Does mass media shape public opinion and dominant discourse regarding policy issues? Do press and public opinion converge over time?

 

“We sampled and analyzed media portrayals of the Dead Sea Water Canal from the Israel national Ha´aretz newspaper along the two time periods. We then undertook synchronic (comparative simultaneous depictions) and diachronic (historically-sensitive sequences of representations) analyses to examine these portrayals within as well as accross these periods. Ha´aretz is the oldest daily newspaper in Israel and the main stage for intelectual and policy debates in Israel (Viser, 2003). Its articles are commonly used when aiming at “elite” or “quality” press (Nossek, 2004) and therefore it serves our purpose to reflect the dominant discourse regarding policy issues. Moreover, the media outlet was selected in part due to the availability of news archives across the full period of study: from the 1970s to the present. It has been well documented and importantly cautioned elsewhere that the approach of analyzing newspaper articles carries several weakness and biases (e.g. Boykoff, 2011). Specific to this study, Ha´aretz newspaper is considered a liberal newspaper that may represent an agenda different from those of other national newspapers (e.g. Carvalho, 2007)

Fischhendler, I., Cohen-Blankshtain, G., Shuali, Y., & Boykoff, M. (2013). Communicating mega-projects in the face of uncertainties: Israeli mass media treatment of the Dead Sea Water Canal. Public Understanding of Science, 0963662513512440.

Public opinion can in fact not be measured by surveys alone, but media analysis contributes as some sort of proxy of what actors, who for example read newspaper, deem to be “the public opinion” and that “the mass media circulates images and arguments widely and thereby inform public perceptions” (Bauer, 2005a, p. 10). Combining media analysis, focus group, and surveys, Bauer (2005b, p. 63) found a “strong convergence of press and opinion over time”.

Even if media attention does not translate directly into opinion changes (Matthes and Schemer, 2012), it is still foreseeable that media articles impact (1) the importance attributed to the particular issue (agenda setting) of the public debate and (2) how the issue is dealt with, the discourses that develop around the relevant technology, and an issue that is either emphasized or minimized (framing process). While the first factor focuses on the quantity of available information, how often an issue is covered by media articles, and how the attention cycle of a certain issue develops, the second is interested in the substantive content of these articles, the broader storylines, the narratives, and the issues´sociocultural resonance that makes them attractive to journalists and readers (Scheufele and Tewskbury, 2007). Framing means to focus on an issue, select certain aspects of it and make them more salient, and finally, help, influence, or persuade the readers to understand what is at stake (Entman, 1993; Gamson and Modigiliani, 1989; Scheufele, 1999). This “twist” that journalist give the story makes it interesting. Druckman and Bolsen (2011, p. 673) using an experimental approrach can illustrate that in essence, “facts add little to frames when it comes to influencing individuals” opinions about new technologies”. It is not primarily whether the article is positive or negative; it is rather the broader context to which the issue is related (Matthes and Schemer, 2012; Nisbet, 2009). By focusing on certain aspects, other facets are of course muted or excluded.

To frame an issue, journalists rely on information they obtain from different sources in order to report news that is as realistic and objective as possible. They have a code of ethics that provides guidelines on how to deal with contradictory, uncertain, partial, or biased informaiton and how to balance the actors´ different views and often conflicting interests.

Framing is exactly how stakeholders or social movements can impact media coverage; trying to frame an issue ata an angle that meets their interests helps them promote their perspective and position (Andsager, 2000; Benford and Snow, 2000)…Of course, stakeholders have different levels of agency and power (Carrage and Roefs, 2004); some can organize media conferences, send out press releases, or invite the media to a publicly appealing event, while other issues are generally only addressed when a journalist has a specific request or question to be answered. 

Stauffacher, M., Muggli, N., Scolobig, A., & Moser, C. (2015). Framing deep geothermal energy in mass media: the case of Switzerland. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 98, 60-70.

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