Amplifying Government: The Role of the News Media in Diplomacy

Katherine Brown is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

Between November 1979 and January 1981, a group of Iranian students held 52 American diplomats captive in the U.S. embassy, and other places in Tehran, for 444 days. The Iran Hostage Crisis saturated U.S. evening news coverage, capturing the imaginations of the American public.[i] Television was the medium through which American government officials and the public alike came to know about the issues surrounding the situation and the state of hostages. A spokeswoman for the hostage-takers, Masoumeh Ebtekar, who spoke perfect English, regularly made their case on U.S. broadcast stations. In Iran, the takeover was a popular event in the news media as well; Ayatollah Khomeini said it had “united,” the Iranian people.[ii] Patricia Karl wrote in her 1982 analysis of the crisis: “The media are increasingly a part of the process (if not the entire process) in the communications between governments and publics about international politics.”[iii] In international politics, the news media provides the channel for global understanding, and misunderstanding.

This is certainly true today in a transnational, digital media landscape. Governments can share information through traditional diplomatic means, but nations’ news systems are universal and can reach both governments and citizens. News can shape local and foreign opinions and therefore become part of the dynamics that affect the conduct of international relations. This is especially the case for U.S. journalists’ reportage and editorials, which are regularly consumed by American government officials and the U.S. public – but also by foreign government officials and journalists who want to understand and/or anticipate U.S. official action and thought.

We discussed such issues at the Milton Wolf Seminar on “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance,” held in Vienna in mid-April 2013. It was a three-day event that brought together diplomats, journalists and scholars to discuss how we make sense of current geopolitical pivots in global diplomacy, specifically Iran’s enduring nuclear question, Myanmar’s shaky movement toward liberalization, and Syria’s non-stop bloodshed.

A recurring theme of our discussion was hegemony: Does anyone have the ability to endow an issue or event with meaning, and then create a popular, universal consensus that the proscribed meaning is correct?[iv] Can anyone craft and legitimize a narrative about the consequential events in these three countries?

What we determined, I believe, is that there is no global narrative on global politics. Narratives about international events and issues fragment along national lines.

Within the realm of international politics, the United States has considerable material (military and economic) hegemony. Within the United States, the American government also wields overwhelming power in shaping narratives about international issues and events for the elite U.S. news media.  The image that U.S. journalists craft about America’s role in the world is largely based on what American officials tell them.[v] While U.S. officials regularly establish the salience of a foreign issue for the governmental agenda,[vi] journalists regularly turn to official sources for information.[vii] These journalists rarely challenge the consensus between executive officials and legislators (when one exists) on foreign policy issues, especially during the policy formation stage.[viii]

W. Lance Bennett called this ritual reliance on government officials for source material “indexing.” U.S. news, he said, is indexed implicitly to the “range and dynamics of governmental debate;” indexing is particularly pronounced in regards to military, diplomacy, trade and macroeconomic policy coverage, issues that have a larger, global effect and which the public may not know much about without the media’s guidance.[ix] Journalists tend to deem few sources outside of the executive branch—i.e., the legislative branch, academia, and think tanks—as credible on international relations. This dramatically shrinks the voices commenting on international issues within the press, and grants a minority incredible hegemony over shaping the narratives that echo throughout American news. American elite journalists tend to gravitate toward political controversy in elections and legislative debates. Tension between the American executive and legislative branches about a foreign issue gives that issue a valid space in U.S. news. Once there is consensus on that issue, however, it disappears from the news agenda.[x]

Deferential journalism on U.S. foreign policy is the norm in Washington. This is especially the case during a time of crisis. When it came to U.S. news breaking on Abu Ghraib in spring 2004, for instance, Bennett, Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston found that “event-driven news reporting, particularly in matters of high foreign policy consequence, is seriously constrained by mainstream news organizations’ deference to political power.”[xi] In their analysis of media coverage of 35 U.S. foreign policy crises between 1945 and 1991, John Zaller and Dennis Chiu found that the press rarely strayed from government views and often helped to bolster official policy.[xii] Similarly, Piers Robinson’s review of U.S press-state relations found that the U.S. press has consistently supported the U.S. government during times of war, most notably the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War and U.S. actions in Somalia in 1992.[xiii]

