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date: 28 June 2017

Audience Costs, News Media, and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

“Audience costs” represent situations where domestic audiences impose penalties on leaders for failed policies. This phenomenon has risen to a prominent position in the study of politics in the past two decades, in part because of the apparently profound consequences that audience costs have for the foreign policy behavior of states.

News media are thought to play a central role in connecting leaders, domestic audiences, and foreign policy, and they affect this relationship in multiple ways. First, media coverage of foreign policy issues can pressure leaders to take public positions on foreign policy issues, effectively tying leaders’ reputations to the outcome of those issues. Second, high levels of news coverage of leaders’ positions are also thought to elevate the levels of costs that leaders suffer for foreign policy failures. Third, the consequences of national media coverage of foreign policy issues do not stop at the water’s edge: high levels of coverage can activate foreign audiences to penalize their leaders for backing down from their positions, effectively locking both sides into positions from which they cannot retreat. Finally, news media can be used by leaders to “spin” their foreign policy decisions, thereby limiting the penalties that domestic audiences impose.

Critics, however, charge that the audience costs research program suffers from significant theoretical and empirical weaknesses. As a theory it relies on at least two dubious assumptions: (1) that leaders are foolish enough to adopt foreign policy positions from which they are unable to maneuver without causing international embarrassment; and (2) that domestic audiences are astute enough to perceive the actual significance of foreign policy outcomes. Critics also claim (3) that the empirical evidence in support of the theory is weak: the main data sets used to test the theory include very few cases where leaders are actually taking public positions on foreign policy issues. When extraneous cases are excluded, critics conclude that the effect of audience costs is weak to nonexistent. A final challenge (4) is inspired indirectly by diversionary theory. While audience costs theory predicts that leaders who can be easily punished by domestic audiences should be reluctant to start international conflicts, diversionary theory predicts (under some conditions) the opposite: leaders who face a high probability of being removed from office by domestic audiences may be more likely to start conflicts.

Two general arguments are made in this chapter. First, studies of news media and audience costs provide important insights into how leaders and domestic audiences are connected, and those connections have significant implications for the outcome of international negotiations. Second, studies of news media and audience costs provide a way to grapple with the concerns raised by critics of audience costs theory.

Keywords: audience costs, news media, foreign policy, bargaining, CNN effect

Introduction

The concept “audience costs” refers to situations where leaders are punished for their failed policies by individuals or groups (Fearon, 1994; Schelling, 1960, 1966; Smith, 1998). The “costs” cover a range of penalties, from drops in approval ratings and electoral losses on the one end of the spectrum, to coups and assassinations on the other end. One especially noteworthy feature of audience costs models is the counterintuitive predictions they make about the international behavior of states: leaders who face the greatest punishment for foreign policy failures are also the most likely to prevail in international crises. Not surprisingly, audience costs research has risen to a prominent position in the study of international politics in the past two decades, in part because of the apparently profound consequences that they have for the foreign policy behavior of states.

The following sections cover four main areas: (1) a general description of the audience costs–foreign policy link; (2) a discussion of how the media influences this relationship; (3) criticism of audience costs research; and (4) potential paths and challenges for researchers.

Audience Costs and Foreign Policy

One of the most interesting and important results of audience costs research is the surprising predictions it generates about bargaining outcomes: leaders who are the “weakest”—in the sense that they can be punished most easily by their domestic audiences—are the most likely to prevail in international crises (Schelling, 1960). In particular, when weak leaders stake out a firm, public position on an issue, it “ties their hands” to that bargaining position, because backing down means certain punishment at the hands of a relatively strong domestic audience (Fearon, 1994). Adversaries, in turn, recognize these constraints on “weak leaders” and are more likely to acquiesce (Fearon, 1994, 1997; Schelling, 1960, 1966; Smith, 1998). The weaker the leader is (in terms of audience costs), the stronger the “tying hands” effect.

In formal models of audience costs, “the state less able to generate audience costs . . . is always more likely to back down in disputes” (Fearon, 1994, p. 585). Moreover, this effect holds regardless of the issues at stake in the crisis and the military power of the participants. The latter conclusion is especially significant because it runs directly counter to the expectations of traditional approaches to international relations. Realists, for example, emphasize that relative power—as opposed to domestic political considerations—is the central predictor of international outcomes (e.g., Morgenthau, 1967; Waltz, 1979).

Because of the relative ease with which democratic leaders can be punished by domestic audiences compared to their autocratic counterparts, the former are often hypothesized to be able to generate higher audience costs than the latter (e.g., Gelpi & Griesdorf, 2001; Fearon, 1994; Partell, 1997; Partell & Palmer, 1999; Schultz, 2001b). More recently, scholars have explored in greater detail the institutional variation that exists within democracies and within autocracies and how this affects audience costs (e.g., Baum & Potter, 2015; Potter & Baum, 2014; Prins, 2003; Weeks, 2008).

Not only is a powerful domestic audience linked to greater bargaining influence in international crises, a vengeful domestic audience is also thought to lead to more hawkish policies by leaders who want to avoid appearing weak in order to extend their tenure in office. In turn, a powerful audience deters potential adversaries from initiating conflict altogether: they know that some leaders must stand firm, for if they back down or lose a conflict they suffer punishment (Smith, 1998). Guisinger & Smith (2002) take this a step further: not only will leaders suffer domestic audience costs for not following through on threats, they will also lose credibility in subsequent international negotiations, thereby generating further incentive for leaders to make honest threats and to avoid cheap talk.

