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The Impact of Public Opinion and Media on Foreign Policy

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Traditionally, academics have regarded foreign policy as an area of “high” politics (Almond, 1950). However, the possible effects of media, with the complex influence of public opinion, have garnered scholarly attention and debate for several decades now, without a clear consensus ever truly emerging. As Steven Livingston summarized: “The impact of these new global, real-time media is typically regarded as substantial, if not profound.” He pointed to two key factors in particular: the first factor was the conclusion of the Cold War, in 1989. The second factor refers to the incredible progressions within “communications technology” which have allowed us to “broadcast live” across the world. (Livingston, 1997, p.1).

This essay seeks to analyse several interaction theories on this subject, to understand whether any singular theorem is sufficient enough to determine whether elite interests are able to mediate the impact of media and public opinion on foreign policy. Firstly, I will analyse the indexing theory, which holds that editors and journalists are likely to “index” media discourse according to the viewpoints expressed by elite policymakers about a given topic in order to “keep the news compatible with the shifting political and economic interests of the state” (Bennett, 1990). During this analysis, I will also explore the “manufacturing consent theory”, which has a similar basis to the concept of indexing. Finally, I will critique the “agenda-setting theory”, alongside the “CNN effect”, which explores the close relationship between the influential coverage of the news media and subsequent key foreign policy decisions made by elites (Nitoiu, 2015). First, I will begin by defining the parameters of the terms “public opinion”, “media” and “elite.”

“Public opinion” is a disputed concept between different ideological stances. This essay will utilise the liberal school of thought for which “public opinion” signifies the aggregate of society’s opinions surrounding a public interest related issue. (Yeric & Todd, 1989). With regards to the term “media”, the definition for this essay encompasses the main means of mass communication: broadcasting and print newspapers (legacy media), but also the internet – including social media. When referring to elites, it must be noted that this encompasses economic and media elites, as well as government elites, for the purpose of this essay.

In recent years, the importance of “public opinion and media”, within the realm of foreign policy, has become a polemic issue amongst academics (Knecht & Weatherford, 2006). A particular outlook, the “elite-centric model”, suggests that when it comes to foreign affairs the general public as a whole are “ill informed”, and are therefore easy to manipulate (Almond, 1960; Mearsheimer, 1990; Knecht & Weatherford, 2006). Consequently, these characteristics are often proffered by realists as grounds for establishing foreign policy decisions for the sake of “national interest”, instead of fluctuating public “preferences” (Kennan, 1951; Knecht & Weatherford, 2006). The seminal work of W. Lance Bennett (1990) introduces the best-known “indexing hypothesis”, building upon the foundations laid by Bernard Cohen (1963) and Daniel Hallin (1986). As aforementioned, the indexing hypothesis maintains that opinions presented in news coverage are “indexed” by media corporations “to reflect the range of opinions that exist within the government” (Gilboa, 2005; Bennett, 1990, p.106). Essentially, the news media parrot the opinions exhibited during government debate, usually with the aim of garnering “political support” (Gilboa, 2005, p.32). Thus, critical coverage will only feature in the media if there is elite dissensus, or if political uncertainty arises. As stated in Berry’s works, (1990, p.xiii), “to a far greater extent than with domestic politics, the press is at one with the foreign policy establishment.” Policy-makers in particular are “prime sources for indexing” because they can spread their ideas and opinions in several ways, such as “speeches, planting stories, releasing negative stories which might overshadow other bigger news items, [or] feeding articles to the media” (Nițoiu, 2015).

The main reason given for this particular policymakers-media interaction theory, is the existence of journalistic behavioural norms that appear to be embedded in political culture, particularly the US (Bennett, 1990). The media “often rally along with the public”, essentially parroting information obtained by decision-making elites, because of their reliance on “authoritative sources” for news resources, for instance the press office at the White House (Baum & Potter, 2008, p.51; Zaller & Chiu, 2000; Cohen, 1963). Furthermore, journalists aren’t only reliant on government elites for information, rather it is not uncommon for journalists to leave the private sector to take on high-level government roles, as exemplified in the case of Jay Carney, who left Time magazine in 2011 to become the White House Press Secretary for the Obama administration (McCarthy, 2018). However, although media may “index” their coverage to fit elite rhetoric, we cannot assume that the public are always responsive to elite manipulation. A large percentage of the public have been shown to not change their attitudes frequently in accordance with news media positions. It may be that the public are more rational and less open to manipulation than the hypothesis asserts (Shapiro & Page, 1988; Risse-Kappen, 1991). Moreover, in today’s climate, political communication systems are less coherent, and the legacy press are unable to set agendas, and produce effects to the same degree. Certainly, the extent of indexing for legacy press, like print newspapers and broadcasters, may “expand during crisis events such as wars, natural disasters or economic upheavals”, when governments monopolise information, but it is becoming more and more commonplace for “authoritative political information” to fail to reach as far as it once did, and/or is “drowned out by alternative sources of uncertain credibility” (Bennett, 2018, p.248; Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingstone, 2008). Hence, I believe it would be unsuitable to say that the impact of media upon foreign policy appears to be categorically mediated by elite interests, and also that the indexing hypothesis fails to consider public opinion as an independent entity.

