Media coverage does not ebb and flow. Rather, media coverage rapidly moves from crisis to stasis and back again. The result of these attention dynamics is news reporting that is disproportional to the breadth and pace of policy problems in the world, where some balloon in the news beyond expectations and others fade quickly (or never make the news at all). These patterns of news coverage result from the powerful role that momentum plays in the news-generation process. Forces of positive feedback drive news outlets to chase each new hot story quickly, while negative feedback forces drive news outlets to stay locked onto a hot story at hand. Together, these forces drive news coverage to lurch and fixate, lurch and fixate, again and again. Thus, although previous research has conceived of the news-generation process functioning either as a “patrol” system (where news outlets act as sentinels, tracking each policy problem as it unfolds in the world) or as an “alarm” system (where news outlets move in quick bursts from one policy problem to the next, with little to no in-depth coverage), both these previous models tell only half the story. Rather, the news-generation process is best understood through the alarm/patrol hybrid model, where news outlets often lurch from one hot item to the next but sometimes become entrenched in an unfolding storyline. The alarm/patrol hybrid model helps explain the particular phenomenon of “media storms” that can occur, where a sudden surge in media attention can vault a previously ignored issue into the center of public and political attention; think of the Catholic priest abuse scandal, or the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death. The lurching/fixating dynamics of media attention have far-ranging implications for citizen information and political response, contributing to a wider system of disproportionate information processing where some topics are attended to and others are largely ignored. In particular, because policymakers take so many of their cues from the news, it is likely the case that the lurching/fixating patterns of our media system exacerbate the punctuated patterns of government in turn.
Amber E. Boydstun and Annelise Russell
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.
Jonathan Klüser and Marco Radojevic
Research on policy agendas and agenda-setting has developed into an important subdiscipline of comparative politics, which seeks to understand how political actors allocate scarce attention. The theoretical origins of the field describe agenda-setting as a “conflict of conflicts,” that is the political struggle over the question of which issues receive attention. Modern scholars have expanded on these ideas and turned them into important theoretical models of the agenda-setting process. The most influential of these models are Kingdon’s multiple streams approach and Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory. The former analyses the emergence of issues in the separate streams of policies, politics, and problems, whose coupling is necessary for any issue in order to be considered for political decision-making. In contrast, the latter stresses the importance of negative and positive feedback mechanisms in order to explain long periods of incremental policy change and sudden radical changes, which characterize the policy process. Inspired by the second approach is the Comparative Agendas Project, which is a comprehensive and comparative data collection effort about policy agendas using a unified taxonomy. These data enable scholars to research the entire political process from media inputs via government throughput to legislative output. Studying governmental agendas, it is paramount to stress that—against common wisdom—political ideology does not play a decisive role in the agenda-setting process. Rather, both leftist and rightist governments seek to portray themselves as potent problem-solvers and respond to problematic societal condition in order to prove their competence. Looking at the media as one potentially powerful political agenda-setter, it turns out that newspapers and television channels’ power to steer the political agenda hinges on a variety of conditions. Generally, media outlets are most successful in setting the agenda if they report on issues that otherwise would not have been brought to the public’s attention. But even then, the media’s role appears to be restricted to narrowing down the issue menu from which politicians can choose when setting their agenda. The study of political agendas is by no means limited to these areas, as shown by the hundreds of articles that have been published in major political science journals over the past decades. While the agenda approach has not yet developed into a theory of politics, it has certainly become a major subdiscipline of comparative politics, which has helped make sense of the political world.