How Policy Issues Become Front-Page News

Open Access
Boydstun, Amber Ellen
Graduate Program:
Political Science
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 30, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Frank R Baumgartner, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Marie Hojnacki, Committee Member
  • Eric Plutzer, Committee Member
  • John David Mccarthy, Committee Member
  • media
  • attention
  • agenda-setting
  • framing
  • issue-definition
  • New York Times
There are countless problems in the world, yet the public agenda is limited. The New York Times, in particular, has about eight front-page stories a day. The policy issues captured in these stories send critical cues to politicians and citizens alike about which issues are important and, by exclusion, which are not. We know media attention can influence opinion and policy, but we know relatively little about the mechanisms by which this attention is distributed. How do issues become front-page news? I develop a theory of media dynamics to explain patterns of front-page attention. With too much information, limited agenda space, and complex institutional constraints, the media processes information disproportionately. That is, the media does not attend to issues in proportion with their severity, nor does it keep pace with real-world changes over time. Instead, the agenda tends to get stuck in equilibrium, centered on the same few issues day after day. Meanwhile, information continues to unfold in all issue areas. When the information build-up about a non-agenda issue becomes too large to ignore, attention lurches to that issue, overhauling the previous status quo. The result: Front-page attention is skewed across issues; a few issues get the vast majority of coverage. Additionally, changes in attention are disproportionately distributed; rather than shifting incrementally, the agenda displays periods of stasis punctuated by dramatic upheaval. Against this foundation of media information-processing dynamics, I identify eight key variables that shape the content of front-page news: real-world events, prior attention, front-page congestion, scope of discussion, journalistic obligations and norms, entrepreneurial activity, public opinion, and political context. I test my theory of how policy issues become front-page news using an original dataset of all New York Times front-page stories, 2000–2005, coded by issue (some 18,000 stories in all). I document the skewed distribution of attention across issues and the disproportionate changes in the agenda over time. And I develop a statistical model of front-page attention that confirms my expectations about the effects of specific variables on the news-selection process. I give special examination to the scope of discussion—that is, the degree to which media coverage of a policy issue is concentrated on a small number of dimensions or spread across a wide range of dimensions. My analysis suggests that scope and attention have a mutually reinforcing influence on one another. An increase in media attention to an issue offers more “room” for the scope of discussion about the issue to expand. At the same time, when the scope of a debate widens the additional perspectives make the issue more salient, thereby attracting more attention to the issue. Under the right conditions, the reinforcing link between scope and attention can lead to an attention cascade. This study shows how front-page news, while impossible to forecast on a daily basis, exhibits strong and predictable patterns over time. Usually, institutional constraints leave the media in a holding pattern, fixating on current hot issues. But this equilibrium will always be disrupted—it’s just a matter of when, and by what issue. And when the agenda changes, it does so explosively, fueled by shifts in specific event and non-event variables, including the scope of discussion. The result is that front-page attention is very difficult to control. Policy entrepreneurs hoping to manage the spin of an issue will be sorely disappointed. But for advocates wanting to raise awareness of an issue, the best strategy is clear: Instead of saying the message louder, diversify the message itself.