Friday, 14 January 2011

“War Stories”, by Matthew Baum & Tim J Groeling (Princeton)

BaumGroeling-WarStoriesThe causes and consequences of public views of war

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.

A lot of scholarship has been produced on the ways in which public opinion and the media influence policy, and how governments can and do influence the media (particularly a recent slew of books dealing with the George W Bush administration). But very little has been written about how institutional biases of the media and journalists can affect what news is reported and how this news is reported. In War Stories, Harvard professor Matthew Baum and UCLA professor Tim Groeling take a look at the role of the media in American foreign policy – reporting, information dissemination and also the portrayal of both policies and elite rhetoric. In some ways, this book can be considered a follow-up to Baum’s Soft News Goes to War.

In War Stories, the authors propose a number of hypotheses, and lay out an exhaustive amount of data and research to prove them. The book intends to identify conditions for public support of foreign policy initiatives; when these initiatives prevail; and also to propose implications for the future of American foreign policy.

“The mass media are the key intermediaries between citizens and their leaders, particularly with respect to policies and events being implemented far from American shores.”

American citizens learn “virtually everything they know about foreign policy” from the media and news they consume themselves, or that consumed by those around them. Therefore, discerning any bias in what type of stories are considered newsworthy, not to mention how they are reported, is very important in understanding how public opinion can be shaped and even distorted by a media with a separate set of goals:

“the information on which the public depends in determining whether or not to support a foreign policy initiative may be systematically distorted for reasons having nothing to do with the professional incentives of journalists than with the merits of the policy.”

The authors argue that “news coverage typically does not faithfully reflect the mix of elite rhetoric in Washington,” so public support of a foreign policy initiative is frequently based on “an inaccurate representation of what elites are actually saying about the policies.” A lot of this misrepresentation comes down to the proliferation of New Media outlets and sources.

Journalists are not just reporters of the news, they are also interpreters of events and politics. “Their interpretations regarding the newsworthiness of different pieces of information in turn color the representation of politics to which citizens are ultimately exposed.” This is, basically, the root of differing levels of bias in American news reporting – particularly evident when comparing TV News of Fox and MSNBC, or The Nation and The Weekly Standard in print. The ghettoisation of news into ideological camps has the potential to undermine the purpose of a free press, as “Perceived partisan alignment among news providers challenges the media’s role as neutral arbiter.”

Tying this new research in with Baum’s previous book, Soft News Goes to War, the authors point to the proliferation in news outlets, and the corresponding alteration in corporate or organisational agendas, as the key determinant of how news and foreign policy is now reported.

“The qualities that journalists prefer in news stories result in a strong tendency to overrepresent negative, critical coverage of the president, particularly when it originates within his own party... this overrepresentation stems not from any partisan preferences of the news media but rather from pervasive institutional and professional incentives that shape journalists’ standards of newsworthiness.”

In addition,

“As the media landscape in which America’s partisan battles are fought continues to evolve, this war of words threatens to become ever more divorced from the strategic interests of the country as a whole. Increasing numbers of news outlets – print, broadcast, cable, radio, and internet – are responding to the changing information landscape by seeking loyal niche audiences. Some do so for economic reasons, other for ideological reasons.”

In other words: ‘sensation sells’. Measured debate is side-lined to criticism – the more damning the better, and the source of criticism is just as important. This has a second, potentially more damaging impact on future policy-making. As citizens perceive the media as increasingly partisan, and they self-filter out the news that doesn’t adhere to their own ideological biases, it will become increasingly difficult for any president to reach across the media-aisle to generate support for a given policy. This is particularly problematic, because receiving opposition support for policies is a sure way to make considerable and effective advances in foreign policy. The authors characterise this dilemma as a president’s increased ability to “preach to the choir”, but concurrent difficulty in “converting the flock”.

The New Media “increasingly allow citizens to self-select into ideologically friendly environments while discounting information they encounter in environments perceived as ideologically hostile” – effectively, a media-related ghetto-isation is allowing for more targeted, less objective and therefore more shallow news dissemination. Naturally, this has a huge impact on perceptions of foreign policies. The “common civic space” that was, in the past, offered by news is being “eroded” by the proliferation of bias news outlets and the ability to filter out that which does not conform to your ideological proclivities.

The authors provide a lot of data and research findings to make their case. Many contemporary examples, from the Bush administration and also from the 2008 presidential campaign, locate their research in the real world, giving weight to their hypotheses and conclusions. The approach to the topic is logical and calm, although the writing style is very dry – this is a book for other academics, and I don’t think it’s written in a manner that would allow for much cross-over appeal. That being said, it’s an invaluable addition to the body of literature available on the changing nature of the media, its impact on politics and, in particular, the impact journalists and New Media can have on the conduct and presentation of American foreign policy.

Some of the conclusions in War Stories may seem common-sense when you read them, but ‘common-sense’ does not always equate to correct. It is for this reason that Baum and Groeling’s conclusions can be valuable for those studying the impact of the media on public perceptions of foreign policy.

If you’re studying American foreign policy, or American media, this is an essential book that will only provide detailed arguments and information backed up by a wealth of evidence. I have no doubt that researchers will also find inspiration for further studies from some of these sections - for example, I thought the section on Historical Context could have been considerably expanded and was rather disappointed it was so short (not to mention its location so late in the book).

The subject of media influence remains something of either the academic world or the journalists’ world, each with intrinsic biases and styles. I am still waiting for the book that approaches the subject in an intelligent-yet-accessible way, one that looks at the issue from both contemporary and historical perspectives, locates it within the foreign policy literature (more than in passing, as War Stories does), and focuses as much on readability as scholastic merit.

That being said, the authors achieve what they set out to do, in that this book “highlight[s] the gap between what elites typically say about foreign policy and what the media say those elites are saying.”

Also try: Matthew Baum, Soft News Goes to War (2005); Joseph R. Hayden, A Dubya in the Headlights (2010)

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