Wagging the Dog: Media and Public Policy
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Question: How powerful is the effect of the media upon public policy?
Matthew Nisbet: Well, it's difficult to disentangle but you can think about it- think about this way in two ways. One is, there's almost nothing done in Washington D.C. or on the campaign trail without the media involved. So, the media is constantly on the mind of every politician and policy maker. The second way to think about it is that the media both reflects and shapes any policy today. So, in some cases the framing, the presentation of an issue in the news reflects how strategists are pushing certain packages or strategic interpretations into the media coverage or the nature of the debate that's going on in Congress. At other times, something will appear in the media around a focusing event, say a natural disaster or a new scientific moment or a journalist will come up with a new interpretation. Sometimes journalists are kind of issue entrepreneurs themselves, they're actually pushing a certain direction or a new reinterpretation on policy issue. And your "Times Magazine" article is a good example. And so in some cases, the media can then start a new narrative in the police debate, a new frame. But really you can think about controlling media, everything that goes on in an election, everything that goes on in Washington D.C. fundamentally comes down to, first controlling how much attention an issue receives in the press and then when it does receive attention, how is it defined or how is it framed?
Question: What is your advice for choosing a medium that is best suited to your message?
Matthew Nisbet: Well, I think the biggest challenge facing science institutions today is the problem of choice in the media system. So, you can produce great scientific content and produce really great science media, coverage in the "New York Times" coverage on "PBS," but in those outlets you're probably only reaching an audience who already agrees with you and is already well informed. The rest of the American public, they have so many media choices that if they lack a preference or interest in science content they can completely avoid that really good coverage. So, the challenge then is to try to figure out, in fact ways to what I call, incidentally expose that wider public to science content to get them science information in places in the media where they're not looking for it. So, sometimes that's in celebrity news coverage, sometimes that's at a religious news site. Sometimes that's in late night comedy like "The Daily Show" infotainment, entertainment. Sometimes that's on the business beat because many people that read the business pages are not interested in science, they're also not also reading the science pages. But if you can get coverage of science in the business beat, now you're reaching an important audience. So, you have to figure out a way that where can you accidentally reach your audience, incidentally reach the intended audience that you are trying to reach. And then second, that's the channel and then you have to figure out, okay what's the message that fits with that channel, with that area of the media and also the audience that's consuming that media. And again that's where you do the research on how to frame or present that complex information in a way that’s understandable, accessible and connects to something that people already know.
Matthew Nisbet emphasizes the cyclical nature of the relationship between public policy and media.
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