Counting on the American Public to Be Informed on the TAFTA/TTIP Talks? Don’t Hold Your Breath
Abstract: This essay discusses American mainstream news coverage of the TAFTA | TTIP negotiation process between the US and the EU in three consecutive steps: First, it tests the hypotheses that coverage will be very limited, both in overall references to the topic, as well as the qualitative content of news reports. An empirical analysis of news content generated by leading US news organizations subsequently reveals that both of these hypotheses can be empirically verified. Secondly, various media biases are presented as possible explanations for this lack in news coverage. Thirdly, the essay offers suggestions for how to increase news media interest and public awareness of the TAFTA | TTIP negotiation process.
In regard to the American public and US foreign policy two truisms exist, which perhaps come as close to empirical laws as anything political science and communication research has to offer:
Americans are not particularly interested in foreign policy – unless American lives or vital national interests are perceived to be at stake; and,
Elite perspectives typically shape media representation of foreign events
While the root causes, nuances and implications of these two assumptions were and are hotly debated, and at times even spill over into other disciplines focused on democratic theory, international relations or normative models, it seems relatively safe to assume that they are applicable in the case of the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, also known as Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TAFTA | TTIP) negotiations. Americans – and this very much includes American newsrooms and editorial boards – will generally be unlikely to be well-informed about the negotiation process, which can be expected to be both protracted and complex, in addition to international contract negotiations’ general propensity for a lack of transparency. From what we know of mainstream media coverage of foreign policy, when an issue does become salient, this can be expected to have been caused by policy elites purposefully calling attention to select aspects of the process (Bennett 1990; Entman 2004; Robinson 2008).
Accordingly, the following set of hypotheses can be derived from these general assumptions:
Initially, US public interest in the TAFTA | TTIP talks will be low, which, in the market-liberal press environment of the US means that mainstream media will not be incentivized to cover the topic;
When the TAFTA | TTIP does receive press coverage, elite sources will be primarily referenced and mainstream media outlets and journalists will favor elite framing.
This second assumption requires further explanation. Apart from market or public interest factors, a good indicator for predicting spikes in press coverage has usually been dissensus among elites, meaning that when elites disagree on a given subject, news media will become interested in presenting the conflict (Baum & Groeling 2009). As we can expect American elites, such as the two political parties, to generally agree on the terms of this agreement or to have no political incentive in formulating opposing views – as a lack of an informed public equals a lack of constituency – we can expect media coverage to remain not only low, but also fairly one-sided (for instance, it would be reasonable to expect a lot of focus to go into the ever-popular and bi-partisan frames of “the benefits of free-trade” and “job creation”).
For the purposes of this essay, these assumptions were put to the test through an analysis of mainstream American media coverage of the TAFTA | TTIP negotiations.
Media Coverage of TAFTA | TTIP in Empirical Analysis
A combined sample of the cable news network CNN, which traditionally has the greatest focus on international events in comparison with its direct market competitors, the news division of the television network CBS, as well as the two national, daily newspapers The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post (WaPo), initially produced 62 results within a timespan of eight and a half months (from January 1 2013 to 15 August 2013). A qualitative analysis of these results revealed that only 36 of the retrieved news reports were actually valid hits constituting unique news reports which mentioned the TAFTA | TTIP negotiations, with the overwhelming majority of the pieces coming from the two papers (NYT = 20; WaPo = 12), CNN only marginally reporting on the topic (=4) and with CBS News not covering the agenda item at all.
As a qualitative analysis revealed, within the 36 relevant news pieces, 20 were directly focused on matters concerning TAFTA | TTIP. The other 16 results only touched the topic marginally; meaning the main focus of the report was a different topic (such as Obama’s foreign policy agenda, for example). Out of the 20 pieces that were primarily focused on the negotiations, 16 dealt with the topic at depth, meaning that more than one viewpoint or aspect was reported on. Furthermore, only six news pieces out of the collected sample featured non-elite sources or viewpoints. This means that actors were quoted or featured that would not be directly involved in the negotiation process, or could be considered as being “non-official.” Two of these were members of the industrial sector, both of which w ere strongly in favor of a possible TAFTA | TTIP agreement, one was the Washington Post’s editorial board (also in favor of TAFTA | TTIP), and merely three sources were cited as being critical of a possible trade agreement. These consisted of European farmers, European filmmakers and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
What Might this Tell Us?
