Manufacturing Policies: The Media’s Role in the Policy Making Process

In 2005, I presented the following academic article as a refereed paper to the Journalism Education Conference, Griffith University, 29 November – 2 December 2005.


Policymaking is a political process which is affected by various social and economic factors and media systems play an integral role in shaping the social context in which policies are developed.[1] Through the media, citizens learn how government policies will affect them, and governments gain feedback on their policies and programs. Media systems act as the primary conduit between those who might want to influence policy and the policymakers – controlling the scope of political discourse and regulating the flow of information. Textbook policymaking follows an orderly sequence where problems are identified, solutions devised, policies adopted, implemented, and lastly evaluated. In reality, the policy process is more fluid, where policies are formed though the struggle of ideas of various advocacy coalitions in what has been described as a policy primeval soup.[2]

The policies, on which the media focuses can, and often does, play an important part in determining the focal issues for policymakers.[3] One of the fundamental roles of the media in a liberal democracy is to critically scrutinise governmental affairs: that is to act as the ‘Forth Estate’ of government to ensure that the government can be held accountable by the public. However, the systematic deregulation of media systems worldwide is diminishing the ability of citizens to meaningfully participate in policymaking process governing the media. The ensuing relaxation of ownership rules and control, has resulted in a move away from diversity of production to a situation where media ownership is becoming increasing concentrated by just a few (predominantly western) global conglomerates.[4]

Obvious problems arise for democratic processes, when huge media conglomerates also fulfil the role of powerful political actors; their close links with the corporate economy are widely considered to limit their ability to investigate the government and represent all points of view. Consequently, in the same way that Habermas (1989) described the colonisation of the public sphere by large corporations, the political sphere is now being colonised by the media, and politics has begun re-orientating itself to satisfy the logic of media organisations.[5] Therefore, the media are active participants in the policymaking process and the ability to stimulate change or maintain the status quo depends on their choice of subject (or policy issue) and how they frame it. Active (investigative) reporting attempts to shape policy outcomes, but this does not necessarily mean that it always represents the most successful approach for gaining policy changes.[6] In fact, sometimes passive (straight) reporting can have a greater influence on policy choices.

When this occurs, media independence is largely bypassed, as the news generated depends solely on the information released (as public relations material) from legitimate news sources. For example, White House staff routinely make ‘leaks’ – expressively to influence policy decisions.[7] Linsky (1986) noted that journalists regard “leaks… as indispensable to their work” and that they are aware of their use by officials in return for scoops.[8]

The media may also influence policy outcomes through their ability to exclude certain policy options from the media, which “sets the boundaries for ‘legitimate’ public debate”.[9] Such analyses have led some researchers to posit that the media has a powerful monolithic influence on all policy processes, while others suggest it plays an insignificant role in policy making processes; a more likely scenario is that its degree of influence varies considerably, being issue based in nature.[10]

This leads to the question, which policy issues will be most effected and which least effected by media coverage? It is one of the key questions that this paper sets out to explore; however, due to the broad scope of this critical review, it necessarily passes over the literature fairly briskly to allow ample discussion of both domestic and foreign policy making processes, which are discussed separately in turn.

The media’s role in domestic policymaking

Media selection of ‘legitimate’ policy actors

The media acts as a powerful political actor, with its interests strongly tied to the status quo and that of other corporate policy actors, instead of the general public. Journalists and editors shape policy agendas by actively filtering issues, so that reporting conforms to their dominant news values – selecting what issues are covered and which sources are used.[11] This tends to confine policy debate to the strict boundaries of current ‘accepted wisdoms’ set by the major political parties or institutional policymakers.

The conservative nature of these perceptual screens is strengthened by the media’s ‘need’ for concision, which is especially dominant on television, with its appetite for sound bite politics. Creation of credible policy frameworks influence journalists in much the same way, leading them to rely on institutional actors (encountered on daily beats) who support their perceptions of a successful policy framework. Development of such close relationships with sources is very important to the policy process, and often results in what is described as “coalition journalism” (discussed later).


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