16.4 Policymaking and Domestic Policies in the Information Age
After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What are the five stages of the policymaking process?
- What are some of the ways the media depict policymaking?
- What are some of the ways the media influence policymaking?
According to a former White House staffer in the George W. Bush administration, the shifts “from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy” were “near instant” (Suskind, 2003). The Bush administration may have gone to extremes, but as we have documented throughout this book, people in government and politics interact with the media in myriad ways to promote their interests and policy preferences. Rather than describe these interactions again, we focus here on their consequences.
All elements of the media can influence public policy: news, opinion and commentary, fiction and documentary films, and advertising. But their attention is intense on some subjects, intermittent on others, and nonexistent in regard to many policies. This is understandable and predictable, given the abundance of policies and the several stages and complexity of the policymaking process.
We break this policy process into five stages: (1) agenda setting, (2) formulation, (3) adoption, (4) implementation and administration, and (5) evaluation. Naturally, reality is more complex: stages overlap, do not necessarily follow in this order, and are not fulfilled for every policy. Nonetheless, the breakdown does ease understanding.
People have many concerns. These become part of the policy agenda when they are seen as requiring government attention and action (e.g., global warming). In agenda setting, then, what were conditions ignored or to be endured become problems requiring government intervention (Lawrence, 2001).
The media move a subject onto the policy agenda when they give it extensive coverage and frame it as a problem demanding a response by policymakers. For example, widespread reporting of how many Americans were sickened by tainted eggs and spinach eventually resulted in a law that overhauled the food safety system and gave more authority to the Food and Drug Administration.
The media can put a topic on the policy agenda by transforming it into a news icon. A garbage barge that for three months unsuccessfully sought a port on the East Coast to unload its cargo received extensive news coverage, was joked about in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts and mentioned in comedy shows, and became the subject of polls. With environmental interest groups weighing in, the barge grew into an icon symbolizing a wasteful society with ever-mounting garbage and nowhere to dump it. It put garbage firmly on the policy agenda (Bennett & Lawrence, 1995).
The Odyssey of the Mobro 4000
This barge and its load became a media icon, putting the garbage problem on the policy agenda.
The media can keep subjects off the policy agenda or enable policymakers to keep them off by ignoring or downplaying them. Or their coverage can give the impression, rightly or wrongly, that a subject does not require resolution through the policy process. Coverage may be insufficient when policymakers are disinterested: the scant media attention to the AIDS epidemic during its early years did not put it on the policy agenda in the face of the Reagan administration’s indifference.
When an issue is on the agenda, policymakers often propose policies to solve it. They sometimes have several alternative policies from which to choose. Traffic safety can be sought by “building more highways (the solution of the 1950s), requiring safer cars (the solution of the 1960s), putting drunk drivers behind bars (that of the 1980s and 1990s)” (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993).
The media influence policy formulation by how they frame the subject, their coverage of policymakers’ arguments and debates, and the policy alternatives they report. Thus the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs can be framed as a law-and-order problem or a health issue (e.g., medical marijuana) or as an everyday recreational activity.
Media coverage of policy formulation infrequently dwells on substantive arguments and alternatives. Depiction of the legislative process is typical: the news media usually frame it as conflict and strategy. And because the news media cover only a few major issues, policymakers are often able to formulate the details of policies without much scrutiny or public awareness.
The media spotlight can speed up policy formulation on major issues. But speed tends not to work well for deliberation: deciding what to do about a problem can take sifting and winnowing. News coverage pushes for a quick response from policymakers, thereby often favoring the most available alternative, perhaps regardless of whether it effectively addresses the problem.
For formulated policies to be put into effect, they must be adopted by the relevant institutions of government. The media can be a forum in which various sides argue their cases for policy adoption. But coverage is sometimes one-sided. When favorable, it enhances a policy proposal’s likelihood of adoption. When unfavorable, it can undermine a proposal, as we documented in our discussion of President Bush’s proposals to change Social Security. As we also noted, negative advertising helped kill the Clinton administration’s health-care proposal.
Adoption of a policy legitimizes it (Barker, 1990). The media usually give positive coverage to the enactment of significant laws, thereby adding to their legitimacy. But not always—remember the criticism of and attacks on the new health law disparaged as “ObamaCare.”
The Law-Signing Ceremony
An enduring image of the US government is the president signing into law a piece of legislation just passed by Congress. The president is surrounded by the members of Congress responsible for and citizens benefiting from the law’s passage. The ceremony requires many pens because after each stroke the president gives one to someone associated with the legislation.
The ceremony is a photo op for all the participants. It presents the president as intimately involved in policymaking as head of the government, Congress and its members as effective lawmakers, and the law as final.
The image is compelling, but the impressions it conveys are disputable. The president may not have been intimately involved in proposing the law, deciding on the law’s key details, and pushing for passage of the legislation. Members of Congress are more or less satisfied with the law, which may have been jerry-built out of compromises, concessions, the dropping of vital provisions, and the inclusion of unnecessary or damaging ones as favors to legislators who would otherwise oppose passage. And with implementation and administration to come, the effects of the law are far from final.
Implementation and Administration
Policy decisions require policy implementation and administration. Congress relies on the bureaucracy to develop the specific standards and procedures that fulfill the intent of the policy.
Messy reality can make administration and implementation difficult for even the most conscientious and dedicated bureaucrat. Nor are bureaucratic incompetence, dereliction, ineptitude, and scandals unknown. Policies may be ignored or subverted at the state or local level.
