Wed, 19 Apr 2000

Media: The creator of policy panic

By A. Widjajanto

MELBOURNE (JP): With the growth of Ted Turner's 24-hour-a-day Cable News Network (CNN) and other rapid developments in news media technologies, scholars have voiced growing concern that journalists are exercising an irresistible control over the decision-making process.

Dramatic pictures of starving masses in Sudan or Somalia, or appalling images of the plight of refugees in East Timor have reportedly sparked ill-considered public demands for action from the government. The term "CNN effect" indicates the media's significant influence on policy.

The news media is a primary source of information about domestic and international affairs, which thus contributes to the formation of public attitudes toward government policies.

Media institutions are also channels through which the government gives signals to generate public support, which is why governments should seek to deal wisely with the media.

The success in molding public support partly relies upon the extent to which possible public reaction, generated by media coverage, has been taken into account at the policy making stages.

However, the media could have a negative impact on the formulation of a government's policy. The media creates a flawed construction of reality. They are incapable of providing a complete picture since they often ignore the context and complexities of the cases being reported.

The media is thus capable of distortion, compression and manipulation of reality, which is used by the public as a foundation for their response to government policy.

As a result, news media does not produce a situation conducive for the decision-making process. Media as a fast gathering information service has a contradictory role with the state's bureaucracy, which requires a routine and careful implementation of policy in attempt to avoid conflict and resolve differences.

In this context, the media is seen as an intruder which acts when cases are threatening to erupt into crises. Media intervention, in this sense, can jeopardize systematic ways of making decisions by forcing the government to make a quick adjustment and commitment to deal with a crisis.

Media coverage can also sharpen policy dilemmas at the most inconvenience moments. These moments can be identified as "policy panic", in which governments are forced to respond quickly in order to regain public support.

Yet, this response seldom alters governments's main strategy, since it is only a "pseudopolicy for pseudoaction". It is only a tactical response, which is designed to deal with the media. Thus, this response is accompanied by no strategic alteration to overall policy.

The "policy panic" thesis is based on the theory that the media can have a significant role in forming public opinion.

The argument, which recognizes the positive relations between public opinion and media coverage, is based on the theory of "agenda setting".

This theory stresses that the media dictates to people what events are most significant and deserve to be ranked highly on the public's agenda. However, this theory is challenged by the "uses and gratification theory" as well as the "selective exposure theory".

The former argues that people look at news that they need and they find gratifying, while the latter emphasizes the capability of people to select information that is congruent with their existing beliefs.

Both theories believe that public opinion is not a passive observant; it has a complex structural context that cannot easily be reshaped by media coverage. Both theories state that public opinion concerning government policy is rather stable.

The public cannot easily be pushed around by any particular news report and their opinion cannot be easily undermined by 30- second TV stories.

Another argument that challenges the relationship between public opinion, the media and policy focuses on access to media, which is not available equally to all groups of society.

Although there is more information available today than ever before, as well as more effective ways of gathering and distributing that information, there are indications that people cannot handle this information overload, especially information about a specific state policy.

Policies remain the interest of relatively small numbers of people and only few affairs, reported in dramatic stories, attract a wider audience than the traditional elite.

And since the media itself is a part of the elite, the media serves mainly as a supportive arm of the state and dominant elites, focusing heavily on themes serviceable to them, and debating and exposing within accepted frames of reference.

In other words, the mainstream media tends to follow a state agenda; if there is a challenge to the state agenda it represents a tactical difference among the elites.

Another perspective sees a challenge to the state agenda as not only representing a struggle among elites, but also as an indication that government policy is in flux, and thus official commitment to the policy is weak.

The media only has a significant impact when governments cannot provide a well-articulated strategy based on clear national interests. This creates "a policy vacuum" filled in by media reports, forcing the government to follow the media's line.

In this context, it can be said that the media is an image power trying to accelerate the decision-making process. The success of this attempt depends on how quickly the media can see the gap between public demands and the government's response to those demands.

Thus, as long as the government produces a well-designed policy based on well-defined national interests, it will remain the primary actor in the formulation and implementation of the state's policies.

And the availability of a well-designed policy will enable the government to have its own agenda and persuade the media, and the entire nation, to support this agenda.

The writer teaches international relations at the School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Indonesia.