In addition to important predictions from formal models that establish the logical foundations of the link between audience costs and foreign policy, there is also significant empirical support for this body of research. Scholars studying the domestic penalties part of the equation have found that leaders who lose wars or yield in international crises are more likely than other leaders to lose their hold on power in domestic politics (Bueno de Mesquita & Siverson, 1995; Bueno de Mesquita, Siverson, & Woller, 1992; Croco, 2011; Goemans, 2000; Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, & Smith, 2003). Thus, we are reasonably sure that leaders do, in fact, suffer audience costs.

Systematic empirical research also tends to confirm the bargaining advantage that is hypothesized to reside with weak leaders. The leader who is weakest (in audience costs terms) enjoys the greatest bargaining advantage, regardless of the relative power of the dispute participants or the issues at stake in the crisis (Partell, 1997; Partell & Palmer, 1999; Schultz, 1999, 2001a, b; Weeks, 2008).

Of course, not all scholars agree with this conclusion (e.g., Downes & Sechser, 2012; Snyder & Borghard, 2011; Trachtenberg, 2012). Critics charge that the underlying theory is unconvincing and that the empirical evidence is weak. On the former point, audience costs detractors contend that leaders generally avoid becoming “locked into” a foreign policy position from which they are unable to retreat (Snyder & Borghard, 2011). Thus, while the internal logic of the formal models may be impeccable, critics charge that audience costs theory concerns empirical phenomena that very rarely occur (if at all).

Scholars have also questioned the empirical findings. Detailed case analyses of several international crises by Snyder and Borghard (2011) and Trachtenberg (2012) led both studies to conclude that there is very little evidence of an audience costs “effect.” Downes and Sechser (2012) criticize the large-n studies, claiming that the latter inappropriately treat all crises as instances where leaders face high audience costs, when in fact very few of the cases used in large-n studies actually involve situations where leaders have made the types of specific threats for which they can be held accountable.

Finally, audience costs logic appears to contradict diversionary theories of conflict. While the former suggests that leaders who can be removed from office easily for foreign policy failures will generally be reluctant to initiate conflict, the latter predicts the opposite: under some conditions, weak leaders who face vengeful domestic audiences will be more likely to initiate conflict than their stronger counterparts.

Although there appears to be unresolvable difference between proponents and critics of audience costs, I argue below that studies of news media not only provide for a richer theory of audience costs, they can also help to resolve the apparently contradictory empirical results and challenges raised by critics of audience costs theory.

I begin with a general description and integration of the media into studies of audience costs and foreign policy and then turn to criticisms and future directions.

A Role for the Media

In many studies of audience costs the media are ignored altogether. Instead, the lion’s share of research focuses on how (and whether) the structure of domestic political institutions (e.g., democratic, autocratic) influences the generation of audience costs and on how adversaries’ perceptions of these costs alters their behavior (e.g., Clare, 2007; Eyerman & Hart, 1996; Fearon, 1994; Gelpi & Griesdorf, 2001; Partell, 1997; Partell & Palmer, 1999; Prins, 2003; Schultz, 1999, 2001b, 2001a; Smith, 1998; Sullivan & Gartner, 2006; Weeks, 2008).

The omission of the media from audience costs models is somewhat surprising: by excluding the media, many audience costs models (and critics as well) assume (implicitly or explicitly) that actions and statements by leaders are immediately accessible and correctly interpreted by domestic audiences and international adversaries. However, as Potter and Baum point out, this assumption is problematic: without an explicit description of a transmission mechanism that connects leaders to audiences, it is difficult to see how audience costs could arise in the first place (Baum & Potter, 2015; Potter & Baum, 2014; Slantchev, 2006). There needs to be some way that leader behavior and statements are delivered to domestic audiences, otherwise there is no way for audiences to hold leaders accountable outside of directly observable events such as a military attack from another country.

Even if we assume that government controls the media and can connect directly with the public—such as through state-owned broadcasts—this begs the question of whether the public (or winning coalitions generally) interprets correctly the words and deeds of leaders. This, too, is at odds with research in communication (Potter & Baum, 2014, p. 169).

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research that relaxes the assumption of a direct, unambiguous connection between leaders and audiences, and the media have become one of the foci in the study of audience costs. In perhaps its most extreme form, the media are cast as policy makers, forcing governments to adopt positions and implement policies that they otherwise would not do. This phenomenon, sometimes dubbed the “CNN effect,” suggests that there are motivations in media organizations that lead them to report international events independent of the wishes of government sources, and that this reporting can force governments to implement foreign policies in response to the media coverage (Gilboa, 2005). Although most scholars (e.g., Livingston, 1997; Livingston & Eachus, 1995) have concluded that the “media as policy maker” is probably an overstatement, there is increasing evidence that the media can operate as a strategic actor with its own independent interests and that it can—in fact—influence (but not determine!) the foreign policies of states (Baum & Potter, 2008, p. 40). This is particularly true in the post–Cold War era (Zaller & Chiu, 2000).

