I remembered this piece from the New York Times today - at the time it was published (June, 2008), it looked at how correspondents saw the difficulties of covering important conflicts that the public is not necessarily interested in, and which the media therefore doesn't necessarily look to cover, either. This is what it said about the coverage of Afghanistan by the three major US networks, CBS, NBC and ABC:
"Coverage of the war in Afghanistan has increased slightly this year, with 46 minutes of total coverage year-to-date compared with 83 minutes for all of 2007. NBC has spent 25 minutes covering Afghanistan, partly because the anchor Brian Williams visited the country earlier in the month. Through Wednesday, when an ABC correspondent was in the middle of a prolonged visit to the country, ABC had spent 13 minutes covering Afghanistan. CBS has spent eight minutes covering Afghanistan so far this year."Does this mean that the conflict in Afghanistan is forgotten, even while a great number of journalists do risk their lives to get stories out from there? We may suspect so, after all it's the big fish of the media, like CBS, ABC and NBC, that have the most influence. I may love to read lengthy articles on Afghanistan in the Washington Post, in Asia Times Online, or in Dawn, but I belong to a global minority with my curious habits...
The polemic around the media's role in this respect is presented by some as a hen-and-egg problem. Do the public's or the media's preferences determine what's on the agenda of public discourse in the end? To this, other questions can be added, around which a discourse is revolving. Is it the media's fault in the end, that the public shows no interest towards an actually important issue? Is it the media's role to make an important story interesting? Or is it perfectly normal and even positive if the media takes no elitist role in paternalistically guiding the public's attention? And so on.
There is of course more to our world, and to what affects any kind of public discourse, than the "media" and the "public," and a simplistically perceived interaction between them. It's not a two-actor game.
An expert of the subject, Virgil Hawkins writes this in his study about "stealth conflicts" (stealth conflicts are conflicts not high on either the media's, policy-makers', the public's or academics' agendas, with the attention these conficts get being disproportionate to the amount of destruction and loss of life they come with) – footnotes omitted by me (P.M.):
"Agenda-setting research to date seems to support the hypothesis that the media agenda plays a key role in shaping the public agenda, and that the public agenda in turn affects the policy agenda (through public opinion and powerful lobby groups). While the full extent of the so-called CNN-factor is not completely understood, it can be considered that policymakers and the media both exert considerable influence over each other. Clever policymakers use the media to broadcast their policies and raise the position of an agenda item. Conversely, where there is indecision or indifference among policymakers, saturated media coverage can propel an item into a high position on the policy agenda. Collectively, academics are able to project some influence on the policy agenda, but are also subject to considerable influence from the policy and media agendas, as will be demonstrated below.Virgil Hawkins, a professor teaching at Osaka University, does by the way have a book published on the same subject. As you may have noted, if you followed the link further above, he extensively studied the DRC case. Therefore it is no wonder that on his agenda the DRC is quite high. In the index, I found ten references to pages mentioning „the attention to” the DRC, five references to pages dealing with the attention to Iraq and only two concerning Afghanistan. Based on the latter case, I have a feeling that it’s not simply an inverse relationship in Hawkins’ book between how high an issue is on his agenda on the one hand, and on the media’s on the other. Which is particularly interesting since at about arm’s reach for me there is another book right now that I’m set to read – How we missed the story by Roy Gutman, concerning how 9/11 was a consequence of developments in Afghanistan having been forgotten/not seen clearly enough.
Whatever the dynamics of the projection of influence, it can be considered that all of these agendas have become tightly intertwined, with each feeding off and mimicking the one that takes the lead in agenda setting (usually the policymakers and sometimes the media). Ironically, this is partly a reflection of the assimilation of the flow of information in society, rather than the diversification that might have been expected with the explosion of the internet and other advances in information technology. The dissemination of information technology has led to a greatly pronounced bandwagon effect in and between all sectors of agenda setting."
Anyway, Virgil Hawkins’ book is definitely of interest to me, these Afghanistan-centric preconceptions of mine notwithstanding, and it probably sheds light on some of the key mechanisms affecting agenda-setting in the four domains, a neglect in which can make a stealth conflict.
I’m including the cover image here as well.