Reporting bias–the media’s tendency to systematically underreport or overreport certain types of events–is a persistent problem for participants and observers of armed conflict. We argue that the nature of reporting bias depends on how news organizations navigate the political context in which they are based. Where government pressure on the media is limited–in democratic regimes–the scope of reporting should reflect conventional media preferences toward novel, large-scale, dramatic developments that challenge the conventional wisdom and highlight the unsustainability of the status quo. Where political constraints on reporting are more onerous–in non-democratic regimes–the more conservative preferences of the state will drive the scope of coverage, emphasizing the legitimacy and inevitability of the prevailing order. We test these propositions using new data on protest and political violence during the 2011 Libyan uprising and daily newspaper coverage of the Arab Spring from 113 countries. We uncover evidence of a status-quo media bias in non-democratic states, and a revisionist bias in democratic states. Media coverage in non-democracies underreported protests and nonviolent collective action by regime opponents, largely ignored government atrocities, and overreported those caused by rebels. We find the opposite patterns in democratic states.
Media outlets in multiparty electoral systems tend to report on a wider range of policy issues than media in two-party systems. They thus make more competing policy frames available to citizens. This suggests that a “free press” is insufficient to hold governments accountable. Rather, we should observe more challenges to the governments’ preferred frames and more politically aware citizens in multiparty democracies. Such citizens should thus be better equipped to hold their leaders accountable, relative to their counterparts in two-party democracies. I propose a mechanism through which democratic publics can sometimes constrain their leaders in foreign policy. I test hypotheses derived from my theory with cross-national data on the content of news coverage of Iraq, on public support for the war, and on decisions to contribute troops to the Iraq “Coalition of the Willing.” I find that citizens in countries with larger numbers of parties confronted more critical and diverse coverage of Iraq, while those with more widespread access to mass media were more likely to oppose the war and their nations likely to contribute fewer troops to the Coalition.
This study assesses the relationship between political partisanship and attitudes and behavior with respect to the Swine Flu crisis of 2009 in general, and the US mass vaccination program in particular. I argue that even seemingly non-partisan political issues like public health are increasingly characterized by partisan polarization in public attitudes, and that such polarization is in part attributable, at least in part, to the breakdown of the information commons that characterized the American mass media from roughly the 1950s until the early 1990s. In its place has arisen an increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented media marketplace in which individuals are better able to limit their information exposure to attitudes and opinions that reinforce, rather than challenge, their preexisting beliefs. I test my argument against a variety of data sources, including opinion surveys and state level Swine Flu vaccination rate data.
How does the American public formulate its opinions about U.S. foreign policy and military engagement abroad? War Stories argues that the media systematically distort the information the public vitally needs to determine whether to support such initiatives, for reasons having more to do with journalists' professional interests than the merits of the policies, and that this has significant consequences for national security. Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling develop a “strategic bias” theory that explains the foreign-policy communication process as a three-way interaction among the press, political elites, and the public, each of which has distinct interests, biases, and incentives.
Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy and government at Harvard University. Tim J. Groeling is associate professor of communication studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The causes and consequences of public support, or the lack thereof, for the overseas application of military force is a subject of longstanding scholarly debate. The most widely accepted explanations emphasize rational public responses to events as they unfold. Such “event-based” explanations hold that a president’s ability to sustain public support for a U.S. military engagement depends primarily on its degree of success, the number of or trend in U.S. casualties, or the U.S. goals in a given conflict. Yet, recent research into the framing of foreign policy has shown that public perceptions concerning, success or failure, the implications of casualties, and the offensive or defensive nature of U.S. military engagements are often endogenous to the domestic political circumstances surrounding them, including the efforts of political and media elites to frame events to their own advantage.
In this study, we develop and test a series of hypotheses concerning media coverage of, and public opinion regarding, the war in Iraq. In the former case, in prior research (Baum and Groeling 2004, 2005) we report evidence that journalists’ preferences lead traditional news programs to disproportionately feature instances of members of the presidential party criticizing their fellow partisan president and, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, of the opposition party praising him. Moreover, because they represent costly speech, presidential party attacks are highly credible to consumers, as is opposition party praise. In contrast, in more ideologically narrow “new media” outlets, we anticipate that the balance will likely differ substantially.
We test our hypotheses concerning media coverage through a comprehensive content analysis of all coverage of the war from September 2004 through February 2007 appearing on the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and FOX’s Special Report with Brit Hume. We test our public opinion hypotheses using that same dataset, as well as an expert survey on conditions in Iraq and national opinion toward the Iraq War broken down by party. We find significant differences in both the composition and impact of partisan messages on public opinion across outlets.
Building on recent work in evolutionary psychology, we predict substantial gender-related differences in demand for scandalous political news. We argue that individuals’ self-images can alter their motivation to seek information about potential sexual competitors and mates, even when those figures are “virtual”—appearing in mass media. Individuals perceiving themselves as attractive will seek negative news about attractive same-gender individuals, whereas individuals perceiving themselves as unattractive will seek negative information about the opposite gender. We test our hypotheses in three ways. First, we investigate partially disaggregated national opinion data regarding news attention. Second, we conduct an experiment in which we asked participants to choose the two most interesting stories from a menu of headlines. We varied the gender and party affiliation of the individual featured in the story. Each participant saw a headline promoting a DUI arrest of an attractive male or female “rising star” from one of the two parties. Finally, we repeat the experiment with a national sample, this time also varying the valence of the tabloid story. We find strong correlations between respondents’ self-image and their likelihood of seeking and distributing positive or negative information about “virtual” competitors and mates.
Research has shown that messages of intra-party harmony tend to be ignored by the news media, while internal disputes, especially within the governing party, generally receive prominent coverage. We examine how messages of party conflict and cooperation affect public opinion regarding national security, as well as whether and how the reputations of media outlets matter. We develop a typology of partisan messages in the news, determining their likely effects based on the characteristics of the speaker, listener, news outlet, and message content. We hypothesize that criticism of the president by his fellow partisan elites should be exceptionally damaging (especially on a “conservative” media outlet), while opposition party praise of the president should be the most helpful (especially on a “liberal” outlet). We test our hypotheses through an experiment and a national survey on attitudes regarding the Iraq War. The results show that credible communication (i.e., “costly” rhetoric harmful to a party) is more influential than “cheap talk” in moving public opinion. Ironically, news media outlets perceived as ideologically “hostile” can actually enhance the credibility of certain messages relative to “friendly” news sources.
The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the "soft news" media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.
Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.