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How Powerful is the US News Media in Setting the Nation’s Foreign Policy Agenda?

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It cannot be gainsaid that the news media play significant role in setting the United State foreign policy agenda. Arnold(2011) argued that in setting the foreign policy agenda, Media do not necessarily influence policymakers directly, but may work through public opinion by shaping what people know and believe about foreign policy. This is because Public opinion, embodied in predominant political views or in election results, can have considerable influence on policymakers that need approval from the electorates.

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In the same vein, Herman(1993) maintained that media exposed the Watergate scandal which helped forced the president from office – the same media’s news coverage of the Vietnam war stirred public opposition which forced the war’s negotiated settlement. In the 1980s, with a high degree of mainstream media support, the Reagan administration effectively demonized the Soviet Union as an evil empire, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi as premier terrorist, Grenada and Nicaragua as US national security threats and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega as a villainous drug dealer. The point is that play vital role in influencing policies and decisions of Washington/states departments as well as to help out in resolving foreign policy matters(Ashraf Khan, 2018).

In light of the fore goings, there is no uncertainty that US media impact outside arrangement by putting issues on the open plan and by confining them such that grabs the eye – and compassion – of an enormous gathering of people, which at that point requests activity from their chosen delegates.

Mody(2010) cited in Arnold(2011) understands media as “mobilizing conscience,” shaming policymakers into reacting to a crisis; creating incentives to act while at the same time raising the risk of not acting. However, the media are constrained by their own environment: geopolitical history, national interest, state ownership of the media, and audience. This explains why the focus of this paper is on the power of US news media in setting the nations foreign policy agenda.



There is no generally agreed decision on the definition of foreign policy, hence different scholars have attempted to define the concept from their own perspectives. However, before this paper delves into these definitions, it is quite apt to first of all provide an explanation of what policy means.

Presthus (1975) indicated policy as a clear course or strategy for activity chosen from among options and in the light of offered conditions to control and more often than not decide present and future choices.

Holsti(1995) sees foreign policy as “the actions of a state towards the external environment and the conditions usually domestic under which these actions are formulated”. Karl Deutsch(1954) defines foreign policy “as the search for the preservation of a country’s independence, security, the pursuit and protection of its economic interest”. On his own, Rodee(1957), sees it as involving “the formulation and implementation of a group of principles which shape the behavior pattern of a state while negotiating with other states to protect or further its vital interests”.

Yet, Nnoli(1978), sees foreign policy as “ a nation’s reactions to the external environment involving the organization of both domestic and external relations”. It is necessary to state here that foreign policy covers only such activities which are sponsored, supported or are known by the government. Suffice to say that actions which are international in character but which are conducted without the knowledge of the government cannot be classified as foreign policy.


The news media are those components of the broad communications that attention on conveying news to the overall population or an objective open. These incorporate print media (papers, newsmagazines), communicate news (radio and TV), and all the more as of late the Internet (online papers, news sites, and so on.). Broadcasting is the dispersion of sound and video signals (programs) to various beneficiaries (“audience members” or “watchers”) that have a place with a huge gathering. This gathering might be people in general all in all, or a moderately enormous group of audiences within the public.


Agenda setting theory portrays the “capacity (of the news media) to impact the significance put on the points of the open plan”. … That is, if a news thing is secured regularly and noticeably, the gathering of people will see the issue as increasingly significant.

Agenda setting theory refers to how the media’s news coverage determines which issues become the focus of public attention(Alvernia Online, 2018).

First introduced in 1972 by college professors, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, they found in surveying North Carolina voters during the 1968 U.S. presidential election that what people thought were the most important issues were what the mass media reported as the most critical. Thus, agenda-setting theory was born, built on the notion that mass media sets the agenda for what people should care about.


Without an understanding of the media’s political functions and their influences on the nations, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive picture of their impacts on the states and international relations. This was the reason Kuhn (2007) posited that the media in the US performs a wide range of functions which include information provision, agenda setting, public watchdog, political mobilization and regime legitimating. The media select, organize and emphasize particularly news in order to decide what a significant subject for public discussion is. The CNN cannot force us what to think; but they certainly influence what we think about and how we think about it by their function of agenda building(Coban, 2016).

Increasingly, the media have been used by U.S. governments to influence public opinion on foreign policies in their favor(Mcnair, 1998). Specifically, during the Cold War the United States had used the media in getting its ideological message out in the rest of the world. Together with its hard power and economical means, the media had contributed to the empowerment of US hegemony. The media flows from the US to the other countries worked to spread its anti-communist propaganda and to provide reassurance to its alliances that the transatlantic perspective was valid against the Soviet threat. Tactical disinformation about opposing forces undermined the Soviet attempts and manipulated international public opinion.

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CNN 24 hour span of international news available with the local reporters from the different parts of the world is quite instructive. It provided 24 hours coverage on China’s Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 which affected the outcome of the crisis.

Again, in 1991, CNN was able to broadcast from the front lines of the war zone during the Persian Gulf War. Such coverage by CNN helped the international society to figure out what was happening in Iraq. It began to take attention to conflict areas and change people’s minds. For instance, it is known that the pictures of starving children in the Somalia crisis pushed President Bush toward action.