In this current vein of research in political communication, news media are thought to play a central role in connecting leaders, domestic audiences, and foreign policy, and they affect this relationship in several ways. First, there is general acknowledgment that media access—whether in the form of a free press or the availability of media outlets like television, Internet, and newsprint, is necessary for the generation of audience costs. A second set of studies assigns a larger, independent role for the media, where the media influence both the occurrence and the levels of audience costs. Third, scholars have found that the consequences of national media coverage of foreign policy issues do not stop at the water’s edge: media coverage by the domestic news in one state can activate foreign audiences in other states to penalize their leaders for backing down from their positions, effectively locking both sides into positions from which they cannot retreat. Fourth, news media can distort and interpret messages and actions of leaders. In turn, (fifth) leaders can use the media to “spin” their foreign policy decisions, thereby limiting the penalties that domestic audiences impose. This last point is used quite effectively by critics of audience costs research, who claim that political leaders are far too astute to select themselves into positions on foreign policy issues that do not allow them room to maneuver (even retreat) in order to avoid suffering audience costs. I discuss each of these strands of research, and then turn to criticisms and suggestions for future research.

Free Press, Media Access, and Audience Costs

Audiences require information about foreign policy actions and outcomes if they are going to hold leaders accountable. If the public (or elites in autocratic systems) are unable to obtain independent evaluations of policy outcomes, then they are not in a position to be able impose punishment for failed policies. Somewhat surprisingly, this implies that those leaders who are the most powerful at home, and most able to control the press, actually are at a bargaining disadvantage against “weaker” opponents who can be punished more easily.

Slantchev (2006) is perhaps the first formal theorist to recognize the importance of a free press for audience costs. He concludes that, in democratic systems, the existence of a free press is one of two ways (the other being a viable political opposition) that allows for audience costs to arise. A free press transmits information about leader behavior (albeit sometimes this is a noisy, distorted signal) to domestic audiences, thereby allowing audiences to be able to discover leader incompetence.

Both Choi and James (2006) and Van Belle (2000) explore empirically how a free press influences the behavior of states involved in militarized interstate disputes (MIDs). MIDs are “united historical cases in which the threat, display or use of military force short of war by one member state is explicitly directed towards the government, official representatives, official forces, property, or territory of another state” (Jones, Bremer, & Singer, 1996, p. 168).

Choi and James’s (2006) analysis of approximately 110,000 pairs of states (dyads) during the period 1950 to 1992 concludes that joint media freedom decreases the probability of state involvement in MIDs and MIDs that result in fatalities. The authors hypothesize that a free press makes it easier for domestic audiences to discover leader incompetence or damage to the state’s international reputation. This, in turn, creates powerful pressures on leaders to avoid appearing “weak” by backing down from threats or failing to follow through on a threat. Because potential adversaries know this, there is a selection effect, resulting in pairs of “free press states” having a lower likelihood of conflict, simply because there is mutual recognition that neither side can afford to back down if a crisis ensues. Consequently, free press states tend to avoid conflict with each other altogether. These results hold even with controls for rival explanations, including whether or not the dyad is democratic (Choi & James, 2006).

Van Belle (2000) uses a similar research design but employs two different units of analysis: one that uses dyads and one that explores characteristics of individual states (initiators and targets). Like Choi and James (2006) and Van Belle (2000) finds that jointly free states are less likely to be involved in MIDs. Van Belle (2000) also reports that states with free presses are both less likely to target another free press state or to become a target of an MID. All of this is consistent with audience costs logic.

Potter and Baum (2014) and Baum and Potter (2015) build on these studies and argue that a free press alone is insufficient to transmit information between leaders and audiences. They introduce media access—to Internet, print, and television news—to help account for the generation of audience costs. After all, a free press is not likely to be very effective if the relevant domestic audience is unable to consume it. In their approach, widespread media access interacts with the presence of a free press and a viable political opposition to generate the highest levels of audience costs. Their empirical analysis of MIDs involving democratic states during the period 1965–1999 indicates that media access has a statistically significant and substantively important effect on the conflict behavior of target states. The greater the media access in the initiating democracy, the lower the probability that the target of the MID escalates the crisis (Baum & Potter, 2015; Potter & Baum, 2014).

Research by Baum (2005, 2007) extends the domain of media access to what he calls “soft news” in the United States, and this has interesting implications for the audience costs–news media–foreign policy link. Soft news programs include entertainment news show like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood and also talk show programs such as The Tonight Show. At least in the United States, Americans increasingly get their news about foreign policy from soft news programs. By “democratizing foreign policy” (to use Baum’s words) the media is expanding the size of the audience. However, this expanded “soft news” audience tends to be more isolationist than traditional news-watchers (Baum, 2005), suggesting an even more difficult bar for presidents to reach if they are going to defend their foreign policy actions.

Both free press and media access produce promising and interesting results. There is also research that extends the effect of the media on audience costs beyond seeing the media as a transmitter of messages between leader and audiences. Increasingly, scholars emphasize how the media can amplify (or diminish) audience costs.

News Media and the Occurrence and Level of Audience Costs at Home and Abroad

In the original works on audience costs (e.g., Fearon, 1994; Schelling, 1960), the issue of whether an international dispute was public or private—and whether audience costs were generated or not—was directly in the hands of the leader. The Cuban missile crisis, with President Kennedy’s famous public demand to Khrushchev to remove Soviet missiles, is the quintessential example here. By “going public,” Kennedy generated audience costs by tying his reputation to the outcome of the crisis (Kurizaki, 2007). At the same time, in standard accounts, leaders could choose to forgo audience costs altogether by keeping a foreign policy issue private.

