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date: 25 June 2022

The US Media, Foreign Policy, and Public Support for War

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the relationship between news media and US foreign policy, with an emphasis on war—a subset of the latter—given that this has been a growing area of concern in political communication scholarship. Although interest in this topic goes back arguably to the roots of mass communication research, this chapter focuses on the explosion of research on it in the last quarter century. It highlights current theoretical and empirical approaches with an eye toward delineating what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the “known unknowns.” Unanswered questions are also discussed.

Keywords: war, foreign policy, indexing, cascading activation, CNN effect, new media, public diplomacy, public opinion, media effects, embedding

Political communication scholars have long been interested in the role of the news media in shaping and reporting on the foreign policy of the United States and how that coverage (or lack of it) influences domestic public opinion and policymakers’ priorities and decisions. That said, the amount of scholarly attention to this area has increased markedly in the last 25 years, and—undoubtedly owing to the United States waging two wars (and a “global war on terror”) in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the area has seen an even greater quantity and quality of theoretical, empirical, and qualitative contributions over the last 10 years. Still, in many ways it would be fair to say that political communication scholars’ understanding of media, foreign policy, and war is still in its relative infancy, certainly as compared with other areas such as American politics, domestic public opinion, social movements, and media influence generally. Yet as the area has grown, it has become clear that what scholars have learned about media coverage, source-journalist dynamics, and media influence sometimes but not always maps from the domestic to foreign policy domains.

With this in mind, this chapter focuses on the relationship between news media and US foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on war—a subset of the latter—since that has been a concern of a disproportionate amount of scholarship in the area. Although interest in this topic goes back arguably to the roots of mass communication research, this chapter focuses on the explosion of research of the last quarter century. In particular, it emphasizes current theoretical and empirical approaches with an eye toward delineating what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the “known unknowns.”

(p. 316) General Theories of US News Media and Foreign Policy

Over the years, mass communication researchers have consistently found that mainstream media tend to reinforce dominant sociocultural norms and values, confer status upon that which is covered (and thus relegate to “nonevents” that which is not), and make decisions about coverage that are heavily routinized and source-driven (Fishman, 1980; Gans, 1979; Gitlin, 1980; Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955; Klapper, 1960; Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948; Sigal, 1973). These conclusions are, if anything, even more true when it comes to media and foreign affairs, and especially when it comes to war coverage. In addition, severe budget cutbacks in US news divisions since the early 1980s have led to a drastic reduction in the amount of international news available to American audiences via the mainstream media (Auletta, 2001; Fenton, 2005; Pew, 2011). In sum, even more than domestic policy coverage, foreign policy tends to be (1) ethnocentric (e.g., employing racial stereotypes of enemies [Dower, 1987]), (2) elite-driven, (3) uncritical (especially in the run-up to and early stages of war), and (4) episodic (usually covering other countries when senior White House officials travel to or otherwise prioritize them). In arguing for a central role for media in the study of foreign policy and public opinion, Baum and Potter (2008) echo others in suggesting that perhaps the press, for a variety of market-based and other institutional reasons, isn’t particularly well-suited to performing the critical task of informing citizens about international affairs. Put another way, in the foreign policy domain the press is far less likely to adequately fulfill its Fourth Estate function than it is in the domestic policy arena.

