Annelise Russell, Maraam Dwidar, and Bryan D. Jones
Scholars across politics and communication have wrangled with questions aimed at better understanding issue salience and attention. For media scholars, they found that mass attention across issues was a function the news media’s power to set the nation’s agenda by focusing attention on a few key public issues. Policy scholars often ignored the media’s role in their effort to understand how and why issues make it onto a limited political agenda. What we have is two disparate definitions describing, on the one hand, media effects on individuals’ issue priorities, and on the other, how the dynamics of attention perpetuate across the political system. We are left with two notions of agenda setting developed independently of one another to describe media and political systems that are anything but independent of one another.
The collective effects of the media on our formal institutions and the mass public are ripe for further, collaborative research. Communications scholars have long understood the agenda setting potential of the news media, but have neglected to extend that understanding beyond its effects on mass public. The link between public opinion and policy is “awesome” and scholarship would benefit from exploring the implications for policy, media, and public opinion.
Both policy and communication studies would benefit from a broadened perspective of media influence. Political communication should consider the role of the mass media beyond just the formation of public opinion. The media as an institution is not effectively captured in a linear model of information signaling because the public agenda cannot be complete without an understanding of the policymaking agenda and the role of political elites. And policy scholars can no longer describe policy process without considering the media as a source of disproportionate allocation of attention and information. The positive and negative feedback cycles that spark or stabilize the political system are intimately connected to policy frames and signals produced by the media.
Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is a widely used economic appraisal method that aims to support politicians in making decisions about projects and policies. Several researchers have tried to uncover the extent to which CBA actually impacts decision-making by investigating the statistical relation between the results of CBA studies and political decisions. Although these studies show that there is no significant statistical relation between the outcomes of CBA studies and political decisions, there is clear evidence that the institutionalization of CBA affects the planning and decision-making process within the bureaucracy. Civil servants, for instance, use CBAs to government projects in the early phases of the planning process. The literature identifies various barriers that hamper politicians’ use of CBA when forming their opinion. First, politicians often receive results of CBA studies too late in the process. When politicians receive a CBA after they already made up their mind and communicated their viewpoint, the chance is low that the results of the CBA will (substantially) influence their decision. A second important barrier that limits the use of CBA by politicians is that they do not have enough trust in CBA’s impartiality. A third barrier is that politicians contest value judgments implicit in CBA.
The literature distinguishes six ideological value judgments that inevitably need to be made when conducting a CBA: (a) Which individuals have standing in a CBA? (b) Which preferences have standing in a CBA? (c) Which procedure is used to value impacts? (d) On which dimensions are standard numbers differentiated? (e) Which weight is assigned to preferences of individuals in the social welfare function? (f) Which approach is adopted to select the social discount rate? The implication of the fact that CBA analysts cannot escape from making value judgments when conducing the study is that CBA is currently a problematic tool for democratic decision-making because, when applied in practice, the analysis is based on a specific set of politically loaded premises that fosters (damages) the interests of politicians (not) endorsing these premises. It is possible to overcome this problem through informing politicians about the extent to which switching value judgements leads to different CBA outcomes. The introduction of so-called normative sensitivity analyses safeguards that politicians with different belief systems are equally equipped to use the results of a CBA to arrive at a well-founded evaluation of a government project.
The politics of crisis terminology is rarely examined directly. Crisis is an “umbrella,” under which resides a multitude of terms such as accidents, emergencies, fiascos, disasters, and catastrophes, as well as variations such as natural disasters, transboundary crises, and mega-crises. Yet the sheer diversity and frequent ambiguity among terms reflects the “politics” of how societies and political actors seek to cope with and address extreme events, which often pose a mixture of threat and opportunity. Central to an understanding is how (a) different terms are means of framing issues such as the scale and causes of the crisis, (b) crisis terms are part of governing strategies, and (c) nongovernmental actors (opposition parties, media, lobby groups, social movements, and citizens) can seek to influence government. A pivotal point in developing an understanding of crisis terminology is that rather bemoaning the lack of singular meanings for crisis and associated terms, or criticizing actors for “abuse” of the terms, one should recognize and accept that complex and contested crisis language and definitions are in themselves manifestations of politics in political societies.
What is “threat framing”? It concerns how something or someone is perceived, labeled, and communicated as a threat to something or someone. The designation “threat,” notably, belongs to the wider family of negative concerns such as danger, risk, or hazard. Research on threat framing is not anchored in a single or specific field but rather is scattered across three separate and largely disconnected bodies of literature: framing theory, security studies, and crisis studies. It is noteworthy that whereas these literatures have contributed observations on how and under what consequences something is framed as a threat, none of them have sufficiently problematized the concept of threat. Crisis analysis considers the existence or perception of threat essential for a crisis to emerge, along with a perception of urgency and uncertainty, yet crisis studies focus on the meaning of “crisis” without problematizing the concept of threat. Likewise, security studies have spent a lot of ink defining “security,” typically understood as the “absence of threat,” but leave the notion of “threat” undefined. Further, framing theory is concerned with “problem definition” as a main or first function of framing but generally pays little or no attention to the meaning of “threat.” Moreover, cutting across these bodies of literature is the distinction between constructivist and rationalist approaches, both of which have contributed to the understanding of threat framing. Constructivist analyses have emphasized how threat framing can be embedded in a process of socialization and acculturation, making some frames appear normal and others highly contested. Rationalist approaches, on the other hand, have shown how threat framing can be a conscious strategic choice, intended to accomplish certain political effects such as the legitimization of extraordinary means, allocation of resources, or putting issues high on the political agenda. Although there are only a handful of studies explicitly combining insights across these fields, they have made some noteworthy observations. These studies have shown for example how different types of framing may fuel amity or enmity, cooperation, or conflict. These studies have also found that antagonistic threat frames are more likely to result in a securitizing or militarizing logic than do structural threat frames. Institutionalized threat frames are more likely to gain and maintain saliency, particularly if they are associated with policy monopolies. In the post-truth era, however, the link between evidence and saliency of frames is weakened, leaving room for a much more unpredictable politics of framing.