Although the research on free press and media access challenges this idea somewhat by recognizing that media coverage plays a role in the generation of audience costs, it is limited to transmitting messages sent by leaders, and the latter remain in control of the generation of audience costs. However, there is also relatively robust literature on the role that the media play in generating audience costs, and this body of research represents an important extension of traditional approaches to audience costs.

In these latter accounts, media coverage of ongoing international events can essentially create focal points, priming audiences to evaluate leaders on some issues at the expense of others, thereby generating potential audience costs for leaders. The media can pressure leaders to take public positions on issues, thereby forcing leaders to generate audience costs that (perhaps) they would have preferred to avoid altogether (Baum, 2004; Groeling & Baum, 2008; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Krosnick & Kinder, 1990; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Miller & Krosnick, 2000; see also Malhotra & Krosnick, 2007). As Behr and Iyengar conclude (1985, p. 38), “the amount of media attention devoted to particular issues determines the degree of public concern for these issues.” The greater the public concern, the greater the potential audience costs that are generated for leaders if their policies fail.

In one of the first empirical studies geared specifically toward studying how audience costs arise as a consequence of media attention, Baum (2004) analyzes U.S. presidential behavior in 525 international crises (from the International Crisis Behavior data set) from 1946 to 1994. He hypothesizes that news coverage of key actors involved in international crises may force the president’s hand to issue a public statement, independent of the stakes involved or the probability of victory in the crisis. To evaluate this effect, Baum (2004) includes a measure of New York Times coverage of key non-U.S. actors involved in the crisis. He finds that the greater the coverage of the actors involved in the crisis, the more likely U.S. presidents are to stake out a public position on an issue. This has important implications for audience costs, because it suggests that leaders may not be in complete control over levels of audience costs that are generated in crises.

Baum (2004) also identifies important selection effects that influence U.S. involvement in crises, and these effects stem directly from presidents’ tacit acknowledgement of their inability to control media coverage. He suggests that media independence causes U.S. presidents generally to be reluctant to adopt public positions in international crises because these issues could potentially be used against them by opposition leaders.

Indeed, Schultz (2001b) was one of the first scholars to point out the methodological difficulties associated with studying audience costs, since leaders who potentially face the greatest audience costs (and thus, the greatest bargaining advantage) may simply avoid the potential fallout by rarely invoking them, thus making empirical study very difficult. The greater the potential fallout from activist foreign policy, the less likely presidents may be to use a bargaining advantage.

As an example of an attempt by a president to begin rallying the public behind a foreign policy action—one that backfired—Baum (2004, p. 611) details a case from the Clinton administration:

[O]n February 18, 1998, President Clinton dispatched his senior national security advisors to Ohio to conduct a town hall meeting to rally public support for using military force in response to Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with UN weapon inspectors. Yet, a boisterous protest by 13 of the several thousand audience members received far more media coverage than the arguments of the president’s advisors. The result was reduced public support for the president’s hawkish policy. This suggests that as presidents weigh the pros and cons of going public in foreign crises, they must consider the possibility that an attempt to invoke audience costs may backfire and embolden, rather than deter, the adversary.

Although Baum (2004) does not explicitly model this potential media effect in his statistical tests, it forms the basis of key hypotheses. In particular, presidents are predicted to be reluctant to risk taking a firm public stance on a foreign policy crisis unless (1) the stakes are very high (e.g., the Cuban missile crisis) or (2) there is a high probability of victory. Empirical analyses support both hypotheses (Baum, 2004).

There is also some evidence that media coverage can have broad implications for audience costs and that activating domestic audiences in multiple participants in crises can profoundly change the outcome of those crises. I turn to this literature in the next section.

Media Coverage May Influence the Occurrence of Audience Costs in Other Actors

In most of the traditional treatments of audience costs, the leader who stakes out the public position in a crisis is the one who generates the audience costs (e.g., Fearon, 1994). If all participants make public statements, then all have audience costs. However, there is both anecdotal and systematic empirical evidence that media coverage of foreign policy can drive up audience costs for all parties on an issue, independent of whether the leader has made a public statement.

Kurizaki (2007), for example, points to the Cienfuegos crisis of 1970 between the United States and the Soviet Union as evidence that political leaders are acutely aware that once a crisis hits the front pages of prominent news sources, all participants in the crisis may face amplified audience costs, and that this can have disastrous consequences. In the Cienfuegos crisis the United States had evidence that the Soviet Union was secretly constructing a naval base in Cuba, which, if true, was a clear violation of the agreement that resolved the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Given the timing of the event, Cienfuegos had the potential to be another Cuban missile crisis. Henry Kissinger, who served as national security advisor, was acutely aware of this possibility. He explains in his memoirs why he deliberately tried to keep Cienfuegos out of the front pages of the New York Times: “rather than a dramatic confrontation on the order of 1962, we considered that quiet diplomacy was best suited to giving the USSR an opportunity to withdraw without humiliation” (Kissinger, 1979, p. 651; originally quoted in Kurizaki, 2007, p. 543). Kissinger recognized that widespread media coverage of the issue would increase audience costs for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, making it difficult for the latter to back down.

