Why do some democracies reflect their citizens' foreign policy preferences better than others? What roles do the media, political parties, and the electoral system play in a democracy's decision to join or avoid a war? War and Democratic Constraint shows that the key to how a government determines foreign policy rests on the transmission and availability of information. Citizens successfully hold their democratic governments accountable and a distinctive foreign policy emerges when two vital institutions—a diverse and independent political opposition and a robust media—are present to make timely information accessible.
Matthew Baum and Philip Potter demonstrate that there must first be a politically potent opposition that can blow the whistle when a leader missteps. This counteracts leaders' incentives to obscure and misrepresent. Second, healthy media institutions must be in place and widely accessible in order to relay information from whistle-blowers to the public. Baum and Potter explore this communication mechanism during three different phases of international conflicts: when states initiate wars, when they respond to challenges from other states, or when they join preexisting groups of actors engaged in conflicts.
Examining recent wars, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq, War and Democratic Constraint links domestic politics and mass media to international relations in a brand-new way.
How do partisan media affect polarization and partisanship? The rise of Fox News, MSNBC, and hyper-partisan outlets online gives this question fresh salience, but in this paper, we argue that the question is actually not new: prior to the broadcast era, newspapers dominated American mass communication. Many of these were identified as supporting one party over the other in their news coverage. While scholars have studied the composition and impact of the partisan press during their 19th-century height, the political impact of the gradual decline of these partisan papers remains relatively under-examined. The unnoted vitality and endurance of partisan newspapers (which constituted a majority of American newspapers until the 1960s) represents a huge hole in our understanding of how parties communicate. As a consequence of this omission, scholars have ignored a potentially vital contributing factor to changing patterns of partisan voting. In this paper, we examine both the degree and influence of partisanship in historical newspapers. We begin by content analyzing news coverage in the Los Angeles Times from 1885-1986 and the Atlanta Constitution from 1869-1945. To avoid problems of selection bias and the absence of a neutral baseline of coverage in the coded news, we focus on a subset of partisan news for which we have access to neutral coverage of a full population of potential stories: the obituaries of U.S. Senators. By coding whether and how the papers covered the deaths of these partisans over time, we are able to systematically test for bias. We then collect information on newspaper editorial stances from Editor and Publisher’s Annual Yearbook to examine the impact of newspaper partisanship on voting patterns in presidential elections from 1932-92. Specifically, we test whether the proportion of partisan news outlets in a given media market explains changes in the rate of polarized voting.
For leaders to generate credibility through audience costs, there must be mechanisms in place that enable citizens to learn about foreign policy failures. However, scholars have paid relatively little attention to variations among democracies in the extent to which the public is able to obtain this sort of information. We argue here that electoral institutions play this role by influencing the number of major political parties in a country and, with it, the extent and depth of opposition to the executive. Opposition leads to whistle-blowing, which makes it more likely that that the public will actually hear about a leader’s foreign policy blunders. The effectiveness of this whistle-blowing, however, is conditional on the public’s access to the primary conduit for communication between leaders and citizens: the mass media. We test these expectations statistically, demonstrating that leaders in systems with these attributes fare better with respect to their threats and the reciprocation of conflicts that they initiate. These findings suggest that democracies are not automatically able to generate credibility through audience costs and that the domestic institutions and political processes that link the public and leaders must be taken seriously.
This paper uses an online media exposure experiment to examine the role of selective exposure on attitude formation and reinforcement regarding the U.N. intervention in Libya shortly after its initiation. In particular, we examine both the baseline level of selective exposure behavior and levels following treatment to a condition where participants thought they might be called upon to defend their positions in a debate format. We find evidence that both the personal characteristics and attitudes of participants, as well as the setting in which they are being asked to conduct their information search, influence the quality and extensiveness of their information search, as well as their likelihood to expose themselves to information that disputes their prior opinions and incorporate such arguments into their reasoning process.
