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Political Science Professor's Book Takes On Media's Role in Shaping Public Opinion​

In his first book, Influence from Abroad: Foreign Voices, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion (Cambridge University Press, 2013) Dr. Matthew Guardino, assistant professor of political science, shows that United States public opinion about American foreign policy can be shaped by foreign leaders and representatives of international organizations.

1guardino.jpgBy studying news coverage, elite debate, and public opinion prior to the Iraq War, Guardino and Dr. Danny Hayes, assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University, demonstrate that U.S. media outlets aired and published a significant amount of opposition to the invasion from official sources abroad. In turn, these foreign voices--to which millions of Americans were exposed--drove many Democrats and independents to signal opposition to the war, even as domestic elites supported it. This book shows that international officials can alter domestic public opinion, but only when the media deem them newsworthy.

Below, Guardino talks about why he wrote the book, why the topic is important, and the role the media played in public opinion before the Iraq War began.

Why did you write this book? What interests you about the subject?

We began the project really for two broad reasons. First, we believe that the news media’s crucial role in making our democratic society work (or not work, as the case may be) is still not well appreciated by scholars, or by the public at large. Secondly, to our surprise, no scholars had yet conducted a really careful, systematic analysis of U.S. mainstream news coverage before the Iraq War. Given the broad importance of that debate in so many ways, this project was really crying out for someone to do it.

We figured, why not us? As former newspaper reporters, we felt like we had a pretty good “inside” understanding of how the media works, and we thought we’d combine that with our academic research skills and see what we came up with.

Without giving too much away, what are a few major topic areas that the book hits upon?

1guardinobook.pngThe book analyzes the content of the U.S. mainstream news media and its effect on public opinion in the months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the title suggests, our core argument explains how and why the perspectives of foreign officials get into the news, and how and why the American public responds (or fails to respond) to those voices.

As part of this, we lay out a theory about why the media includes certain people’s voices and excludes others, especially during foreign policy debates. We connect that to the issue of how and why different kinds of citizens respond in particular ways to those media messages. And we discuss what this theory of media and public opinion can tell us about the health of American democracy.

Talk about the state of the media prior to the Iraq War and the role it played leading up to that war.

We found that the news was dominated by official government voices and positions, which mainly consisted of the Bush administration on one side, and foreign governments and international organizations on the other. Anti-war Democratic members of Congress and the anti-war movement were essentially ignored by the media.

Has the media changed in the years since?

The media has changed quite a lot since 2002 and 2003. In fact, the changes have been so rapid that it’s been hard for scholars to keep up and make sense of them. One big change that’s very relevant to our work is the rise of cable TV and Internet news. Sometimes it’s hard to remember those days, but even 10 years ago these sources were not nearly as influential in politics as they are today. In our last chapter, we explore how these trends relate to our argument about media and public opinion on foreign policy, and we discuss both what has changed and what has remained the same as it relates to our theory.

As a former member of the media, was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for the book?

To be honest, not really. In many ways, our findings just confirmed and extended the expectations we had going in. We knew from years of practical experience and academic research that the mainstream media generally tries hard to present “both sides” of major policy issues to the public (and it usually succeeds). The really tricky part comes we when get into how “both sides” are defined. This process is very complicated and doesn’t always work to the benefit of a well-informed public, to put it lightly.

The main thing that surprised us was the extent to which the U.S. media included (and the public responded to) foreign voices. In that sense, our book is part of some recent research by several scholars that challenges the long-time academic consensus that the media generally ignores foreign voices, and that the public doesn’t care what these officials from “over there” have to say about U.S. foreign policy.

What do you hope readers take from the book?

First, we hope that readers get a clearer understanding of how the U.S. media actually covered the period before the Iraq War. Going to war was obviously a monumental decision by our government, and having a good sense of history can only be helpful as we deal with the many similar challenges we’re facing as a nation and will continue to face going forward.

We also hope that people will better realize just how crucial it is to read, listen to and watch the news in a critical fashion. There’s no need to be cynical here, but having some perspective on how the media actually works, and why certain messages and voices are played up (and others are downplayed or ignored) is really important to being an engaged citizen in a democracy.

This is your first book? Anything else on the horizon?

This is the first book both for my co-author and me. As for what’s on the horizon, I have a lot of other projects going on that are in various stages in the march toward publication. One thing that Danny and I are beginning to research is how our theories from this book might be applied to other cases, such as the debate over Iran’s nuclear program and the global warming controversy.

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