Kurizaki (2007) models this logic formally and concludes that a leader may rationally forgo the potential gains from “going public” if he or she fears that audience costs might be generated in the target state, making it more difficult for the latter to back down. Formal work by Stasavage (2004), Leventoğlu and Tarar (2005), and Tarar and Leventoğlu (2009) echo this logic, and all conclude that highly public crises carry with them a greater possibility of war than disputes between states that remain private. This stems directly from the fact that high levels of media coverage may drive up audience costs for all participants in crises—initiators and targets—making it difficult for both sides to back down.

Miller and Albert (2015) apply this logic to militarized interstate disputes (1993–2001) and find the results consistent with insights from formal work. In their paper, high levels of media coverage by elite presses are hypothesized to have the unintended consequence of engaging audiences even in states whose leaders never issued a public statement. Essentially, media coverage primes audiences to monitor leader behavior on a given issue, independent of whether the leader actually staked out a position. Once domestic audiences are engaged—even if independent of the leader’s choices—this may lock in all sides to positions in the crisis from which they are unable to retreat. Miller and Albert (2015) find empirical results that are consistent with their expectations.

The Media as a Filter and Distorter of Leaders’ Messages

We can also move beyond simply exploring the occurrence and levels of audience costs. To this point in the discussion all of the research assumes that message content from leader to media to audience is achieved without distortion, but this is unlikely to be true. As Potter and Baum note, this assumption is “at odds with recent research in the political communication literature, which holds that the media filter and distort the information elites attempt to transmit to the public” (2014, p. 169; see also Baum, 2013; Groeling, 2010). In two companion pieces that build on Baum (2004), Groeling and Baum (2008, 2009) conclude that evening news broadcasts in the United States tend to give greater weight to criticism of U.S. presidents’ foreign policy behavior than they do to the presidents’ own positions. This suggests that audiences (at least in the United States) receive distorted information about the behavior of their leaders. Related to this, both Groeling (2010) and Groeling (2010) report that criticism of American presidents by representatives who are members of the same political party as the president is significantly more likely to be covered by the media than criticism from affiliates of the opposing party. This, in turn, has powerful implications for adversaries’ estimates of the amount of domestic support behind the U.S. position: if adversaries perceive that the opposition to the president’s position is strong (via media portrayal), then audience costs are limited, even though the president may in fact be resolved (Schultz, 1998).

Baum and Zhukov (2015) build on this research and extend the spatial domain to cover 133 countries, including democracies and nondemocracies. In their detailed analysis of the Libyan civil war, they find significant evidence of reporting bias. In more democratic countries, the media tended to be biased toward views that were critical of the government. In contrast, the media in nondemocracies were pro-incumbent (Baum & Zhukov, 2015).

The proliferation of soft news programs also has implications for how audience costs are distorted by the media. In theory, “democratizing foreign policy” (Baum, 2005, p. 282) may simply mean a larger coalition that stands behind a president (and a larger audience to punish failure). However, as Baum points out, audiences that are inattentive to foreign policy tend to be isolationist (at least in the United States), and access to international politics via soft news only reinforces this isolationism (Baum, 2005, p. 283). Moreover, soft news programs are more likely than hard news shows (e.g., evening network news broadcasts) to emphasize human tragedy and triumph, thereby providing a view that is distorted when compared to traditional news programs.

As a consequence of soft news programs, U.S. presidents who prefer to implement an activist foreign policy may face a media that enhances the support of their opposition, and this will undercut any potential bargaining advantage via audience costs. It also (potentially) means that presidents may select themselves out of international crises out of fear that the additional foreign news consumers tend to be isolationist and that isolationism is reinforced by the tendency of soft news to cover human tragedy (if it bleeds, it leads) (Baum, 2005, 2007). Thus, soft news poses challenges for researchers who are “looking for audience costs” (Potter & Baum, 2014; Schultz, 2001b).

Taken together, we have a growing body of work on the role of the media in audience costs. Scholars are not unanimous, however, in their enthusiasm for audience costs, and I turn to these studies next.

Criticism of the Audience Costs Research Program

As mentioned above, critics charge that the audience costs research program suffers from significant theoretical and empirical weaknesses. As a theory it relies on at least two dubious assumptions: (1) that leaders are foolish enough to adopt foreign policy positions from which they are unable to maneuver without causing international embarrassment and (2) that domestic audiences are astute enough to perceive the actual significance of foreign policy outcomes. Critics also claim that the empirical evidence in support of the theory is weak: the main data sets used to test the theory include very few cases where leaders are actually taking public positions on foreign policy issues. When extraneous cases are excluded, critics conclude that the audience costs effect is weak to nonexistent. Finally, audience costs theory runs contrary to diversionary theory, and the latter has a long pedigree in the study of conflict. I discuss each in turn and then offer suggestions for how studies of media and foreign policy can help resolve some of these apparent problems in the literature.