Perhaps the most important foundational political communication theory in contemporary research on media coverage of foreign policy is Bennett’s indexing hypothesis, which posits that media coverage of foreign affairs, especially foreign policy crises (e.g., war), tends to be “indexed” to the range of elite opinion and priorities (Bennett, 1990, 1994; Bennett et al., 2007). Bennett focuses particularly on the executive and legislative branches. For him, those in the White House and Senate are the most important actors because of their constitutionally derived authority in of foreign policy as well as the former’s command of “the bully pulpit” and expansion of power in the foreign affairs arena in the post-WWII “Imperial Presidency” era (Entman and Page, 1994; Schlesinger, 1973). Indexing draws especially on the consistent finding (see especially Sigal [1973] and Hallin [1986]) that journalism is source-driven, with media tending to ape the frames and agendas of elites (especially elected officials), and the dynamic has been found to exist in the media of countries other than the United States (Guo et al., 2014; Robinson et al., 2010). Bennett argues that elites are often either in consensus about foreign policy objectives and options (especially in wartime) or in enough agreement that the range of debate, regardless of how apparently contentious it sometimes may seem, is actually relatively constricted. Alternative approaches—especially those that favor diplomacy, are offered by antiwar protesters or challenge prevailing cultural and policy norms (e.g., Cold War assumptions in the postwar era, or counterterrorism after 9/11)—are given short shrift in policy (p. 317) debates and media coverage (Entman et al., 2009; Entman and Page, 1994; Gitlin, 1980; Wolfsfeld, 2004). The indexing hypothesis does, however, argue that if a foreign policy crisis stays on the policy, public, and media agendas for a prolonged period, a combination of emerging elite dissensus and journalistic norms incentivizing novel story lines (Gans, 1979) will open a window for these alternative approaches to be aired in the press.

While accepting the basic premises of the indexing hypothesis, Entman (2003, 2004, 2006) has offered an expanded “cascade network activation model” to explain media coverage of foreign affairs; this model synthesizes a wide variety of literature across multiple domains, most notably indexing, hegemony, and social cognition. Consistent with its waterfall metaphor, Entman’s model envisions an elite-driven chain of influence, with the White House as the prime mover, its frames and agendas “cascading” down and setting the terms of debate for a secondary level that includes Congress and other official elites, before flowing to a third level that includes the media, and, finally, a fourth in which public opinion is shaped by the messages filtered through the first three stages of the process.

Entman’s model builds on the indexing hypothesis in several ways. First, it more explicitly describes the frame contestation that occurs at various levels of the cascade and ultimately shapes the message environment to which the public is exposed through media coverage. Second, it proposes “feedback loops,” at each stage of the cascade, in which this frame contestation is altered or otherwise accounted for (e.g., through rebuttal) by actors in earlier stages. So, for example, congressional debate in 2009 on the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay forced the Obama White House to modify its position repeatedly. Similarly, public opinion shapes media coverage and elite discourse, primarily owing to the surveillance function served by opinion polling. Finally, Entman’s model doesn’t assume that all messages are created equal. Rather, he argues that the effectiveness of messages and frames, especially those from the White House that start a cascade, will depend on, among other things, the communication skills of elites and institutions (e.g., the White House) and their cultural resonance with audiences. The latter point is particularly significant: Entman is drawing on the persuasion and hegemony literature simultaneously to argue that, for example, presidents will be most effective at dominating the framing environment if their messages are consistent with the values and priorities of the public and less so the more they deviate (or can be framed as deviating from) those values.

Others have proposed models of media-elite interaction in foreign affairs that also draw on, while modifying, the indexing hypothesis. Wolfsfeld’s (2004) politics-media-politics (PMP) principle, for example, proposes that the political process—debate, consensus, dissensus, etc.—shapes media coverage, which itself then alters the political discourse. The PMP principle posits active media that engage with the political process rather than serving as passive receptacles for elite frames. Wolfsfeld et al. have contrasted the PMP principle with cascading activation by arguing that the former is more dynamic.

Finally, Baum and Groeling (2010) propose a “strategic bias” theory of media-elite-public interaction in which the well-established press bias toward conflict leads the (p. 318) news media to present a distorted image of the foreign policy debate, focusing excessively on elite disagreement (what they refer to as “opinion indexing”) and negative news. This, they argue, leads audiences to filter news about foreign affairs primarily through the prism of partisan predispositions, led by elite cues. Here they are drawing from and adding to a long literature in political science and political communication from multiple domains, emphasizing the importance of partisan predispositions and elite messaging in helping citizens to process complex policy information heuristically (e.g., Berinsky, 2007; Brody, 1991; Zaller, 1992). Their argument, however, goes a step further by positing an “elasticity of reality” dynamic in which presidents’ ability to control the framing environment in wartime ebbs over time as events and partisan divisions materialize. This parallels an argument made by Aday (2008) that presidents have “framing windows” during the course of a military intervention that are “bigger” (i.e., their frames influence a wider range of the public) and can overwhelm partisan predispositions during the establishing phase and early stages of a crisis (e.g., the large number of Democrats who supported President Bush after 9/11) but shrink as events and elite dissensus—transmitted through the media—combine with partisanship to play a bigger role in shaping public opinion.