Why does media coverage of foreign policy vary across and within countries? We examine the sources of this variation using a new dataset of 102,568 articles on the 2011 Libyan uprising and subsequent NATO intervention published by 1,925 newspapers in 50 countries. We find that newspaper ownership structures and networks play an important role in shaping the nature and extent of foreign policy coverage. Higher circulation, independent newspapers offer more extensive coverage and place a greater emphasis on hard news topics and themes, while papers within larger ownership networks display the opposite patterns, net of circulation. In the context of the Arab Spring, we also find that -- compared to more selective forms of violence -- incidents of indiscriminate force by the Libyan regime tended to push newspapers toward a greater focus on policy-oriented stories and more open critique of a government’s performance in managing the crisis. By shaping the scope, tone and content of media coverage, these factors are likely to play important roles in determining whether and under what circumstances citizens support their countries’ foreign policies.
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.
Prevailing theories hold that U.S. public support for a war depends primarily on its degree of success, U.S. casualties, or conflict goals. Yet, research into the framing of foreign policy shows that public perceptions concerning each of these factors are often endogenous and malleable by elites. In this article, we argue that both elite rhetoric and the situation on the ground in the conflict affect public opinion, but the qualities that make such information persuasive vary over time and with circumstances. Early in a conflict, elites (especially the president) have an informational advantage that renders public perceptions of “reality” very elastic. As events unfold and as the public gathers more information, this elasticity recedes, allowing alternative frames to challenge the administration’s preferred frame. We predict that over time the marginal impact of elite rhetoric and reality will decrease, although a sustained change in events may eventually restore their influence. We test our argument through a content analysis of news coverage of the Iraq war from 2003 through 2007, an original survey of public attitudes regarding Iraq, and partially disaggregated data from over 200 surveys of public opinion on the war.
This article addresses a gap in the literature connecting the empirical observation of a democratic peace to a theoretical mechanism based on domestic audience costs. We argue that the link between these literatures lies in the way leaders reach he ultimate source of audience costs – the public. The audience cost argument implicitly requires a free press because, without it, the public has no way of reliably assessing the success or failure of a leader’s foreign policy. Hence leaders can credibly commit through audience costs only when the media is an effective and independent actor. The implication is that while leaders might gain at home by controlling the media, they do so at the cost of their capacity to persuade foreign leaders that their “hands are tied.”
Scholars have long recognized that public support for presidential uses of military force depends critically on elite support. Similarly, scholars have argued that the media “index” their coverage of foreign policy to reflect the responses of partisan (particularly congressional) elites. We argue that journalists' choices also play an important role by systematically (and predictably) skewing the elite rhetoric presented to the public. In particular, we argue that criticism of the president by his own party is disproportionately likely to be broadcast -- particularly in unified government -- and that such criticism should be exceptionally persuasive to citizens. To separate the media’s independent effect from that of the actual tenor of elite discourse, as presented in the news, we investigate all interviews with members of Congress on network television Sunday morning political interview shows between 1980 and 2003. We then determined which comments were selected for inclusion on the evening news and compare the characteristics of such comments to those that were not selected, both during periods immediately following major U.S. uses of military force and during “normal” periods. We find that the evening news presents a biased sample of elite rhetoric, heavily over-representing criticism of the president by his own party, while under-representing supportive rhetoric. Our findings indicate that future studies of public opinion and U.S. foreign policy must take into account the intervening role of journalists, who function as strategic, self-interested gatekeepers of public information regarding foreign policy events.
You can download a pdf version of the paper, here.