Snyder and Borghard (2011) can probably be credited with the first attack on studies of audience costs. Their criticism is limited to crises that involve the United States, but given that many of the media-audience costs arguments also focus on the United States, this makes their criticism particularly forceful. In Snyder and Borghard’s view, American presidents are simply too smart to undertake actions or make foreign policy statements that “lock” them into positions from which they are unable to retreat. Without firm statements it is relatively easy for leaders to “spin” their actions in such a way that they will not be blamed for “failure” or for damaging a state’s reputation.

As a test of the ability of presidents to “spin,” Levendusky and Horowitz (2012) conducted a survey experiment where they allowed the (fictional) administration to justify its foreign policy retreat on the basis of, for example, discovering new information pertinent to the issue. They found that their hypothetical audience was significantly less likely to impose costs if the president applied a spin. For Snyder and Borghard (2011), this opens the door wide open to attack audience costs studies. Not only—they claim—are presidents careful about words and deeds, they also are very adept at manipulating the press.

Trachtenberg (2012) arrives at a similar conclusion as Snyder and Borghard (2011). His analysis of a dozen great power crises found that audience costs effects range from weak to nonexistent. Similar to Snyder and Borghard (2011), Trachtenberg (2012, p. 39) argues that, even when audience costs could potentially be used to gain a bargaining advantage, leaders often avoid making public threats: “Too explicit a threat may backfire, by engaging the adversary’s prestige (and provoking the adversary’s own domestic audience) in too direct a way; even a successful threat of this sort, resulting in a public humiliation of the adversary, might have unpleasant long-term consequences.” Thus, for critics, the logic of audience costs simply does not translate well into the foreign policy world. Most leaders are simply unwilling to employ such a blunt tool, and analysis of case studies suggests little to no audience costs effect.

This raises the question, of course, of why the large-n statistical studies find a significant effect (e.g., Clare, 2007; Eyerman & Hart, 1996; Gelpi & Griesdorf, 2001; Partell, 1997; Partell & Palmer, 1999; Prins, 2003; Schultz, 2001b; Weeks, 2008), while the case studies of Snyder and Borghard (2011) and Trachtenberg (2012) find none. Downes and Sechser (2012) contend that they have the answer to this question: improper case selection in the large-n studies. Downes and Sechser (2012) argue that most of the large-n studies rely on one (or both) of two data sets: the Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) (Jones, Bremer, & Singer, 1996) or the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) data set (Brecher & Wilkenfeld, 2007). Scholars then explore how characteristics of dispute initiators (such as whether or not they are democratic) influence the behavior of states that are targets of the threats or uses of force, including whether or not targets reciprocate threats or whether they yield in crises.

Although both data sets do a great job of identifying interstate interactions that include threats and uses of military force, most of these cases are not appropriate as examples of audience costs, according to Downes and Sechser (2012), because there is not an explicit, public threat by the initiating state. In the view of Downes and Sechser (2012), unless the cases include an explicit threat from the initiator, we are not really testing for an audience costs effect. Target states may (empirically) be less likely to reciprocate threats from democracies than autocracies, but if the effect is found using MID or ICB then we cannot conclude that this is due to an audience costs advantage enjoyed by democratic leaders, because the sample of cases is not set up to evaluate audience costs arguments. When Downes and Sechser (2012) tested for a democratic audience costs advantage using a large-n data set that specifically isolates instances of a public, compelling threat from an initiating state (Sechser, 2011), they found that target states are no more likely to back down from threats made by democracies than they are for autocracies. I return to this critique below.

A final critique is inspired from work on the rally ’round the flag effect, which lies at the heart of diversionary theory. As is well known, diversionary theory predicts that leaders facing challenges to their political survival at home have an incentive to engage in international conflict in order to divert attention from domestic political problems (see Levy, 1989 for a review). The logic is straightforward: international conflict involvement distracts citizens within countries and produces a rally ’round the flag effect in support of leaders (Mueller, 1973). Even democratic leaders, who typically face greater public scrutiny for their foreign policy actions than autocratic leaders, may “gamble for resurrection” with international conflict involvement if the probability that they will lose power is sufficiently high (Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, & Smith, 1999; Downs & Rocke, 1994).

The incentive of leaders to engage in conflict in order to divert public attention represents somewhat of a challenge to the general audience costs logic. The latter suggests that leaders—especially democratic leaders—will tend to be very cautious about involvement in international crises, while the former predicts that leaders (under some conditions) will be risk acceptant and actively seek international conflict involvement to ensure their political survival.

All of the above are important challenges to audience costs research. Ironically, however, the criticisms of Snyder and Borghard (2011), Trachtenberg (2012), Downes and Sechser (2012), and (indirectly) diversionary theory actually help make the case (albeit unintentionally) to include the media in studies of audience costs and foreign policy, and their criticisms also help provide a direction for future research.

Future Directions and Challenges

At the center of most of the critiques of audience costs lie two implicit assumptions: (1) unless a leader issues a specific, public statement staking out a clear position in a crisis, audience costs are not generated; and (2) once a leader issues a specific, public statement, audience costs are immediately and unambiguously generated and only for the leader who issues the statement.

The research into the media and audience costs suggests that both statements are probably incorrect. Throughout this article, the emphasis has been on how the media—through priming and other mechanisms, can set the agenda by which leaders are evaluated, thereby influencing audience costs, even independent of the leader’s wishes. Thus, the generation of audience costs is not in the complete control of leaders, and if this is so, then an explicit, public statement is not really necessary for the generation of audience costs. The Downes and Sechser (2012) critique is understandable, but research in political communication suggests that leaders do not always get to choose the issues that decide their political fate.