War Coverage

Perhaps the best-developed area of interest for political communication scholars who study media and foreign affairs has to do with the coverage of war, arguably the most important aspect of foreign policy. The literature in this area has been primarily concerned with two phenomena: (1) casualty coverage and (2) public opinion rallies. Both topics can be said to have their roots in War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (1973), the seminal book by John Mueller, that uses data primarily from the Vietnam and Korean wars to argue that publics will rally behind presidents who go to war, but that these rallies will eventually fade and support for intervention dissipate as home-country casualties mount over time—something known as the casualty aversion hypothesis. In some elite quarters, this has been combined with a view that the United States lost the Vietnam War not only because casualties mounted but also because television turned the conflict into a “living room war” that exacerbated the public’s casualty sensitivity by making the war’s human costs more vivid.

Hallin (1986) has written what remains the most important and thorough debunking of some of these assumptions while also providing a guide to trends in US war coverage across conflicts. In his influential book The Uncensored War, Hallin uses extensive content analyses of media coverage of Vietnam to demonstrate that the press adopted a largely uncritical view of the war—which typically parroted official US military and policymaker frames, assumptions, and agendas—until prominent members of Congress began questioning the war’s progress in 1967 and the Tet Offensive in early (p. 319) 1968. Furthermore, despite the image of a living room war, casualty images were few and far between until after Tet.

Hallin’s corrective about Vietnam War coverage illuminates the nature of US war coverage and what accounts for changes in that coverage. First—as historians, political communication scholars, and others have shown across virtually all US wars—media coverage follows a familiar pattern that is invariably uncritical of official claims and arguments (especially those emanating from the White House) in the run up to and early stages of war (see for instance, Campbell [2000] and Nasaw [2000] regarding the Spanish-American War; Fussell [1989] and Pyle [1979] regarding WWII; Bennett [1990] on Nicaragua; Dickson [1995] about the invasion of Panama; Hallin [1991], Kellner [1992], Mermin [1999], and Newhagen [1994], regarding the Persian Gulf War; and Aday et al. [2005], Katovsky and Carlson [2003], and others regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Second, and relatedly, coverage of casualties generally and of American casualties (especially those killed in action) specifically is scant to nonexistent until well into a war (if then) and certainly has never been presented in the kind of vivid and consistent manner presumed by the “living room war” metaphor (Aday, 2005). Althaus et al. (2014) show that this pattern has remained constant over the past 100 years of coverage in the New York Times. Third, contrary to the conventional wisdom in some circles that presumes media to be biased against war, in order for coverage to turn negative, certain preconditions must be met, the most important being (1) elite dissensus and (2) demonstrably and enduringly negative events on the ground. The former is consistent with findings discussed earlier regarding elite-driven news, while the latter show that reality itself may eventually influence press coverage. Still, even then, coverage may be more positive than facts on the ground would warrant (Aday, 2010a; Zaller and Chiu, 1996).

In the Vietnam case, for instance, congressional angst about the progress of the war began gaining momentum in the year before Tet (notably with prominent senators such as William Fulbright). This elite cueing is an important precursor to tonal changes in press coverage (Baum and Groeling, 2010; Bennett, 1990; Hallin, 1986). Similarly, Aday, Cluverius and Livingston (2005) have shown that elite cues about victory in Iraq, combined with a general tendency toward patriotic press coverage and cultural-historic signifiers (e.g., the fall of the Berlin Wall and statues of Lenin), led US media not only to breathlessly cover the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, as if it represented the triumphant end of the Iraq War but also American television networks to drastically reduce their coverage of the war in the week following the statue’s fall.

