Between Frames and Arguments: what I learned from research on Communication and Public Policy

I, along with other colleagues, have just concluded a three-year research project on “media and public policy”1 that was carried out through the constant interaction between two research teams: one specialized in policy analysis and the other in communication studies. Both teams were interested in studying how the media deals with public policy; however, each team was almost completely ignorant of the other’s field: my group did not know much about the concepts and methodologies related to communication studies; whereas, the other team only had a vague idea of a policy analyst’s toolbox.

Thus, I am in a good position to assess the relationship between these two academic fields, not in a speculative way but rather from a practical point of view. I will explain here what I discovered and learned during this fascinating, although sometimes difficult, research experience.

The first thing we discovered is that communication studies and public policy studies tend to neglect each other. In policy studies, the role of the media is rarely considered. The large body of research on policy-making or implementation tends to focus on political, bureaucratic and societal actors, policy networks, advocacy coalitions, or epistemic communities; however, such researches seldom give a key place to media. I think that three factors can explain this. First, as John Kingdon states, “one reason for the media’s less-then-anticipated effect on the policy agenda is the press’s tendency to cover a story prominently for a short period of time and then turn to the next story” (Kingdon 1995, 58–59), while the policy-making processes take months or years. Second, the media coverage is limited to a handful of very attractive policy matters; most issues, even important, do not “deserve” a single line in the press unless they can be attached to disruptive events or conflicts. Therefore, most policy analysts do not need to consider media since the object of their study is not dealt with by media. Third, policy analysts often suspect that media are more “haut-parleurs” than “promoteurs” (Neveu 2015, 88); or as a Congress committee staffer interviewed by Kingdon put it, “[t]he media has some importance, but it’s slight. Either media people are reporting what we’re already doing, or they are reporting something that we’re already aware of” (Kingdon 1995, 59).

Moreover, if policy analysts tend to neglect media, communication scholars also tend to neglect policies. Their attention is almost fully captured by how media deal with the world of politics: leaders, electoral campaigns, political alignments and realignments, and partisan conflicts. In fact, our second discovery—that we made early in the process—concerns the unexpected (at least by us) scarceness of the communication literature devoted to policies. While there are a lot of studies on the relationship between media and politics, those on the relationship between media and public policy are limited. One of the few studies on this topic begins, quite rightly, with the complaint that, “the existing literature on the relationship between the media and public policy is patchy and provides a rather incoherent picture” (Koch-Baumgartner and Voltmer 2010, 2).

During the research process, my colleague Franca Roncarolo pointed out that both academic traditions have a common ground: they are somehow focused on how problems get to the stage that they are at and how they are defined or constructed. In fact, in more or less the same time period, both traditions started to analyze such processes through the use of the same terms: “agenda-setting” and “framing”; however, they did it separately. When policy analysts started talking about agenda-setting they seldom referred to the role of the media (Cobb and Elder 1972; Downs 1972; Kingdon 1995) that was instead given weight by communication studies (McCombs and Shaw 1972). Moreover, the same applies to the framing of public problems that the policy scholars saw as a process of social construction (Rein and Schön 1993) and communication scholars as a process essentially generated by and through the media (Tuchman 1978; Graber 1984). Of course, there have been some policy analysts—like Baumgartner and Jones (1993)—who included the analysis of the media while studying the process of agenda-setting and likewise some sociologists of communication—like Neveu (2015)—who followed the trajectory of public problems from society, to the media and to public policies; however, they are clearly exceptions.

I think policy analysis would benefit from diffusing such exceptions. Communication on public problems and public policies is ubiquitous. It is true that the media do not care about many problems and policy decisions; however, if we also consider the (often interactive) communication through the Internet, it is apparent that the array of policy news and commentary is rapidly growing. Nonetheless, how can we integrate communication and public policy? During our research, we discovered that two separate strands of literature exists (both very small indeed) that tackle the coupling between media and policy in different ways.

The first strand consists in assessing the influence that the media exert on public policy. In this case, the study of the media is addressed at understanding whether they may be considered among the actors of policy-making and to what extent. The influence of media is supposed to be exerted mainly through two mechanisms: on the one hand, the media agenda is deemed to condition the policy agenda, as in figure 1 (drawn from Dearing and Rogers 1996); on the other hand, the frames through which the media communicate public problems may be likely to affect the way public policies are shaped. The results of this strand of research appear to be ambivalent. While some authors argue that media play an important role “beyond any doubt” in the policy process, not only in the initial phase (agenda-setting and problem definition) but also in the later stages of the policy cycle (Soroka et al. 2012: 211), others underline that the studies on media influence reveal “a puzzling mixture of cases where the media had a strong impact on the process and/or outcome of policy and ones where they didn’t play any role” (Koch-Baumgartner and Voltmer 2010: 4).

Figure 1. The expected time order of real-world indicators, the media agenda, public agenda, and policy agenda, with the degree of evidence for each of these expected relationships.
Source: Dearing and Rogers (1996: 68)

Time order of real-world indicators (Dearing and Rogers, 1996:68)

However, the influence of media on public policies is not the only aspect that can be considered. When we address the topic of the relationship between media and policy, we can ask another question (somewhat preliminary and perhaps more important): whether and to what extent media are able to inform the public on the reasons why policies are adopted, disputes that surround them, causal hypotheses on which they are grounded, and the effects that they produce. In this case, the problem is to understand whether media contribute to the public debate on governmental choices and, hence, whether they help the public to form a reasoned opinion on issues that are often encompassed by complexity and uncertainty. A recent strand of communication research that—while not specifically devoted to public policy—seems particularly suitable in this regard is the growing literature on the “mediated deliberation” (Ettema 2007, Wessler 2008, Augoustinos et al. 2010, Maia 2012), that is, those studies that analyze the contribution of the media to the construction or facilitation of public deliberation.

Where the influence of media on the policies is concerned, in the first line of research what researchers look for are the frames that are used in the media to give emphasis to the issues, draw the public’s attention, and stir up emotions. When the research concerns the media’s contribution to public deliberation, the study rather addresses the arguments that the media present in support of or in opposition to the policy proposals, on their soundness, and on their completeness. Till date, the two mechanisms have been evoked by two different research traditions, focusing in turn on the simplifying role of the media or on that of providing forums for public debate. In fact, the media tends to do both: they simplify; however, they also sometimes deal with complexity; they not only solicit instinctive reactions but also offer reasoned arguments; they try to hit the public, but sometimes do not forget to inform them with richer explanations. Frames and arguments are opposite devices, but in some ways they are also complementary. People need to be attracted by some flashy appeal and to be able to weigh the soundness of the arguments put forward by the opposing policy actors.

What policy analysis should gain from communication studies is a double analysis of both the frames and the arguments that are embedded in mass communication. The former highlights the likely way by which the media may influence policy-making; the latter shows the deliberative function performed by the media within the public sphere. In our research, we chose to study both and we think that this has led to some important conclusions (see Bobbio and Roncarolo 2015).


1 The research was funded by the Compagnia di San Paolo in coordination with the University of Turin and was conducted by a team headed by Franca Roncarolo and comprising Marinella Belluati, Tiziana Caponio, Enrico Gargiulo, Micol Maggiolini, Fedra Negri, Gianfranco Pomatto, Stefania Ravazzi, Antonella Seddone, and myself (see Pomatto et al. 2013, Bobbio et al. 2015, Bobbio and Roncarolo 2015).


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