In his analysis of three different approaches of CNN effect, Livingston(1997) suggests that the media would act as a pitfall agenda setting agent in related to the choice and selection for the sake of national interests. They would become an accelerant in shortening response time for decision and policy making or they would move as an impediment actor that operates through the impact of public opinion.

As an agenda setting agent, the news media have an important job in defining issues, primarily to help the public understand the newest array of priorities and alliances. In this specific circumstance, the news covrage can be helpful for legitimizing state activities by forming what individuals around the globe consider it. For example, in 2003 the U.S. war against Iraq was characterized as a war of freedom by the White House and delivered a media crusade to help that thought.

In this case, the U.S media acted as considerable allies in selling the war and sustaining public support for it.

As an impediment actor, the media help to spread multiple frames, bring third parties into conflict and help to shape public opinion which in turn affect policymakers’ decisions on political conflicts. For an illustration, it can be argued that the collapse of America’s will to fight in Vietnam resulted from the media’s reporting of foreign policy. The US media caused the Johnson administration’s failure to explain to the American public and Congress why the U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam; thus the strong public reaction occurred against the government’s foreign policy.

Televised images quickly become a central part of US foreign policy debate. They affect which crises citizens decide to pay attention to and which they ignore. Televised images also affect how Americans think about these crises. For instance, opinion polls on the 1999 Kosovo crisis showed national support rising for intervention after televised pictures of “fleeing Kosovar civilians (Hulme, 2016). What television does is to elevate the issues to a national and international level. Placing issues in front of people as they ate their evening meal, forcing a reaction from the politician, will necessarily influence foreign policy outcome.

During the cold war, which was an ideological rivalry between the USA and the then Soviet Union, the US media fully supported the policy. Times and the Herald tribunes and other news magazines as Time and News week rarely criticized the policies of Harry Truman. Literally speaking, the public in the United states had accepted such popular instruments of containment as the Truman doctrine; the Marshal Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because the United States mass media supported policies and rarely criticized these in their publication.

CIA has in the past recruited journalists on it pay roll to work for the promotion of United States foreign policy (Ashraf Khan, 2018). Moreover, it often planted false stories in the press to fulfill certain foreign policy goals. For instance, several journalists backed up by CIA initiated disinformation campaign in the media against Libyan President Moammar-al- Qadaffi in order to lay the ground work for military attacks against Libya.


This paper conclude thus: Evidences abound that the United States Mass media have played huge role in influencing US foreign policy agenda and goals. American Mass Media performance has been driven or dictated by the states political communication regime, Government communication policies and according to the priorities set by the foreign office.

American mass media has covered international affairs from the perspective of United States perceived foreign policy interest and priorities. In this context, one can safely assert that the news media is very powerful and relevant in setting the United States foreign policy agenda.

At the beginning of the cold war, the unprecedented involvement of United States in international politics, the United States mass media fully supported the foreign policies. It was dangerous for print and electronic media practitioner to defy or challenge administration policy after 1947 because the media men might be labeled as the communist or agents of former USSR.

The establishment media, including such newspapers as the Times and the Herald Tribune andsuch news magazines as Time and News Week, these magazines rarely criticized the foreign  policies of Harry S. Truman during Cold war At the beginning of the cold war, the unprecedented involvement of United States in international politics, the United States mass media fully supported the foreign policies. It was dangerous for print and electronic media practitioner to defy or challenge administration policy after 1947 because the media men might be labeled as the communist or agents of former USSR.

The establishment media, including such newspapers as the Times and the Herald Tribune and such news magazines as Time and News Week, these magazines rarely criticized the foreign policies of Harry S. Truman during Cold war.


  • Alvernia Online(2018). The Agenda-Setting Theory in Mass Communication. Available at: https://online.alvernia.edu/articles/agenda-setting-theory/(accessed: 10/05/19)
  • Ashraf Khan, M.,(2018) American Mass Media and Foreign Policy: A Study about the Role of Whitehouse and Main Stream Print and Electronic Media in effecting the Process of Development of American Foreign Policy. In Global Journal Media. Vol.1(1)
  • Arnold, A.K.,(2011). Media Effects on Foreign Policy. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/media-effects-foreign-policy(accessed: 10/05/2019)
  • Coban, F.,(2016) The Role of the Media in International Relations: From the CNN Effect to the Al –Jazeere Effect. Journal of International Relations and Foreign Policy. Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 45-61
  • Deutsch, K. W.,(1954) Political community at the international relations: Problems of definition and measurement. Garden City: N.V Double day
  • Herman, E.S.,(1993) The Media’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy. Journal of International affairs. Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 23-45. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24357083?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents(accessed: 10/05/19)
  • Holsti, K. J.,(1995) International politics: A framework for analysis (7th ed.) New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Hulme, S.J.,(2016) The Modern Media: The Impact On Foreign Policy. A thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College . Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Kuhn, R.,(2007). Politics and the Media in Britain, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Livingstone, S., (1997), Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention, Research Paper R 18, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
  • Mcnair, B., (1998). The Sociology of Journalism, London: Arnold.
  • Nnoli, O.,(1978). Self reliance and foreign policy in Tanzania. New York: Nok Publishers.
  • Rodee, A.,(1957) Introduction to Political Science. Boston: MacGraw-Hill Book Company.


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