Circling the Wagons: Soft News and Isolationism in American Public Opinion


This study investigates the differences in coverage of foreign policy by the soft and hard news media, and the implications of such differences for public attitudes regarding the appropriate U.S. role in the world. I find that, relative to traditional news outlets, the soft news media place greater emphasis on dramatic, human-interest themes and episodic frames and less emphasis on knowledgeable information sources or thematic frames, while also having a greater propensity to emphasize the potential for bad outcomes. I then develop a conceptual framework in order to determine the implications of these differences. I argue that the style of coverage of soft news outlets tends to induce suspicion and distrust of a proactive or internationalist approach to U.S. foreign policy, particularly among the least politically attentive segments of the public. I test this and several related hypotheses through multiple statistical investigations into the effects of soft news coverage on attitudes toward isolationism in general, and U.S. policy regarding the Bosnian Civil War in particular. I find that among the least politically attentive members of the public, but not their more-attentive counterparts, soft news exposurebut not exposure to traditional news sourcesis indeed associated with greater isolationism in general, and opposition to a proactive U.S. policy toward Bosnia in particular.

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