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date: 27 June 2022

Audience Costs, News Media, and Foreign Policylocked

Audience Costs, News Media, and Foreign Policylocked

  • Ross A. MillerRoss A. MillerDepartment of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Summary

“Audience costs” are penalties imposed on leaders for failed policies by domestic audiences, such as political parties, interest groups, and the public. The profound consequences of audience costs for the foreign policies of states has led to its prominent position in the study of politics.

News media plays a central role in connecting leaders, domestic audiences, and foreign policy, and these relationships have significant consequences for the study of audience costs. For example, media coverage of foreign policy issues can pressure leaders to take public positions, effectively tying their reputations to the outcome of those issues. Second, news coverage of leaders’ positions may elevate the costs leaders suffer for foreign policy failures. Third, the effects of national media coverage do not stop at the water’s edge: high levels of coverage in elite media outlets can activate foreign audiences to penalize their leaders for backing down in crises. Fourth, news media can be used by leaders to “spin” their foreign policy decisions, limiting penalties that domestic audiences impose.

Critics charge that the research suffers from significant theoretical and empirical weaknesses. As a theory “audience costs” relies on at least two dubious assumptions: (a) that leaders are foolish enough to adopt foreign policy positions from which they are unable to maneuver without causing international embarrassment; and (b) that domestic audiences are astute enough to perceive the actual significance of foreign policy outcomes. Critics also claim that the empirical evidence in support of the theory is weak: the main data sets used to test the theory include very few cases where leaders take public positions on foreign policy issues. When extraneous cases are excluded, critics conclude that the effect of audience costs is weak to nonexistent. An additional challenge is inspired indirectly by diversionary theory. While audience costs theory predicts that leaders who can be easily punished by domestic audiences should be reluctant to start international conflicts, diversionary theory predicts (under some conditions) the opposite: leaders who face a high probability of being removed from office by domestic audiences may be more likely to start conflicts. Finally, the interaction of political polarization and social media appears to have been a powerful factor in the news media–audience costs relationship during the Trump administration (2017–2021). Researchers are just beginning to study this latest development.

Studies of news media and audience costs provide important insights into how leaders and domestic audiences are connected, and those connections have significant implications for the outcome of international negotiations. However, although studies of news media and audience costs provide a way to grapple with many of the concerns raised by critics of audience costs theory, the interactive effect of polarization and social media on audience costs remains a pressing challenge.

Subjects

  • Political Communication

Updated in this version

References updated. Stylistic changes made to text. Section added that highlights the implications of social media and polarization for audience costs research. The primary focus is the Trump administration, but there is other new research introduced.

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