a. Role of the media in politics
b. Freedom of the media
c. Media acting in different ways
iii. agenda-setting agency
d. Soft news v hard news
f. CNN Effect
i. Somalia and Rwanda
ii. The media in times of war
1. First Amendment v Live Coverage
2. Reliability of the media
How far, if at all, do the media and public opinion influence
US foreign and defence policy?
In the United States of America the media is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” The media are institutions whose primary concern it is to produce and distribute all forms of knowledge, information and entertainment and encompass print media, television, radio and the internet. For the purposes of this paper, the focus shall be on television, as “television is undoubtedly the pre-eminent form of the media in the United States” and it is the medium of choice for Americans looking for information. In a democracy such as the United States of America, the media ought to report impartially and in a way to inform and engage the public. Public opinion is understood as a collective view of a given issue. Foreign policy shall be defined as the goals a state wants to attain abroad, the values that determine to those objectives, and the means or instruments used to pursue them.
In the past four decades there has been a debate about the link between the media and foreign policy. This first came about with the first televised war in Vietnam and has recently become more significant with the American involvement in Somalia allegedly as a result of the so-called “CNN Effect” and the technological advances enabling live coverage. Since the Vietnam War there has been a fervent debate between the media and the military regarding media coverage of combat activities. This paper will argue that the American media influence and create public opinion through the information broadcasted. It will be argued that the media do not have as big a role in influencing foreign policy as has been thought in the past and that the CNN Effect has been overrated. The essay will examine the relationship between media and the government as well as between media and the military to examine whether or not the media may at times have to be restricted in the interest of operational security.
Traditionally the media’s purpose has been to act as a watchdog, challenging the government and its policies. The watchdog puts in place checks and balances, so that the public has a way of controlling the government. The communications industry acts as a linking institution between the electorate and the government and as such transmits information both ways. The media is therefore an important factor in feeding America’s values, beliefs, and preferences into the foreign policy making process, and as such is understood to be in a position of influence on the formation of US foreign policy.
It is widely believed that the media not only reflects public opinion but creates it. While it is certainly true that the media has an impact on public opinion, this has more to do with its agenda-setting function and the fact that the media decides what is important, and therefore transmitted as news. It can thus be argued that the media does not tell the public what to think, but rather “what to think about”. The media frames issues as it sees fit, and it can be assumed that the way a story is framed determines public opinion. The media has three major roles with regard to its influence on US foreign and defence policy. Firstly, the media may act as an accelerant, namely shortening the response time for decision making. A frequently cited example highlights the difference in reaction time for President John F. Kennedy when he made a public statement about the construction of the Berlin Wall eight days later, and the almost instantaneous statement expected from President George Bush as the wall fell in 1989. Live coverage has often been criticised as forcing policymakers to make rushed decisions under pressure, which may not be as thought through as they could have been if there had been more time for analysis and reflection. As Theodore H. White has put it, “the protective filter of time” has been removed. It has yet to become clear whether the lack of time is necessarily harmful to the conduct of foreign policy.
In recent years, technological developments have allowed live coverage of virtually any event around the globe. Its immediacy certainly gives television an advantage over other forms of media. Breaking news can be publicised right away, “long before the next morning’s newspapers hit the stands”. The key question is whether to transmit certain images live just because the possibility exists.
Secondly, the media may be an impediment to successful foreign policy making. By undermining public support for a military operation, the media acts as an emotional inhibitor – examples are Vietnam, where the media essentially turned public opinion against the American involvement, as well as Somalia, where a dead US soldier was shown dragged through the streets. In both instances the media impeded a successful outcome of the missions. The third role of the media is acting as an agenda-setting instrument. Although it has been argued that the media set the agenda for foreign policy decisions, this is not always the case. To a large extent the media actually reflects the attitudes of the government and journalists often turn to politicians and representatives of the government for assistance in deciding what constitutes news. The media therefore seems to act as a transmitter of information from the governing to the governed, rather than functioning as an independent fourth estate.
In recent years the phrase “CNN Effect” has often been used to describe the alleged substantial power of the media to influence and determine American foreign and defence policy. The CNN Effect refers to Cable Network News (CNN), along with the three major networks ABC (American Broadcasting Company), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) and NBC (National Broadcasting Company). The phrase was first used with regard to the American intervention in the growing humanitarian disaster in Somalia, characterized by a severe famine, general chaos, and domination by a number of warlords following the collapse of Siad Barre's military government in the early 1990s and the outbreak of civil war. The theory was that television coverage of a traumatic event would raise the prominence of that issue and shorten the decision making time on that matter. Despite the common argument that President Bush chose to intervene in Somalia in 1992 as a result of television coverage, this was most likely not the case. While a contribution to the decision cannot be denied, the idea of television coverage appears to have been inspired by the influence of several politicians. As aforementioned, the media often turns to government officials for guidance on what constitutes news. Although the Bush administration took no action on Somalia before the issue was intensified by television coverage, a number of political figures were already aware of the situation in Somalia. It is quite probable that they turned to the media to increase the pressure on the government to act, thus using the media as an accelerating force. Chronologically Somalia only featured on television in the United States after foreign policy makers were already concerned, and “the evidence indicates that only when Washington turned its attention to Somalia did ABC, CBS, and NBC deem events there worthy of coverage”. CNN differed from this general concept only by independently sending reporters to Somalia in May to describe the crisis.
 First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
 Thomas, Graham. (2004, March). Political Communication: The Media and Politics in Britain. [Lecture]. The University of Reading, Reading, England.
 McKeever, Robert and Davies, Philip. (2006). Politics USA. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. p. 132.
 ibid. p. 134.
 Leighley, Jan E. (2004). Mass Media and Politics A Social Science Perspective. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 247.
 Wittkopf, Eugene R. et al. (2003). American Foreign Policy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. p. 601.
 Wittkopf, Eugene R. et al. (2003). American Foreign Policy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. p. 301.
 ibid. p. 302.
 Norris, Pippa. (Ed). (1997). Politics and the Press. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. p. 294.
 Seib, Philip. (1997). Headline Diplomacy. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 105.
 Norris, Pippa. (Ed). (1997). Politics and the Press. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. p. 296.
 Baum, Matthew A. (2003). Soft News goes to War. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 1.
 Mermin, Jonathan. (1997). Television News and American Intervention in Somalia: The Myth of a Media-Driven Foreign Policy. Political Science Quarterly. p. 387.
 Wittkopf, Eugene R. et al. (2003). American Foreign Policy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. p. 309.
 Norris, Pippa. (Ed). (1997). Politics and the Press. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. p. 293.
 Mermin, Jonathan. (1997). Television News and American Intervention in Somalia: The Myth of a Media-Driven Foreign Policy. Political Science Quarterly. p. 385.
 ibid. p. 386.
 ibid. p. 398.