Popular Culture Can Crowd Out International Relations

by PM

27 August 2013, 0004 EDT

Daniel Drezner writes that Meghan McCain’s proposition that attention paid to Miley Cyrus can crowd out attention paid to Syria is bunk.

With all due regard to Drezner, let me debunk the bunk claim—or, at least, show that the “Twerking Kills” hypothesis is plausible:

This paper studies the influence of mass media on U. S. government response to approximately 5,000 natural disasters occurring between 1968 and 2002. These disasters took nearly 63,000 lives and affected 125 million people per year. We show that U. S. relief depends on whether the disaster occurs at the same time as other newsworthy events, such as the Olympic Games, which are obviously unrelated to need. We argue that the only plausible explanation of this is that relief decisions are driven by news coverage of disasters and that the other newsworthy material crowds out this news coverage.

That’s the abstract to an important paper by Eisensee and Stromberg.

The authors investigate “whether moderately sized disasters are more likely to receive relief simply because they appear on the evening news when there are few competing news stories” and “whether a natural disaster is less likely to receive relief because news about this disaster was crowded out by, for example, the shootings at the Heritage High School, the Olympics, or the O.J. Simpson trial.” Based on their study of 5,000 natural disasters between 1968 and 2002, they find that “U.S. policy makers are less likely to declare disasters during the Olympics, and in general when other newsworthy stories are in abundance,” findings robust to the magnitude of the disaster and other factors.

Furthermore, the disaster size necessary to prompt relief varies with the type and location of disaster:

News biases relief in favor of certain disaster types and regions: for every person killed in a volcano disaster, 40,000 people must die in a drought to reach the same probability of media coverage. Similarly, it requires 40 times as many killed in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as for a disaster in Eastern Europe of similar type and magnitude.

I’ve blogged about the Eisensee and Stromberg finding before, but that’s because it’s so important. If we think officials are responsive to public opinion, the mechanism by which opinion is translated into response matters a lot.

Update: I want to be entirely clear: I have no idea if crowding Syria off the front page has (a) happened or (b) will mean that the USA won’t launch airstrikes. I’m just suggesting that the notion of “news pressure” suggests that attention might not be paid to Syria. So the treatment effect of Miley Cyrus in this case might be zero, but the overall treatment effect of crowding out is quite large. (Note that the paper deals with the era of nightly news, in which news budgets were more easily counted, but I find it plausible that there’s similar effects today.)