The media can cover some issues more than others, essentially generating an agenda-setting effect. They can also cover some issues more than others at the behest of opposition leaders who stake out public positions critical of presidents, thereby blunting any potential audience costs that a leaders may attempt to invoke (Baum, 2004; Schultz, 1998). As Baum (2004) and Groeling and Baum (2008, 2009) outline, the media tend to give a disproportionate share of attention to opposition leaders, and opposition parties can affect audience costs significantly (Schultz, 1998). All of this suggests that the question of whether and how audience costs exist is more complicated than the critics allow. Studies of media and audience costs should be able to help sort out those issues that are particularly germane to a leaders’ political survival from those that are secondary.

A second problem that plagues criticism of audience costs research—and one that also represents an opportunity for studies of media and audience costs—is the assumption that public statements are not distorted by the press or leaders of opposition parties/groups. In the data set used by Downes and Sechser (2012) to test audience costs arguments, the implicit working assumption is that by isolating instances where a leader issued a specific, public compellent threat (e.g., Hitler to Czechoslovakia in 1938), they are isolating instances of audience costs. This, too, is at odds with political communication research outlined previously that concludes that the media can distort statements and actions. A public statement may not be any real guarantee that the audience is engaged or that leaders will be held accountable.

That being said, Downes and Sechser (2012) make a very important point: scholars must be careful about implicitly assuming when and how audience costs arise. Studies of news media can actually help significantly with this problem by providing a deeper investigation into how international events are presented to domestic audiences and how leader’s reputations are tied to those events both at home and abroad (e.g., Baum & Zhukov, 2015).

An additional consideration for future research stems from the observations by Snyder and Borghard (2011) and Trachtenberg (2012) that leaders are too clever to lock themselves into positions on issues from which they are unable to retreat in order to avoid audience costs. We know that leaders are capable of “spinning” their foreign policy decisions to paint their actions in a positive way, and in survey experiments by Levendusky and Horowitz (2012), presidential “spins” are relatively successful at mitigating audience costs.

At the same time, however, it is fairly well established that leaders are indeed held accountable for (perceived) foreign policy failures. In the critiques by Snyder and Borghard (2011) and Trachtenberg (2012), there is an assumption that accountability (via audience costs) only occurs if there is an a priori public position on a foreign policy issue. Here, too, the operating assumption is that the media are a mere conduit between leaders and audiences. Given this is unlikely to be true, the role of the media in facilitating, distorting, and blunting “spin” attempts represents a potentially fruitful avenue of future research. It is also worthwhile to pursue research that tries to disentangle the types of foreign policy issues identified as being important to the domestic audiences and consequently—with or without the leader’s approval—the ones that threaten to drag a leader down. This is a contribution that students of media and foreign policy are particularly well positioned to make.

With respect to the implicit challenge from diversionary theory, studies of media and foreign policy may provide insights into the conditions under which each theory is most accurate. Audience costs are at their strongest when there is great scrutiny of leaders by press and opposition, preventing leaders from “spinning” a story to cover up incompetent behavior. In contrast, the rally ’round the flag effect depends upon a public (and opposition) that is willing to defer to leaders during international crises. The ability of the media to cast light on leader incompetence may significantly weaken the willingness to divert, while at the same time strengthening leaders’ bargaining power in international crises. Thus, a potentially useful avenue for future research is to explore in greater detail how media freedoms, access, and coverage influence the rally ’round the flag effect and—by extension—the willingness of leaders to divert. Both are important research programs in their own right, and both will have direct implications for studies of audience costs.

Two final recommendations for future research are to expand the comparative nature of the empirical studies and to add additional case study research. Most of the audience costs studies that include media coverage are restricted to the United States (although exceptions exist; see, e.g., Baum & Zhukov, 2015). However, nothing about audience costs theory (or the role of the media) is restricted to the United States. Indeed, many of the large-n and case studies have cross-national coverage, but most do not take into account media coverage, and very few explore media bias.

Finally, an important addition to audience costs models is to expand case study research. Most of the research on audience costs has been formal and large-n. Detailed case studies will provide important illustration and process tracing of the causal mechanisms that are central to audience costs arguments.

In conclusion, audience costs provide students of bargaining with a mechanism to explain the foreign policy decisions of states. Schultz (2012) puts it nicely when he describes audience costs as the “dark matter” of studies of bargaining: they are difficult to observe directly but extremely useful in accounting for the behavior of states. Moreover, there is an increasing amount of theory and evidence that suggests that the media play an important role in the relationship among leaders, domestic audiences, and foreign policy.

Of course, studies of the media and audience costs are not a panacea. They face real challenges in separating out media effects from leader effects (Baum & Zhukov, 2015; Miller & Albert, 2015). Governments—and leaders in particular—have clear information advantages over the media in foreign policy. This makes studying the leader–media–audience relationship challenging, but worth the effort.