A related finding among scholars of media and war is that political leaders often use culturally resonant historical metaphors to advocate military intervention, with a bias toward references evoking the “good war”—World War II. These analogies then receive prominent airing in the press (Aday and Kim, 2008; Dorman and Livingston, 1994). Prominent among them are comparisons analogizing the enemy leader to Adolph Hitler and his government to that of the Nazis; also comparing opponents of intervention to Neville Chamberlain and/or accusing such opponents of “appeasement” (Jervis, 1976; (p. 320) Khong, 1992; Petraeus, 1987). Given the well-established finding that media coverage echoes elite framing, particularly in support of intervention when urged by the White House, it is not surprising that these metaphors also tend to dominate press coverage in the establishing phase and early stages of a war (Dorman and Livingston, 1994). Aday and Kim (2008), for example, found these frames to be prevalent in coverage of the Iraq War and, in experiments, more persuasive than Vietnam counterframes.

Media-Military Relations

These findings point to the importance of military-media relations in understanding war coverage and the corresponding source-journalist dyad (Aukofer and Lawrence, 1995). The conventional wisdom is that up to Vietnam, the press was largely patriotic and supplicant to the military, but that it has been reflexively critical since. This is only partly true. Through Vietnam, journalists were allowed on the front lines with US forces but, especially in the twentieth century, their copy was censored by the military, ostensibly for operational security reasons but in fact for more propagandistic aims (Fussell, 1989; see also Prochnau, 2005). Most notably, images of dead US GIs were almost entirely forbidden in American media in the first two World Wars. This era of “postcensorship” was replaced beginning with the invasion of Grenada in 1983 with one of “precensorship.” Following the lead of British media management in the Falklands/Malvinas War a year earlier and spurred by an institutional belief among many in the military and the Republican-controlled White House that the press had played a role in losing Vietnam (Petraeus, 1987; Wilson, 2001), reporters were kept away from the battle and left on boats to cover the invasion via press conference. Although this media management strategy raised hackles among the press and many critics, it also allowed the military to control the message environment and resulted in uncritical coverage of conflicts ranging from Grenada to Panama to the Persian Gulf War (Hallin, 1991; Sharkey, 2001).

This policy changed, however, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the Pentagon switched to a modified version of the postcensorship model called embedding. The decision to attach journalists to specific units stemmed in large part from a belief that in the twenty-first-century global media environment, information wars were important components of an intervention’s success (Katovsky and Carlson, 2003). Critics of the program accused journalists of being “in bed” with the military, and many reporters refused to be embedded, choosing instead to roam on their own (becoming “unilateral” journalists, a term these reporters loathed). Scholarly studies of embedded coverage shows mixed results regarding whether the coverage was indeed more slanted than would be expected. Pfau and colleagues, for instance, found evidence of pro-American bias in embedded reportage (2004). Using different measures of tone, Aday, Livingston and Hebert (2005) didn’t find significant differences in the level of patriotic coverage but did find that unilateral reporters showed more casualty images in broadcast news.

(p. 321) Public Opinion About Foreign Policy

Before turning to the question of the effects of exposure to media coverage of foreign affairs, it may be helpful to clarify the nature of public opinion about foreign policy generally. For a variety of reasons, studies consistently show that the American public knows even less about foreign affairs generally and foreign policy specifically than it does about domestic issues, although there is debate about whether citizens still make basically rational if not fully informed decisions about foreign policy (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1997; Holsti, 2004; Jentleson, 1992; Page and Shapiro, 1992). The public is particularly dependent on media coverage, elite messaging, and other informational cognitive shortcuts (especially ethnocentrism [Kinder and Kam, 2009]) to inform them about matters with which they are highly unlikely to have either personal experience or to know people who do (Althaus, 2003; Brody, 1991; Krosnick and Kinder, 1990; Sniderman et al., 1991; Zaller, 1992). Aldrich et al.’s (2006) summary of this literature concludes that there appears to be something of a scholarly consensus that people hold fairly stable foreign policy views that drive judgments (e.g., voting).

