Why Political Elites Respond to the Media. The Micro-Level Mechanisms underlying Political Agenda-Setting Effects
12 mei 2017
Stadscampus, Klooster van de Grauwzusters - Lange St-Annastraat 7 - 2000 Antwerpen
Organisatie / co-organisatie:
Prof. dr. Stefaan Walgrave
Doctoraatsverdediging Julie Sevenans - Departement Politieke Wetenschappen - M²P
Why political elites respond to the media.
The micro-level mechanisms underlying political agenda-setting effects
Julie Sevenans, Research group M²P, University of Antwerp
Promotor: Stefaan Walgrave
Anyone who follows politics must have noticed that political attention for topics is often preceded by media attention for these topics. Politicians’ initiatives seem to be inspired by news coverage. Different scientific studies in a variety of countries have confirmed this idea. The media influence which issues are prioritized by political elites and, conversely, which ones are ignored.
But what does this ‘media influence’ precisely entail? This dissertation scrutinizes instances where politicians take action in response to news coverage. It shows that the media—in seemingly similar cases of media responsiveness—may actually fulfill a variety of roles:
- In the political game, the media truly take the lead. They are an important source of information. By covering problems and conflicts in society, they offer ammunition for ‘party warriors’ to attack their political opponents. These politicians pick and choose any news report that is well-suited to fight the partisan battle. The media also fulfill a motivational function. The high visibility of news coverage—among the public at large, journalists, and their colleague-politicians—stimulates party warriors to take action.
- With regards to reactive policy decisions, the media play a facilitating role. Policy specialists constantly monitor the media for news about ‘their’ issue, yet they often receive the information via alternative contacts (interest groups, organizations,…) as well. The informational function of the media is therefore limited. The media do matter motivationally speaking. By paying attention to an issue, the media open a ‘window of opportunity’ for political reaction. Policy specialists seize the moment to put their issue in the spotlight and to push their political plans onto the agenda.
- With regards to proactive policy decisions, the media’s role is even more limited. While it may seem as if policy specialists respond to the media here, this impression is false. Political elites—motivated to undertake action anyway—proactively bring information into the media themselves as to fuel the debate. The media fulfill neither an informational, nor a motivational function. They can matter in other ways of course: politicians may, for instance, take into account how well a policy decision will play in the media. Yet concluding that the media in those instances ‘set the agenda’ is not justified.
This means that the question whether or not ‘the media have too much political power’ deserves a nuanced answer. At least with respect to agenda-setting, media influence is variable and often smaller than it seems to be at first sight.
PhD defense: 12/05/2017 – 16u Klooster van de Grauwzusters
Lange Sint-Annastraat 7
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