A similar, although far more polemic theory, is the “manufacturing consent” theory, a structural approach to media/state relations. Several academics have suggested that media output is controlled by powerful groups who are consequently able to garner support with the aid of the media (Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Mermin, 1999). The “manufacturing consent” literature highlights the influential power of government elites in regard to media output and the “tendency of journalists to both self-censor and perceive global events” from an elite standpoint; the marginalisation of these journalists ends up forcing most to generate propaganda (Robinson, 2002, p.12; Nițoiu, 2015). During the Bosnian war, for instance, Kent found that there was a tendency for editors to work within a “sphere of consensus”, thus editorial pieces outside of this “sphere” were unlikely to be published (Kent, 2006, p.346). Editorial pressure forced reporters to print the words of State Department officials even when they knew the information was inaccurate (Kent, 2006; Pedelty, 1995, p.87). Through a Marxist lens, the inherent need for the media to generate profit “generally derails [them] from acting in the public interest”, since the discourse favoured by the elite owners is usually reflected within the news reporting (Stier, 2015, p.1275). Likewise, the most explicit “manufacturing consent” theory, developed by Herman and Chomsky (2002), is a “propaganda model”, presenting the media as an instrument of propaganda, with no influence or power over decision-makers, “that cannot foster public debate by providing free and unconstrained access to news and information” (Nitoiu, 2015, p.26). This “propaganda model”, or the “manufacturing consent” theory, helps to build the content of the news media, and is supported by “structural factors” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002). Moreover, the implementation of propaganda aids in mobilising “support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity” (Herman, 1993; Herman & Chomsky, 2002).

According to Herman & Chomsky, elite-oriented news production is affected by several principal “filters” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, p.2). Firstly, the “dominant media firms”, aiming to make profit, often have personal vested interests in other “major corporations” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, p.13). These “symbiotic” relationships tend to restrict the type of content that is broadcast because of these particular conglomerates (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, p.13). Secondly, it is undeniable that the media is dependent on dvertising. In television particularly, as advertising slots inevitably increase, broadcasts with noteworthy “public-affairs content” will be either marginalised or eliminated entirely (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, p.17). I believe it is also salient to highlight that media firms often maintain particular stances to appease, attract, advertising investment. Thirdly, much like the indexing theory, high-ranking government elites are relied upon by media corporations for sources that are “credible”, and therefore reliable (Herman and Chomsky, 2002, p.19). Herman and Chomsky claim that these three “filters” allow the elites to secure control over the media (Herman & Chomsky, 2002).

Yet, it must be acknowledged that there are several problems with the propaganda model. Manufacturing consent theory is unable to adequately explain the relationship between “media coverage and any given policy process” (Robinson, 2001, p.528). Several years after the Somalian intervention, George Bush Sr. revealed that it was the media’s emphasis on the crisis which convinced him to send troops into the nation, upon seeing “heart-rendering” television footage of “starving waifs” in Somalia (Hines, 1999). Conversely, from a realist perspective, there is no reason to say that Bush Sr. didn’t have national interests or self-interests at play. Thus, we are unable to draw conclusions from this theory as to what role media performs in foreign policy (or any policy) formation, let alone whether elite interests have an overarching influence.

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Other scholars contest the indexing and propaganda model theories, claiming that the media can have an influence on foreign policy formation. Perhaps this concept is best defined by Cohen: “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (Cohen, 1963). From a liberalist standpoint, consent of the mass public should be required to make any foreign policy decisions because of “democratic norms and the public’s restraining influence on elite choices” (Foyle, 1997, p142). Agenda-setting theory originated as an audience effect theory, although it evolved over time to become a “media-centric” theory (Bennett & Pfetsch, 2018, p.249; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). The hypothesis holds that the public agenda is determined by the deliberate efforts of editors, journalists and broadcasters, which can impact the importance attributed to different “issues” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p.177). “Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p.176). With the deliberately forced “attention to certain issues”, it seems inconceivable that the media would have no influence at all on setting the agenda for foreign policy issues (Lang & Lang, 1966, p.468).

To investigate the real-life application of this theory, McCombs and Shaw (1972) implemented a field work study interviewing the electorate in Chapel Hill during the run-up to the American presidential election in 1968. The aim of the investigation was to determine whether the media had a significant “agenda-setting capacity”, through comparing the topical media coverage with what the electorate claimed were “key issues” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p.177). After rigorous work to quash and/or limit any errors, the data collected between September 18th and October 6th suggested high correlation between the “emphasis” assigned to particular issues by the media and also by the voters during the campaign (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p.177). Furthermore, the findings demonstrated that voter’s views even tended to match the views of the press, despite the fact that all three candidates running for office had completely different priorities. This suggests that voters follow politics via the news media, rather than following what their preferred candidates say (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p.177-181). Thus, we have cause to believe that media has a strong impact on public opinion, although this evidence is inconclusive due to the limited research available.