This has been shown to be particularly true in foreign policy crises (Boyle et al. 2004), when people seek out information from a variety of sources. Baum (2003) has shown that these include “soft news” venues such as entertainment shows, and that such media are relatively good at informing at least some viewers about basic facts regarding the crisis—a finding consistent with other literature showing that people learn about war from media (Pan et al., 1994). Yet any learning is going to be inevitably constrained by several factors, including the fact that crisis coverage (especially regarding war) is typically consensus-based and has not been preceded by consistent international coverage that might provide a store of available foreign policy‒related information with which to contextualize and interpret media and elite messaging. As discussed above, press coverage of matters outside America’s borders has become vanishingly rare since the early 1980s. This, coupled with the elite-driven nature of foreign coverage, leads to a public that is especially likely to base its foreign affairs opinions on elite cues filtered through the media.

There are three major implications of this set of patterns. First, because foreign policy beliefs are more likely to be based on heuristic information processing than perhaps some domestic policy issue positions are, social cognition research tells us that they are likely to be less stable and more susceptible to persuasion (Eagly and Chaiken, 1993). Since party heuristics are among those most commonly utilized for policy opinion formation, partisan elites are particularly likely to influence public opinion on international affairs. For instance, Berinsky (2007) and Berinsky and Druckman (2007) found that people’s opinions about the Iraq War several years into it could be explained primarily by their attitudes toward President Bush. Berinsky (2009) has found similar dynamics at play in looking at public opinion during earlier wars dating back to WWII.

(p. 322) Second, because the range of elite foreign policy opinion is limited in general and more likely to be in consensus during international crises (Bennett, 1990; Mueller, 1973), media coverage can accentuate and contribute to public opinion rallies in support of White House policies (Althaus and Coe, 2011; Baum, 2002; Jordan and Page, 1992; Lian and Oneal, 1993; McLeod et al., 1994; Oneal and Bryan, 1995; Zaller, 1992) and make citizens especially susceptible to and dependent on elite messages filtered through the media (Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur, 1976; Hindman, 2004). One implication of this can be that during major foreign policy crises, trust in political and media institutions is heightened (Brewer et al., 2003, 2004). Gross et al. (2004), for example, found such heightened institutional trust following the 9/11 attacks to be associated with exposure to media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath (when, importantly, politicians gave many indications of elite consensus).

Finally, a depleted foreign affairs information environment makes citizens particularly susceptible to misinformation—a phenomenon that can take several forms. For instance, the otherwise reasonable assumption by citizens that politicians take the time to be informed about foreign policy, even crises, and base their votes and opinions on that information rather than partisanship or other political calculations, may not always be true, as the Iraq and Vietnam cases demonstrated. In addition, factual inaccuracies endorsed by elites and broadcast through the media are not only likely to be accepted by the public but to persist even after their debunking (Kull et al., 2003).