Further Reading

Baum, M. A. (2004). Going private: Public opinion, presidential rhetoric, and the domestic politics of audience costs in U.S. foreign policy crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48, 603–631.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2005). Soft news goes to war: Public opinion and American foreign policy in the new media age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2007). Soft news and foreign policy: How expanding the audience changes the policies. Japanese Journal of Political Science, 8(1), 115–145.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2013). The Iraq coalition of the willing and (politically) able: Party systems, the press, and public influence on foreign policy. American Journal of Political Science, 57(2), 442–458.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A., & Potter, P. B. K. (2008). The relationships between mass media, public opinion, and foreign policy: Toward a theoretical synthesis. Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 39–65.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A., & Zhukov, Y. M. (2015). Filtering revolution: Reporting bias in international newspaper coverage of the Libyan civil war. Journal of Peace Research, 52(3), 384–400.Find this resource:

Behr, R. L., & Iyengar, S. (1985). Television news, real-world cues, and changes in the public agenda. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 49(1), 38–57.Find this resource:

Brecher, M., & Wilkenfeld, J. (2007). International crisis behavior project, 1918–2004. ICPSR 09286-v7. College Park, MD: Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, University of Maryland [producers], 2007. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2007-12-14. http://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR09286.v7Find this resource:

Cohen, B. C. (1963). The press and foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Fearon, J. (1994). Domestic political audiences and the escalation of international disputes. American Political Science Review, 88, 577–592.Find this resource:

Gilboa E. (2005). The CNN effect: The search for a communication theory of international relations. Political Communication, 22(1), 27–44.Find this resource:

Goemans, H. E. (2000). Fighting for survival: The fate of leaders and the duration of war. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44(5), 555–579.Find this resource:

Groeling, T., & Baum, M. A. (2008). Crossing the water’s edge: Elite rhetoric, media coverage, and the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon. Journal of Politics, 70(4), 1065–1085.Find this resource:

Krosnick, J. A., & Kinder, D. R. (1990). Altering the foundations of popular support for the president through priming. American Political Science Review, 84(2), 495–512.Find this resource:

Livingston, S. (1997). Beyond the CNN effect: The media-foreign policy dynamic. In P. Norris (Ed.), Politics and the press: The news media and their influences (pp. 291–318). New York: Lynne Rienner.Find this resource:

Livingston, S., & Eachus, T. (1995). Humanitarian crises and U.S. foreign policy: Somalia and the CNN effect reconsidered. Political Communication, 12(4), 413–429.Find this resource:

Malhotra, N., & Krosnick, J. A. (2007). Retrospective and prospective performance assessments during the 2004 election campaign: Tests of mediation and news media priming. Political Behavior, 29(2), 249–278.Find this resource:

Miller, J., & Krosnick, J. A. (2000). News media impact on the ingredients of presidential evaluations: Politically knowledgeable citizens are guided by a trusted source. American Journal of Political Science, 44(2), 295–309.Find this resource:

Miller, R. A., & Albert, K. (2015). If it leads, it bleeds (and if it bleeds, it leads). Political Communication, 32(1), 61–82.Find this resource:

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176–187.Find this resource:

Potter, P., & Baum, M. A. (2010). Democratic peace, domestic audience costs, and political communication. Political Communication, 27, 453–470.Find this resource:

Potter, P. B. K., & Baum, M. A. (2014). Looking for audience costs in all the wrong places: Electoral institutions, media access and democratic constraint. Journal of Politics, 76(1), 167–181.Find this resource:

Schultz, K. A. (1998). Domestic opposition and signaling in international crises. American Political Science Review, 92, 829–884.Find this resource:

Schultz, K. A. (2001a). Democracy and coercive diplomacy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Schultz, K. A. (2001b). Looking for audience costs. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45, 32–60.Find this resource:

Sechser, T. S. (2011). Militarized compellent threats, 1918–2001. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 28(4), 377–401.Find this resource:

Slantchev, B. (2006). Politicians, the media, and domestic audience costs. International Studies Quarterly, 50, 445–477.Find this resource:

Zaller, J., & Chiu, D. (2000). Government’s little helper: U.S. press coverage of foreign policy crises, 1946–1999. In B. L. Nacos, R. Y. Shapiro, & P. Isernia (Eds.), Decisionmaking in a glass house (pp. 61–84). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource:

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Baum, M. A. (2004). Going private: Public opinion, presidential rhetoric, and the domestic politics of audience costs in U.S. foreign policy crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48, 603–631.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2005). Soft news goes to war: Public opinion and American foreign policy in the new media age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2007). Soft news and foreign policy: How expanding the audience changes the policies. Japanese Journal of Political Science, 8(1), 115–145.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A. (2013). The Iraq coalition of the willing and (politically) able: Party systems, the press, and public influence on foreign policy. American Journal of Political Science, 57(2), 442–458.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A., & Potter, P. B. K. (2008). The relationships between mass media, public opinion, and foreign policy: Toward a theoretical synthesis. Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 39–65.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A., & Potter, P. B. K. (2015). War and democratic constraint: How the public influences foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Baum, M. A., & Zhukov, Y. M. (2015). Filtering revolution: Reporting bias in international newspaper coverage of the Libyan civil war. Journal of Peace Research, 52(3), 384–400.Find this resource:

Behr, R. L., & Iyengar, S. (1985). Television news, real-world cues, and changes in the public agenda. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 49(1), 38–57.Find this resource:

Brecher, M., & Wilkenfeld, J. (2007). International Crisis Behavior Project, 1918‐2004.Find this resource:

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