Scholars of political communication have long examined newsworthiness by focusing on the “gatekeepers,” or organizations involved in newsgathering (Lewin 1947, White 1950, Sigal 1973, Gans 1979). However, in recent years these gatekeeper organizations have increasingly been joined or even supplanted by “new media” competitors, including cable news, talk radio, and even amateur bloggers. The standards by which this new class of gatekeepers evaluates news are at best partially explained by prior studies focused on “professional” journalists. In this study, we seek to correct this oversight. We do so by content analyzing five online news sources – including wire service, cable news, and blog sites – in order to compare their gatekeeping decisions in the four months prior, and approximately three weeks immediately following, the 2006 midterm election. To determine each day’s major political news, we collected all stories from Reuters’ and AP’s “Top Political News” sections. We then investigated whether a given story was also chosen to appear on each wire’s Top News page (indicating greater perceived newsworthiness than those that were not chosen) and compare the wires’ editorial choices to those of more partisan blogs (from the left: DailyKos.com, and from the right: FreeRepublic.com) and cable outlets (FoxNews.com). We find evidence of greater partisan filtering on the latter three web sources, and relatively greater reliance on traditional newsworthiness criteria on the news wires.
You can download this article, in pdf format, here.
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.
Do media representations affect public support for the president and faithfully reflect events in times of diplomatic crisis and war? How do new media--especially Internet news and more partisan outlets--shape public opinion, and how will they alter future conflicts? In answering such questions, Baum and Groeling take an in-depth look at media coverage, elite rhetoric, and public opinion during the Iraq war and other U.S. conflicts abroad. They trace how traditional and new media select stories, how elites frame and sometimes even distort events, and how these dynamics shape public opinion over the course of a conflict.
Most of us learn virtually everything we know about foreign policy from media reporting of elite opinions. In War Stories, Baum and Groeling reveal precisely what this means for the future of American foreign policy.
The most widely accepted explanation for the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon is a relative absence of elite criticism in the news during the initial stages of foreign crises. In this study we argue that the nature and extent of elite debate may matter less than media coverage of any such debate, and that these often systematically diverge. We also argue that not all messages in this debate matter equally for public opinion. Rather, the persuasiveness of elite messages depends on their credibility, which, in turn, arises out of an interaction between the sender, receiver, and message. Hence, only by understanding the interactions between elites, the public, and the press can we account for variations in public responses to presidential foreign policy initiatives. We test our theory by examining public opinion data and network news coverage of all major U.S. uses of military force from 1979 to 2003. We content analyze all congressional evaluations of the president and the executive branch of government from the three network evening newscasts within 60-day time periods centered on the start date of each use of force. Our results offer strong support for the theory.
Research has shown that human beings are biased information processors. This study investigates an important potential example of biased information processing: when ex ante assessments of a media outlet’s ideological orientation “cause” individual’s to perceive bias. We conduct an experiment in which subjects evaluated the content of a news report about the 2004 presidential election identified as originating from CNN, FOX or a fictional TV station. Our results suggest that in an increasingly fragmented media marketplace, individuals not only distinguish between media outlets but, more importantly, outlet “brand names,” and the reputations they carry, function as heuristics, heavily influencing perceptions of bias in content. Individuals sometimes “create” bias, even where none exists. This suggests that assessments of media content operate on a more nuanced level than has been captured in previous research.
You can download this paper, in pdf format, along with a replication dataset here.
Democracy requires that citizens’ opinions play some role in shaping policy outcomes, including in foreign policy. Yet, while the literature on public opinion and foreign policy has made great progress over the past several decades, scholars have reached no consensus concerning what the public thinks, or thinks about, with respect to foreign policy, how it comes to hold those opinions, or whether those opinion do or should influence foreign policy. In this chapter, we first review the extensive gains in scholarly knowledge in the area of public opinion and foreign policy over the past several decades (with a particular emphasis on relatively recent work). We then suggest a framework, based on the concept of market equilibrium, aimed at synthesizing the various disparate research programs that together constitute the literature on public opinion and foreign policy. To do so, we incorporate a third strategic actor, the mass media, which we believe play a critical role alongside citizens and elites in shaping public attitudes about, and influence upon, foreign policy. Our goal is to clarify the multifaceted relationships between these actors and foreign policy outcomes.
You can download the current version of this chapter, in pdf format, here.
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.