Effects of Exposure to War Coverage

The question of what role media play in generating or depressing public support for war has been of increasing interest to political communication and political science scholars over the past 20 years. In particular, Mueller’s (1973, 1994, 2005) casualty aversion hypothesis has been fleshed out and contextualized by recent work that has challenged or modified its propositions (Althaus et al., 2012; Baum, 2003; Gartner and Segura, 2000; Gartner et al., 2004; Morgan and Campbell, 1991; Reiter and Stam, 2002; Russett, 1990). The preponderance of work in this area, however, has found scant support for the casualty aversion hypothesis, at least as proposed by Mueller (Burk, 1999; Dauber, 2001; Eichenberg, 2005; Feaver and Gelpi, 2004; Gartner and Segura, 1998; Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler, 2005; Jentleson, 1992; Jentleson and Britton, 1998; Klarevas, 2002). Instead, casualties are seen as being contextualized by citizens depending on other variables, such as cost-benefit analysis (Lacquement, 2004), elite consensus or dissensus (Berinsky, 2007, 2009; Berinsky and Druckman, 2007; Larson, 1996), the nature of the conflict (e.g., whether it addresses a serious threat to the United States or is more of a humanitarian intervention) (Jentleson 1992; Jentleson and Britton 1998) and whether the intervention is seen by the public as being likely to succeed and as righteous (Gelpi et al., 2005/2006, 2009; Feaver and Gelpi, 2004; Sidman and Norpoth, 2012).

(p. 323) Still, while the emerging consensus among scholars is that casualties alone may not be the most important determinant of public support for military action, most empirical tests of the casualty aversion hypothesis do not posit media exposure as an important independent or intervening variable in determining public support for military interventions (Berinsky, 2007; Gelpi et al., 2009; Jentleson, 1992). Yet it seems reasonable to ask, for example, why the public sees a conflict as winnable, righteous, or in the interests of the United States (all variables that political scientists have argued affect public support for intervention). For example, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars were initially justified by political elites’ arguments that they represented potentially existential national security threats and that victory was assured. Yet historical hindsight exposes these arguments to have been frames rather than facts (to be charitable).

The “CNN Effect” and Other Effects Studies

Political communication, by contrast, has begun to address the relationship between media exposure and support (or nonsupport) for military intervention. One area of inquiry that has received a great deal of attention is the CNN effect hypothesis. With roots in Mueller, this hypothesis proposed that in an era of 24-hour broadcast news, some vivid images might spur support for intervention (e.g., images of a famine), while others, notably casualties (e.g., a dead American airman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu) might make the public risk-averse. Since the hypothesis was crafted, most studies have found little evidence of direct effects on the public in line with it (Gilboa 2005; Livingston and Eachus, 1995; Robinson, 1999; although Hawkins [2011] argues that lack of media coverage of global conflicts has the important effect of banishing them from the global policy agenda). By contrast, however, policymakers’ perception of the media’s power to influence publics through such imagery, especially against interventions that inflict American casualties, has been shown to lead them to adopt policies that avoid or limit American risks (e.g., avoiding intervening to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994) (Gilboa, 2005; Lacquement, 2004; Livingston, 1997, 2000; Robinson, 2002).

Other research suggests, however, that media coverage might matter in other ways, such as being an intervening variable between elite cues and public opinion (Boettcher and Cobb, 2006; Chanley, 1999). Jordan and Page, (1992), for instance, found that favorable messages in television news from elite sources had a significant effect on changing public attitudes. Baker and Oneal (2001), Oneal and Bryan (1995), and Aday (2010b) all find that media coverage and the framing of war news is associated with the occurrence and magnitude of rally effects. Entman et al. (2009) argue that episodic and tactically oriented war stories that ignore more thematic and geostrategic implications of war and foreign policy create “accountability gaps” that prevent presidents and other elites from (p. 324) being held fully responsible when those policies fail or backfire (see also Aday et al., 2010; Entman et al., 2010).

But despite their prominence in normative discussions of media coverage of war, the specific effects of exposure to casualty images, especially vivid ones, remain largely unaddressed empirically. Recently, however, a few scholars have begun to investigate experimentally the influence of mediated casualty images on audience attitudes. Aday (2010b), for instance, found, in the middle of the Iraq War, that subjects tended to reframe graphic images of dead American soldiers through the prism of their partisan predispositions, with Republican-leaning participants more likely to feel pride in a heroic and worthy sacrifice while Democrats felt more negative emotions. The emotional responses were the opposite in groups exposed to more typical blood-free photos. In a series of experiments, Gartner (2008, 2011) found that “conventionalized” casualty images, such as flag-draped coffins (as opposed to “unconventional” images, such as battle pictures) have a greater tendency to shift a person from supporting to opposing a war, but that this effect is filtered through and sometimes mitigated by his or her partisanship. Still, there remains a great deal of work to be done to discern what effect, if any, exposure to the various media images of war has on audiences.