Over the last year, Iran, Myanmar and Syria have been the recurring subject of foreign news stories in the U.S. news media. These countries tell devastating tales of conflict and human drama.[xiv] The U.S. press mostly ignores the developing world unless there is a disaster, war or other atrocity that shocks the world. U.S. journalists tend to, according to media sociologist Herbert Gans, make “explicit value judgments [in foreign news] that would not be considered justifiable in domestic news.”[xv] News of international events is normally focused on events or issues that violate U.S. or western norms—or on how it involves the United States, especially if there are U.S. troops deployed in the country.[xvi]While no U.S. troops are stationed in these three countries,  U.S. foreign policies toward Iran, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Myanmar, have ignited controversy between the executive and legislative branches, and during the 2012 elections.

During the 2012 American election season, Iran was a recurring topic. Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, largely agreed with President Barack Obama that it was unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon; although the two insisted there was a difference in their policies on what U.S. should do to stop Iran from acquiring one. When it comes to Syria, current news discourse is focused on a “red line” that Obama established in an August 2012 news conference: If the Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to use chemical weapons against its people, then the U.S. would take more aggressive action to intervene in the conflict. Following the administration’s April report to Congress documenting evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, Senator John McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, repeatedly cited Obama’s 2012 statement as grounds for action. Myanmar was a surprise focus for the Obama administration’s second term; in November 2012 Obama was the first U.S. president to ever travel to the country. According to the administration’s framing, Myanmar’s moves toward liberalization had to be acknowledged and encouraged by the American president. Obama’s visit was also tied to the administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia,”  a central foreign policy priority to strategically “re-balance” U.S. interests from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.

For U.S. journalists, events inside Iran, Myanmar and Syria violate or shock U.S. norms and values. These countries’ issues can affect American national interests and be indexed to debate in Washington. For the sake of their American readers, American journalists put the U.S. at the center of the world.[xvii] They often position the U.S. as the international community’s sole superpower, prepared to respond militarily to any threat against U.S. national security or the American way of life, or even on behalf of what are deemed to be larger “civilizational” or humanitarian values.[xviii]

How does this U.S. government-influenced news narrative then cascade not just throughout America, but throughout the world? Does it have hegemony in global news? In one way it does. Since the 1970s New World Information Communication Order (NWICO) movement within UNESCO that culminated in 1980 with the publication of the MacBride Report, the developing world has vocally complained about on the imbalance between Western and non-Western new flows. Many countries have to rely on Western newswires, radio services and elite newspapers for information. I argue, however, that the U.S.’s narrative-setting power is limited among global publics– especially in countries where U.S. foreign policy has a serious impact.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I’ve conducted research on American media hegemony since 2010, a large majority of Afghan and Pakistani journalists assume that their American peers are advocates for U.S. government foreign policy. They regularly identify the concepts of indexing and ethnocentrism in U.S. news and resent how U.S. journalists choose to frame their countries’ stories. The U.S. journalists who report from these two countries are hardly advocates for U.S. foreign policy goals; they play watchdogs on issues regarding American tax dollars and military power when they can. But they cover the world in an effort to keep the U.S. government accountable to Americans, not to global citizens. They protect concrete national interests, not ill-defined global ones.

Narratives can shape the structures of global diplomacy. They are part of the communication between governments and publics about the events, or pivots, in foreign affairs. But even in a liberal society like the United States, the government has remarkable hegemony over how U.S. news about the world is written. American government officials drive an American narrative and worldview; U.S. journalists rarely change its course. In this way, U.S. news regularly reasserts American hegemony in the world. As it did during those 444 days, Americans normally become acquainted with the world when a crisis merits it, and puts American protagonists – whether they be diplomats, troops or everyday citizens – at the center.

