategic political communication with the goal of securing public and policymaker support for their particular preferred policy course of action.
In the process, contending parties talk across rather than with one another because their aim is to impose their particular policy frame upon their rivals (Miller and Reichert, 2001, p 111). The public canvassing of issues (now observed in print, broadcast and social media) forms a part of the political communication process whereby elite decision-makers attempt to influence each other (Davis, 2003, p 685). From this vantage point, going public can be seen as a particular form of venue shopping, with the media ‘acting as an alternative venue’ (Wolfe et al, 2013, p 182). Established stakeholder interest groups who judge that they are unlikely to secure a favourable outcome from deliberations within a messy and crowded policy network may well choose to engage in a public conversation through the media with the aim of imposing their particular policy frame upon other network members. This suggests a fresh line of inquiry about the part media play in public policymaking that Australian scholars have yet to explore.
Media influence ebbs and flows
Miller and Reichert’s (2001, p 111) ‘framing cycle model’ allows an additional insight: that the opportunity to shape a public conversation about policy in the media will vary, not because the public discussion of policy matters less at different stages of the policy cycle or because news media lose interest in an issue once it ceases to be newsworthy, but because a winner will eventually emerge in any contest between elites to frame (or reframe) a policy issue. Their model (which is described in Figure 12.1) provides an advance on Davis’s (2003, p 683) suggestion that elites ‘use the news media to communicate with other rival elites’ and allows a nuanced answer to Maddison and Denniss’s (2009, p 181) question ‘Why do some problems attract national attention and others pass without comment?’
Miller and Reichert place little store on whether or not media shape public opinion about policy issues. Rather, they stress that the public discussion of policy in the media is substantially a contest between competing stakeholders - Davis would say political elites - to favourably frame a policy issue, although journalists are clearly involved. The opportunities to do this vary as the public discussion of issues in the media proceeds through different stages. When an issue first attracts media attention, rival stakeholders have every incentive to publicly argue their case, not simply to establish it as a priority for government, but to dictate how it should be framed and thus which evidence should be brought to bear and in which sub-arena it should be decided.
(p.193) The framing cycle model suggests that once a particular policy frame emerges as dominant, stakeholders content with that frame have little need to pursue further public discussion, and groups opposed have little scope to contest it. That is, there are periods of time in which political elites will pursue a discussion with one another through the media, seeking to strengthen their position, and periods when any difference between stakeholders is likely to be canvassed within policy networks, well away from the media spotlight. The crucial point - one that public policy scholars who do acknowledge the ‘significant, and growing, importance of the media’ (Maddison and Denniss, 2009, p 181) need to consider - is that media have a substantial capacity to influence the shaping of public policy but do not exert a continuing or constant influence.
Conclusions: media significant or peripheral?
Politics and policy issues are a staple fare of the Australian media diet. Newspapers, television news, talk radio and - especially ABC - current affairs programmes, as well as blogs and online news outlets, all sustain an ongoing public conversation about issues and policies that now spills into, and is amplified by, social media such as Twitter or Facebook. Some policy issues appear newsworthy and attract extensive or sustained publicity. Others draw limited media interest. Sometimes, issues are forensically analysed; in other cases, they are briefly mentioned or treated in a populist fashion to outrage or entertain audiences. Media coverage of public policy in Australia is, at best, uneven. Many policy issues go entirely unreported.
Just why some but not other policy measures draw media attention poses something of a puzzle. Maddison and Dennis (2009, p 189) point out that some (p.194) policy problems will sell more papers. Part of the answer may lie in the different news judgements that journalists and editors make, or in the particular editorial stances that media organisations take. Equally, political events play a part. The ongoing political contest between governments and oppositions and rival parties is likely to secure media coverage of the particular issues that divide them. Random events such as natural disasters or international crises can also propel related policy questions into news bulletins. However, none of these explanations recognises that interest groups attempting to influence policymakers (or public sector agencies wishing to pursue their own preferred policy outcomes) have a real incentive to encourage media interest.
A fuller explanation of why media cover some but not other issues appears to lie in combining two observations: that politics can be an integral part of policymaking, even in an evidence-based regime; and that (as the mediatisation thesis suggests) politics is now substantially conducted in and through the media. Where there is a political advantage to be sought, stakeholders able to do so have an incentive to publicly canvass their policy case in the media. This is obvious in the case of opposition and governing parties, who have every motivation to highlight policy issues in their search for votes. However, the same logic applies to interest groups, even to government agencies. Here, the sheer number and range of policy demands made upon government is also a consideration. As more interests make demands upon government, those specialised sub-arenas or policy networks will grow more crowded and messy. This creates an incentive for stakeholders who fear losing influence (and are equipped do so) to switch to strategic political communication campaigns that involve utilising social or print and broadcast media to go public.
Political communication scholars have long considered that the place of media within the policy process lies in their capacity to shape public opinion - to set a public agenda that policymakers feel obliged to heed. However, the further and real influence of media is likely to lie in their influence upon political bargaining inside the political system and upon ‘the relationships of groups taking part in policy-making in different policy subsystems’ (Kunelius and Reunanen, 2012, p 58). Public discussion within the news media confers legitimacy upon issues and amplifies the demands of stakeholders, marking them out as matters warranting government attention. Within this mediated public discussion, rivals are able to share information, signal their particular claims, underscore what is negotiable and what is not, and build up a sense of their overall importance. Above all, a public conversation about an issue provides a chance to frame (or reframe) a public policy problem to one’s advantage. However, not all interest groups and stakeholders will have the requisite resources to engage in strategic political communication. Moreover, the window of opportunity to do so is limited. There will be stages during the development of policy, notably, that stage of the policy process when a problem is being identified, when the pattern of media coverage might be expected to influence the policy remedy that ultimately emerges. However, (p.195) this same influence is unlikely to extend to the (usually much less newsworthy) technical design and eventual implementation of a policy solution.
Here is the fundamental problem in seeking to understand the impact of media upon public policy in Australia and elsewhere. The public discussion of policy issues in the media can impact directly upon the framing of policy and shape the pattern of relations between different stakeholder members of policy networks. Media are now not bystanders, but part of the contemporary political process and potentially an important decision-making arena. Accordingly, interest groups and government agencies are increasingly equipped to steer the public discussion of issues. There is a very real potential for stakeholders to go public, seeking to establish the primacy of their understanding of a policy problem and to drive out advocacy by the opposing side. Yet, at the same time, much policymaking has now been devolved to subsystems or policy networks, where decisions are often reached well away from media scrutiny. In addition, the policy process itself offers limited opportunities for the media to exert an influence on policy outcomes. At one and the same time, the public discussion of issues in the media is potentially significant and normally peripheral to policymaking.
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