New Media, War, and Conflict

In the last decade the role of new and social media, from satellite television and blogs to Facebook and Twitter, in shaping foreign affairs, international conflicts, and public opinion has received increasing attention from policymakers and scholars. Interest in these media has accelerated as events from Iran’s Green Movement in 2009 to the Arab Spring in 2011 appeared to be driven to some degree by them. As is often the case, pundits and policymakers were quick to declare powerful media effects, trumpeting “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook diplomacy.” Scholars, however, have mostly been more hesitant and nuanced even when they posit an important role for these media in social movements that challenge or even bring down despotic governments (Castells, 2000; Lynch, 2007; Shirky, 2011; Zuckerman, 2008). In part this is perhaps a legacy of the strong, though certainly controversial, history of the limited media effects tradition in mass communication studies (Klapper, 1960; but see Gitlin, 1978, for a spirited rebuttal). It also stems from the simple fact that powerful direct effects have been elusive in the growing number of studies that have investigated them.

But another important reason is that gathering and making sense of online data has proven extremely difficult (Aday et al., 2010 a,b). In doing so, researchers face several challenges. First, data collection is difficult because the universe of, say, tweets or blog posts is not only large and diverse but also not necessarily known. Second, even when tools are developed for gathering large amounts of data, the complex statistical procedures required to make sense of them are not easily applied. Finally, language barriers present critical difficulties for scholars who are working in an international setting.

(p. 325) Because of these difficulties, much of the research in this area has been descriptive, using occasionally innovative data collection, analysis, and visualization tools to, for example, map the international blogosphere (Kelly and Etling, 2008). Others have relied on more qualitative, less empirical approaches to argue either for the power of new media (Shirky, 2011) or the lack thereof (Morozov, 2011). However, some have used innovative techniques to assess the role of new and social media in international politics. One of the best examples to date is Howard’s (2010) cross-cultural study of the relationship between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and political systems in the Islamic world. That work concludes not only that ICT diffusion is associated with the transformation of dictatorships to more democratic regimes but also that digital diffusion is a necessary and sufficient precondition for such political change.

Indeed, an emerging finding in the literature in this area is that the power of some social media and other online tools resides in their ability to organize collective action (Bimber, 2003; Bimber et al., 2005; Castells, 2009). Still, an important insight that should be drawn from past political communication research on traditional media is that it is important to parse the effects of various kinds of media (e.g., newspapers versus television) rather than treating “media” as a uniform variable. Similarly, scholars are increasingly recognizing the importance of differentiating the effects of Twitter from those of Facebook and satellite television; they are also recognizing that very often media organizations such as, for example, Al Jazeera, use multiple platforms that may have unique effects on events themselves and public opinion about them.

The Arab Spring protests that swept across the Arab Middle East in 2011–2012 provided a test case for theories about digital media’s effects on social movements and democratization. Although some early studies after the initial protests hailed them as the onset of “Democracy’s Fourth Wave” (Howard and Hussein, 2013), later work has adopted a more cautious note (Patel et al., 2014; Tufekci and Wilson, 2012). On the one hand, some research has shown that social media fueled conversations outside the affected countries in a way consistent with Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) notion of a “boomerang effect” that can lead to international pressure on autocratic regimes to show restraint in the face of protests or even resign (Aday et al., 2013; Bruns et al., 2013). At the same time, the fact remains that only two regimes—in Tunisia and Egypt—fell and were replaced by fledgling democracies. More recent research has shown that these same social media, from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube, often become tools of misinformation and segmentation (Lynch et al., 2014, 2015; Khamis et al., 2012), and that most protesters and citizens in these countries did not utilize these media very often or even have access to them (Brym et al., 2014). Lynch et al. (2014), for example, found that as the Syrian conflict progressed from a protest phase to a civil war that served as a proxy fight for regional powers, the Twitterverse about Syria also became fragmented in ways that reflected those divisions, often spreading hate and baseless rumors about rival interests. The authors found a similar patter (Lynch et al., 2015) in looking at Egyptian Twitter during the political transition phase that followed the early Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak.

