Soft News and Foreign Policy: How Expanding the Audience Changes the Policies 1
Since the 1980s, the mass media have changed the way they cover major political stories, like foreign policy crises. As a consequence, what the public learns about these events has changed. More media outlets cover major events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. When they do cover a political story, soft news outlets focus more on “human drama” than traditional news media – especially the character and motivations of decision-makers, as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy – and less on the political or strategic context, or substantive nuances, of policy debates. Many Americans who previously ignored most political news now attend to some information about major political events, like wars, via the soft news media. These changes have important implications for democratic politics. Most importantly, a large number of particularly persuadable potential voters are now tuning in to politics via soft news outlets. This gives politicians an incentive to develop strategies for reaching out to them. Such individuals care less about the nuances of policy and more about the personality of leaders and any sensational human drama that a policy, like a war, entails. Soft news consumers care less about geopolitics than about body bags. Politicians who want their votes are therefore likely to emphasize body bags more than geopolitics. In short, the “new” media environment changes both the style and substance of politics in democracies.
1 Paper prepared for the 2006 meeting of the International Political Science Association. I am grateful to the following individuals for comments, suggestions, and valuable intellectual exchanges: James Hamilton, Ikuo Kabashima, Sam Popkin, Susan Shirk, Gill Steel, Masaki Taniguchi. I have also benefited from support by the 21st Century COE program, Graduate School of Law and Politics, University of Tokyo.