If the United States experience is any example, the role that journalists play in diplomacy is to amplify the views and the power of the nation for which they write.

About the Author

brownKatherine Brown is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communications at Columbia University and an Instructor at their School of International and Public Affairs. Her research examines the interplay of news media and international relations, and public diplomacy policy. Professionally, Katherine’s served on the editorial staff for Bloomberg News; as a Professional Staff Member at the Committee on Foreign Affairs at the U.S. House of Representatives; as a Communications Adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul; and as an assistant to the U.S. National Security Adviser. She has an M.A. and M.Phil. in Communications from Columbia.

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.



[i] In addition to network news routinely covering the crisis each night, “America Held Hostage” was an ABC evening news program, hosted by Ted Koppel, from 1979 to 1980, which dealt exclusively with the event. The series later became “Nightline.”

[ii] Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press), 2006.

[iii] Patricia A. Karl, “Media Diplomacy,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Vol. 34 No. 4, (1982): 143-152.

[iv] See: Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching, (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 1980;  Antonio Gramsci said hegemony was the penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order.”

[v] Philio, Wasburn, The Social Construction of International News: We’re Talking about Them, They’re Talking about Us (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), 2002: 163.

[vi] A governmental agenda here is defined by John W. Kingdon, “the list of subjects or problems to which government officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time.” John W Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies. (Boston: Little, Brown), 1984: 3.

[vii] Leon V. Sigal, Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking, (Lexington, Mass: D. C. Heath), 1973; Tim Cook, Governing with the News, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1996.

[viii] See also: Gitlin, 1980; Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1989; N.O. Berry, Foreign Policy and the Press: An Analysis of The New York Times’ Coverage of U.S. Foreign Policy, (New York: Greenwood Press), 1996; William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang, The U.S. Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference, (London: University of California Press), 1987. For more on the function of American news in U.S. foreign policy see: W. Lance Bennett, “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 40 (1990): 103-125; Eytan Gilboa, “Global Communication and Foreign Policy,” International  Communication Association, 2002; Ole Holsti, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 2004; M. Linsky, Impact: How the Press Affects Federal Policymaking (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company,) 1986; Chanan Naveh, “The Role of the Media in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: A Theoretical Framework,” Conflict & Communication Online, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2002); David L. Paletz and Robert Entman, Media, Power, and Politics, (New York: Free Press), 1991; David L Paletz, The Media in American Politics, (New York: Longman), 2002; James Reston, The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy (New York: Harper & Row), 1966; Piers Robinson, The CNN Effect: The Myth of News, Foreign Policy and Intervention, (London: Routledge), 2002; Richard Sobel, The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam, (New York: Oxford University Press), 2001.

[ix] Bennett, 1990.

[x] See Hallin, 1989: 116-117.

[xi] W. Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, “None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 56, No. 3, September 2006; 107.

[xii] John Zaller and Dennis Chiu, “Government’s Little Helper: U.S. Press Coverage of Foreign Policy Crises, 1945-1991,” Political Communication, Vol. 13, No. 2, (1996): 385-405; This is also a typical refrain in Noam Chomsky’s work; news framing normally reflects the interests of the government and dominant ideology of the nation where the news agency is based. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, (New York: Random House), 1988.

[xiii] Piers Robinson, “Researching U.S. Media-State Relations and Twenty-First Century Wars.” In Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime, Eds. Allan, Stuart and Barbie Zelizer, (Oxford: Routledge), 2004.

[xiv] Herbet Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time (Chicago: Northwestern University Press), 2004:31

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] See: Chang and Nancy Bredlinger, 1987; Zixue Tai, “Media of the World and World of the Media: A Cross-National Study of the Rankings of the ‘Top 10 World Events’ from 1988 to 1998,” Gazette, Vol. 62, No. 5 (October 2000): 331-353.

[xvii] Gans, 2004; 42

[xviii] Wasburn, 2002; 154

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