While it has been proven that the mass media can have a big impact, it is largely subject to circumstances. Daniel Drezner of the New York Times (2012) suggests that only 5% of American people cast their presidential vote based on international affairs, perhaps signifying that the mass media isn’t as influential on public opinion in the realm of foreign policy. On the other hand, particular news events, or “windows of opportunity”, can empower the media to set the agenda and influence policy (Wolfe et al., 2013, p.182). Similarly, it is suggested that news items which evoke emotional responses from the public are more likely to encourage policymakers to react, such as features on genocide or war-stricken children (Gitlin, 2003). If issues viewed as salient by the mass public are ignored, public favour is affected, and re-election becomes less likely; some politicians may purposefully promote policies in order to get the electorate on their side (Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000). However, if a government is a policy dictator and is policy-averse, then it will always veto even if pressure is greater, like during the media coverage of a sensational issue (Jensen, 2011, p.144). Jensen also argues that a “focusing event” is required, in order for media and public opinion to actually have an input into government agenda, which was exemplified through a study on education policy in Denmark (Jensen, 2011, p.146-154).

The renowned “CNN effect” is possibly the most popular news media influence theory in the political world. Following the live coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, CNN emerged as a potent news organisation, changing the way in which we consume news. The term “CNN effect” was coined to explain the belief that global, 24-hour news channels had broadened their influence and become able to impact foreign policy (Livingston, 1997). The nomenclature here, however, is confusing, since the “CNN effect” is now not exclusive to CNN. The examples of crisis intervention in Iraq and Somalia in the 1990s are often cited as evidence of the “CNN effect”, because the devastating news coverage of these two events was, at the time, practically unavoidable (Robinson, 2002). Realist critics have historically denounced the “CNN effect” and emphasised the necessity of foreign policy decisions being made amongst elites (Robinson, 1999, p.302).

Yet, the precise application of this term remains unclear. Gilboa (2005) highlights the fact that the effect is sometimes used specifically to analyse issues relating to humanitarian intervention, whereas sometimes it is used in a much broader sense to refer to entire approaches within the domain of foreign policy making. As with the concept of agenda-setting, an emphasis on news items which the media consumer can feel empathy towards, such as mass starvation, governments are keen to be seen as doing something, can impact how policymakers prioritise certain issues as they are always conscious of re-election.

The “CNN effect” has been the subject of many debates over the years. Gilboa indicates three key groups: government elites, those working in news media corporations and academics. Neither these separate actor groups, nor individuals belonging to the same group, can agree on the “CNN effect”. The first main stance holds that the “CNN effect” has had an obvious impact in the field of foreign policy decision making, and that interventions would never have happened without it. The opposing stance states that the “CNN effect” has not had any significant effect on decision making, and that any contrasting claims will have been grossly overexaggerated. It is acknowledged, however, that the “CNN effect” may be valid in the absence of a reliable leader (Gilboa, 2005, p. 335-336).

Nonetheless, the majority of studies surrounding the “CNN effect” take root in American politics, and American foreign policy. This, unfortunately, means that it is essentially invalid when pertaining to other case studies in other parts of the world. It may also depend on whether the particular case involves an autocratic or democratic regime. Democratic governments are often thought to be more “malleable” than autocratic regimes, however a case study of Nigeria indicates that there is substantial evidence to show that “non-democratic regimes, like the military in Nigeria, are malleable to public opinion in foreign policy decision-making” (Ojieh, 2005, p.31). Although the “CNN effect” was a popular scholarly theory surrounding several occasions of humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, the popular belief today appears to be that the phenomenon, if it existed or not, was short-lived. It has been suggested that the “CNN effect” was able to exist due to the overlap of advancements within telecommunications with the stability of the global political system (Baum & Potter, 2008). Consequently, the CNN effect seems to have had a “significantly less transformative effect than early scholarship anticipated” (Baum & Potter, 2008, p.53), which I believe is due to the growth of news media online, which has facilitated the proliferation of non-mainstream media agendas combined with the help of social media.

In conclusion, it seems to me that media undeniably holds significant power in its intermediary position between the mass public and elite policymakers. This position will always be fluctuating due to several factors, such as the type of policy issue, whether there is elite consensus, and the growth of digital news media. Consequently, specific ideas like the “CNN effect”, or the manufacturing consent theory are insufficient to conclude whether or not the impact of public opinion and media on foreign policy is mediated by elites. As Somalia demonstrates, public opinion must not be underestimated, because the media is able to bolster the strength of the public’s views. However, as Bosnia demonstrates, elites can censor the media and coerce the public consensus. Nowadays, thanks to technology, the public are more politically savvy than in the past, thus it seems inconceivable that public opinion would not influence the foreign policy agenda. As Bennett aptly argues: “Foreign policy, once the private domain of pinstripe bureaucrats and business elites, that gray world of threats, promises, wars, espionage, and diplomacy, may have become transformed by a combination of new communications technologies and global media systems” (1994, p.12).

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The Impact of Public Opinion and Media on Foreign Policy. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
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