The media can be a significant force at this stage of the policy process. But most policy implementation and administration take place out of the media’s view and are time consuming to find and expose, even with investigative reporting. Thus media coverage is sporadic and focused on a few policies.
Policy evaluation, or assessing a policy’s effectiveness, can be complicated (Peters, 2010). Many public policies aim to achieve broad conceptual goals such as “healthy air quality.” Or a policy may have multiple, not necessarily compatible, objectives. The 1996 Telecommunications Act was intended to unleash the power of competition, spur technological innovation, create jobs, and reduce cable rates (Aufderheide, 1999).
As we showed in our box on No Child Left Behind, the media can evaluate policies through their reporting. They also report and therefore publicize some of the policy assessments of government agencies, policy oversight studies by congressional committees, and congressional hearings. They report the findings of public interest groups (e.g., that many of the recipients of tobacco subsidies do not grow tobacco) and transmit the revelations of whistle-blowers (e.g., documents showing that the tobacco companies long knew that smoking causes diseases).
Such journalism can lead to outrage from the public and from policymakers, demands for reform, and governmental action. Policies are reappraised, changed, and even junked.
The five stages of the policy process are (1) agenda setting, (2) formulation, (3) adoption, (4) implementation and administration, and (5) evaluation. The media are more or less involved and influential at every stage.
- How can media coverage put an issue on the policy agenda? What issue can you think of that has been brought to the public attention by media coverage?
- How do the media depict the policymaking process in the United States? Why do you think the media portray it that way?
Many students take out loans to finance their education. Their college’s financial aid office guides them through the process, often steering them to certain lenders.
The government paid billions annually to subsidize lenders and guaranteed repayment of up to 97 percent of the loan. Lenders were guaranteed a rate of return by law. They therefore made large profits with minimal risk.
Raza Khan and Vishal Garg, then twenty-nine, founded MyRichUncle in 2005 on the assumption that their company would prosper in this $85 billion business by offering students lower interest rates and a better deal. But they soon discovered that students followed the recommendations of their college’s financial aid officers and that MyRichUncle was excluded from many of the lists of recommended lenders. So they ran advertisements questioning and challenging the cozy relationship between financial aid officials and large lenders.
In January 2007, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo (who in 2010 would be elected governor) investigated the industry. His findings were widely reported. The media frame was the dubious and possibly illegal ways some student-loan companies used “payola” and “bribery” (e.g., giving stocks, consulting fees, gifts, trips) to financial aid officers to put them on preferred lender lists, push their loans, and exclude other lenders. They had also entered into revenue-sharing agreements (i.e., kickbacks) giving institutions a cut of all the loans their students took out with the lender.
The revelations had consequences. In May 2007, the House of Representatives voted by 414 to 3 to ban student loan companies from giving gifts and payments to universities. The directors of financial aid at several universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Southern California, left their positions. New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and other schools repaid students the money that lenders had given to the universities for steering loans to them (Glater, 2007; Arenson, 2007). In New York and other states, lenders promised to adhere to a code of conduct prohibiting the dubious practices.
In August 2007, the Government Accountability Office issued a report criticizing the Department of Education for failing to detect misconduct by lenders and failing to protect student borrowers. It was released by congressional Democrats and widely reported (Glater, 2007).
In September 2007, President Bush signed legislation reducing the size of the federal government’s subsidy to lenders and halving interest rates on student loans the government originated (Schemo, 2007). But the new law did not significantly change the relationship between the government and the student loan industry.
In March 2010, President Obama signed a law to end the loan program, eliminate the fees paid to private banks, and allocate the $80 billion saved over ten years to expand the Pell grants program for needy students (Baker & Herszenhorn, 2010). The federal government would make loans directly to students through their college’s financial aid office. As a consolation, the banks, which had lobbied fiercely against the changes, would continue to earn income by servicing the loans.
This story tells us that ordinary Americans can challenge the established powers and long-standing cozy relations of an industry that affects the lives—and debts—of students and their families. Media depictions and frames influence the policies adopted. Sadly, the challengers themselves are not always financially rewarded: MyRichUncle went bankrupt in February 2009.
Arenson, K. W., “Columbia Will Pay $1.1 Million to State Fund in Student Lending Scandal,” New York Times, June 1, 2007, A23.
Aufderheide, P., Communications Policy and the Public Interest (New York: Guilford Press, 1999).
Baker, P. and David M. Herszenhorn, “Obama Signs Overhaul of Student Loan Program,” New York Times, March 31, 2010, A14.
Barker, R., Political Legitimacy and the State (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
Baumgartner, F. R. and Bryan D. Jones, Agenda and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 124.
Bennett, W. L. and Regina G. Lawrence, “News Icons and the Mainstreaming of Social Change,” Journal of Communication 45, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 20.
Glater, J. D., “G.A.O. Study Cites Loose Oversight of College Loans,” New York Times, August 2, 2007, A1.
Glater, J. D., “Texas U. Fires Aid Officer over His Ties to Lender,” New York Times, May 15, 2007, A13.
Lawrence, R. G., “Defining Events: Problem Definition in the Media Arena,” in Politics, Discourse, and American Society, ed. Roderick P. Hart and Bartholomew H. Sparrow (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 92.
Peters, B. G., American Public Policy: Promise and Performance, 8th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010).
Schemo, D. J., “Congress Passes Overhaul of Student Aid Programs,” New York Times, September 8, 2007, A12.
Suskind, R., quoting John DiIulio, in “Why Are These Men Laughing?” Esquire, January 2003, 99.