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date: 07 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

“Audience costs” represent situations where domestic audiences impose penalties on leaders for failed policies. This phenomenon has risen to a prominent position in the study of politics in the past two decades, in part because of the apparently profound consequences that audience costs have for the foreign policy behavior of states.

News media are thought to play a central role in connecting leaders, domestic audiences, and foreign policy, and they affect this relationship in multiple ways. First, media coverage of foreign policy issues can pressure leaders to take public positions on foreign policy issues, effectively tying leaders’ reputations to the outcome of those issues. Second, high levels of news coverage of leaders’ positions are also thought to elevate the levels of costs that leaders suffer for foreign policy failures. Third, the consequences of national media coverage of foreign policy issues do not stop at the water’s edge: high levels of coverage can activate foreign audiences to penalize their leaders for backing down from their positions, effectively locking both sides into positions from which they cannot retreat. Finally, news media can be used by leaders to “spin” their foreign policy decisions, thereby limiting the penalties that domestic audiences impose.

Critics, however, charge that the audience costs research program suffers from significant theoretical and empirical weaknesses. As a theory it relies on at least two dubious assumptions: (1) that leaders are foolish enough to adopt foreign policy positions from which they are unable to maneuver without causing international embarrassment; and (2) that domestic audiences are astute enough to perceive the actual significance of foreign policy outcomes. Critics also claim (3) 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 are actually taking public positions on foreign policy issues. When extraneous cases are excluded, critics conclude that the effect of audience costs is weak to nonexistent. A final challenge (4) 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.

Two general arguments are made in this chapter. First, 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. Second, studies of news media and audience costs provide a way to grapple with the concerns raised by critics of audience costs theory.

Keywords: audience costs, news media, foreign policy, bargaining, CNN effect

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