First of all, both of the hypotheses articulated can be tentatively verified. Accordingly, both of the initial general assumptions may be at work simultaneously: public interest in this topic might truly be limited. However, in most of the coverage a one-dimensional, matter-of-fact report was presented. These news stories lack in context, contextualization, and deeper problematization of the topic. This sort of media coverage is therefore unlikely to generate an increased and sustained interest in the TAFTA | TTIP negotiations.
This, in turn, relates directly to the second factor, that is to say, elite sources and framing: While it might seem like a good start to demand more media coverage of the debates in order to spark public interest, a simple increase in media coverage is likely to lead to an increase in reports that lack depth and in framing of the TAFTA | TTIP talks by elites already involved or affiliated with the ongoing negotiations. These sources are, by definition, unlikely to be fundamentally critical of a process they themselves are a part of. Accordingly, we must be aware that publicity is not synonymous with a truly informed or even critical public. As some research on media effects has suggested (Nyhan & Reifler 2010; Nyhan 2012), more interested and nominally informed members of the public might also be more susceptible to misinformation and misperception. Accordingly, a demand for “better” journalism, in this case, would entail both a quantitative as well as a qualitative component.
The latter aspect leads to the, admittedly, thorny question of evaluating content quality and considering what sort of information would be desirable for the public to obtain in order to behave a certain way. The point of this essay, however, is not to come down on one side of a philosophical debate on the question of when and under which circumstances an informed public can best be mobilized. Instead, the point here is to problematize the fact that very concrete and important news items such as the TAFTA | TTIP seem to either not make it onto the news agenda at all or if they do, they will be strongly limited and one-sided.
How can we Explain the Lack of Media Coverage?
Apart from the quite obvious answer that foreign news is often times not viewed as directly relevant to the personal lives of most US citizens, one might point out that this is only a valid argument if the TAFTA | TTIP is in fact framed as a foreign policy issue with little or no effect on the lives of the average American. This sort of framing would not just make the topic less interesting for media organizations, it would arguably also be inaccurate if not downright false: a trade agreement leading to the world’s largest economies merging their trade zones can be expected to have an enormous impact on millions of, if not even all, Americans.
The argument that this news topic is inherently uninteresting to the public and, by extension, the news media can and should therefore be dismissed. Instead, other biases might serve as more convincing explanatory factors.
As Lance Bennett notes in his comprehensive work on the American news media environment (2012), mainstream media generally adhere to four types of biases: the personalization (45), dramatization (46), fragmentation (47), and authority-disorder (47) biases.
While personalization will focus on human interest aspects and individual actors, rather than structural or institutional problems, dramatization will lead to news items framed in terms of conflict, which will draw the focus on specific news events while ignoring others. Fragmentation in the depiction of news events means that news items will be presented in an all too short and isolated form, which will lack context and therefore fail at truly informing news consumers or allowing them to properly assess and classify newly received information. Lastly, the authority-disorder bias leads to a strong focus on chaos and dysfunction, in which authorities either succeed at restoring order or, increasingly, are portrayed as failing to do so.
All of these have to do with the inherent need for forms of narration in mediated communication: i.e., the need for journalists to tell stories and frame events. Bennett (2012) argues that in an increasingly mediated political environment, with ever-faster news cycles and cheaper, more market-oriented production forms, these biases not only shape most forms of news in the US, they may also have various negative effects on democratic processes and public deliberation.
In respect to all of these four categories, the TAFTA | TTIP negotiations so far make for a decidedly unsexy news item to look into. The authority-disorder bias, for example, might come into play as soon as the negotiations are either a success or a failure – by which time it will be too late for the public to become actively involved, and who up to this point may have only received isolated bits of information pertaining to the topic (fragmentation bias). Likewise, the personalization and dramatization biases will likely portray success or failure as being attributable to the legacy of individual policy elites.