Hence, new media and other technological innovations are leading scholars to rethink old paradigms in political communication regarding media and foreign affairs. In particular, the press-state dynamic described earlier—in which the foreign policy press is largely dependent on and reflective of political elites in a nation-state system—is being challenged. Global media and satellite-based technologies (e.g., in the area of mapping), for instance, have empowered transnational advocacy networks (TANs) and other networked communities to gain access to publics and media (and therefore an even wider public) and challenge official framing and message dominance (Aday and Livingston, 2008, 2009; Bimber, 2003; Castells, 2000, 2009; Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Livingston, 2001). Portable satellite video technology and smartphones are giving reporters—professional and amateur—the ability, in theory at least, to circumvent official media management strategies and potentially include a wider array of sources that can now be efficiently engaged via the Internet (Livingston and Asmolov, 2010). Because old news norms die hard however, foreign policy coverage often still clings to elite source-driven framing and agendas (Bennett and Livingston, 2003; Livingston and Bennett, 2003).


Although this chapter represents only an overview of the literature on media and foreign policy, its survey has identified a few robust findings and signaled some (p. 326) areas in which additional work is needed. Five major conclusions about media and foreign affairs are well grounded in past work: (1) the press-state power dynamic clearly favors political elites, especially the president; (2) coverage of foreign policy outside of war tends to be scarce, elite-driven, ethnocentric, and uncritical; (3) war coverage is all of those things, only more so, plus casualty-free and tactically/episodically driven rather than focusing on geostrategic or more thematic issues and implications; (4) media coverage, especially in crises, can contribute to rallies in public opinion; and (5) these trends have become exacerbated since the early 1980s as news organizations have cut their foreign news budgets and overseas bureaus drastically.

At the same time, at least five areas of research political communication scholars are still in an embryonic stage: First, the role of emotion in both the processing of foreign policy events and media coverage of them is a growing field of study mirroring the increasing interest in affective response across scholarly domains (Aday, 2010b; Huddy et al., 2003; Kinder and Kam, 2009). Emotion clearly plays a role in how people make sense of international events and news, especially in crises, but we are only beginning to understand how and why. Second, this area of inquiry has a long way to go in explaining what, if any, effects exposure to casualty images produces. Because it involves the wide variety of variables at play, this topic, which is highly relevant to policy and newsroom ethics’ debates and policies, is ideally suited to a rich research agenda. Third, despite frequent punditry to the contrary, we know precious little about the effects and role of new and social media on collective action, system support, democracy building, and message reception, to name just a few dependent variables. As noted earlier, significant methodological issues need to be worked out in this area, and it will be important to parse effects by medium rather than lumping all “new media” together. Fourth, political communication needs to pay more attention to foreign policy not involving wars or crises. Fifth, more attention needs to be paid in coming years to how the transition to online news, both for new and traditional media organizations, influences the media-state-public dynamic. It could be, for instance, that cheaper forms of producing and distributing international news (e.g., “backpacker” journalism and cell phone video cameras), including by amateurs, will arrest the downward spiral in the amount and caliber of foreign news available to American audiences. At this point, however, it is fair to say that despite the existence of some insightful foreign policy and war reporters,1 a strong argument can be made in favor of the notion that the press is failing to meet its Fourth Estate challenge when it comes to foreign affairs coverage.


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(1.) For example: Dexter Filkins, Carlotta Gall, and Howard French of the New York Times; Deb Amos of NPR; Laura King of the Los Angeles Times; Christiane Amanpour of CNN; Rajiv Chandrasekaren of the Washington Post, just to name a few.