Far from any plot or conspiracy to neuter the public sphere and civil society by keeping an unwitting public uninformed and thereby uninvolved, it is these typical modes of operation, inherent to mainstream journalism, which may be primarily responsible for keeping the TAFTA | TTIP talks off the media’s agenda.
Therefore, the bad news is that, as the media system is unlikely to change any time soon, these mechanisms will largely remain in place. The good news, however, is that these biases might be taken into account and possibly even utilized when crafting media strategies geared towards greater public involvement.
How could all of this be Counter-Acted? Some Conclusions and Media Policy Recommendations
As demonstrated, it is unlikely that the TAFTA | TTIP talks will receive much media attention. The American public is therefore very likely to not be involved in the negotiation process. From the perspective of democratic theory in an American context, this is not necessarily troublesome, as the powers and responsibilities to make treaties and trade agreements are constitutionally vested with the Congress – i.e., democratically elected officials (the question of democratic legitimacy might arguably therefore be more problematic within the context of the EU). However, it may also be claimed that a lack of public knowledge about the ongoing negotiation process might mean that citizens will not receive an adequate amount of information on the topic in order to inform their electoral choices.
Additionally, when one calls for more involvement of the public and media representation thereof, it may be important to explain in more detail what this might entail: It will be highly unlikely for “the public” as such (i.e., as a political actor) to articulate its views within mainstream media. In respect to mediated debates on this topic, dissensus will need to arise from within elite circles, meaning that either clear policy standpoints must be demanded from potentially critical political representatives or that civil society actors such as critical NGOs or unions must be promoted in order to be presented as “elite opposition” within the media. This in turn might lead to a virtuous cycle of increasing media coverage, which will sustain public awareness, which then raises public interest. This, in turn, will increase the incentive for elites to make their voices heard, which would generate more media coverage, and so on and so forth.
For actors of civil society wishing to lobby or inform the public, it will be important to consider the systematic biases involved in mainstream media coverage of protracted events such as international treaty negotiations. It will be vital to craft public campaigns, which acknowledge and try to counteract these biases. Such campaigns will be well advised to play into the media’s known shortcomings. As a guideline, press statements or public protests might therefore aim to:
Explain the agenda in terms of domestic policy and possible precedents (such as NAFTA and its consequences, for example),
Craft a narrative geared towards the media’s personification and dramatization biases;
Present an easily recognizable and authoritative affiliation.
While this might not guarantee success (i.e., favorable media coverage of a given perspective), the main goal behind this would be to offer media outlets and journalists a reason to cover a specific viewpoint or frame. Should such campaigns manage to be picked up by mainstream media, policy elites in turn may be forced to engage the narrative, which will generate more media coverage of a “problematized” agenda item and might therefore raise public awareness and interest; thus fostering the foundations of what might be considered critical public debate.
Baum, Matthew A. / Groeling, Tim (2009): Shot by the Messenger, Partisan Cues and Public Opinion Regarding National Security and War, Political Behavior, 31(2), pp. 157-186.
Bennett, W. Lance (1990): Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,Journal of Communication 40(2), pp. 103-125.
Bennett, W. Lance (2012): News: The Politics of Illusion, 9th ed, Boston: Longman.
Entman, Robert M. (2004): Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy; Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kumar, Priya (2011): Foreign Correspondents: Who Covers What, AJR.com. American Journalism Review, Dec. 2011. Available online: http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4997.
Nyhan, Brendan (2012): Political Knowledge Does Not Guard Against Belief In Conspiracy Theories, YouGov Model Politics, November 5, 2012.
Nyhan, Brendan / Reifler, Jason (2010): When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Political Behavior, 32(2): pp. 303-330.
Page, Benjamin I. (1996): Who Deliberates? Mass Media in Modern Democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2012): Interest in Foreign News Declines, People-Press.org., 6 June 2012. Available online: http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/06-06-2012%20NII%20FINAL.pdf.
Robinson, Piers (2008): Media and US Foreign Policy, in: Michael Cox, Doug Stokes (eds.): US Foreign Policy, Oxford: University Press, pp. 163–182.
Tags: Civil Society, democratic processes, media&journalism, public opinion, TAFTA, TTIP