Has US political communication risen from the dead?

The 2012 International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Diego this week was a good opportunity to test the state of US political communication. Studies of political communication in previous ISAs have been marked by an obsession with analyzing media content then extrapolating about how politics or IR works. The latest content analysis of the New York Times and Washington Post is presented as if this is a bellweather for public discourse. Comparing US elite press to the Guardian or even Le Monde is seen as a radical step, allowing for claims about “international” public discourse. Heavily conditioned by the quants-orientation of US political science, the focus is on mastering datasets. This will get you into the house journal. Students are encouraged to avoid looking at the effects of political communication – what difference did that elegant sample of New York Times editorials actually make to anything? - because it is “too complex” or involves talking to psychologists or sociologists. Just study texts – don’t talk to producers or consumers of political communication. Aim low, do normal science. Questions of power recede, as does the relevance and vitality of the whole enterprise.

This is a caricature, to an extent. Research in the US on information infrastructure, governance and political economy is lively and gets to the heart of explaining both how communication operates and the structures that condition it. At ISA this year it was encouraging to see the strides being made here. Amelia Arsenault explained how US firms and diplomats have locked-in South Africa’s media-political power relations by supplying both the regulatory model and technology, and created a productive contrast with J.P.Singh’s theorization of power diffusion. Craig Hayden’s work on digital diplomacy is reaching towards an explanation both ecological and historical that gets at motives, institutional pressures, contingency and everything else lying beyond texts.

Nevertheless, the normal science was still there. As one colleague said, now you don’t have to sample the New York Times to be a grown up political scientist; you sample twitter instead. Single-medium studies remain. There was a lot of counting. Nobody dared ask the So What? question. But more importantly, political communication cannot be a normal science today because all of its concepts have been exploded by the transformed media ecology. As my colleague Andrew Hoskins repeated so often at ISA he’s stopped coming, we do not live in the 1970s when there was a discrete set of news outlets and a public consuming them in predictable patterns. That era let us measure ‘exposure’ to media and allowed for simple models of ‘frames’ moving from politician through media to publics and up again. But how can you discern exposure to something environmental? How can you analyse the frames in all the thousands of media sources you consume everyday, how those frames interact, and the compound effect on political understandings? It is a dead end.

Michael X. Delli Carpini, Dean of the Anneberg School Pennsylvania, acknowledged this in 2009. He said, ‘we cannot gauge the positive or negative consequences of the new information environment on citizens’ attitudes and actions without first being able to accurately gauge what information (in the broadest sense of the word) people encounter’. And we can’t, even with Big Data tools, because some of this information is offline. Todd Gitlin wrote in 2003, ‘In some ways the very ubiquity of the mass media removes media as a whole system from the scope of positivist social analysis; for how may we “measure” the “impact” of a social force [i.e. mass media] which is omnipresent within social life and which has a great deal to do with constituting it?’

This is why European political communication turned to studies of mediatization and mediality in the 2000s. Mediatization asks how the logics of each medium (re its visuality, temporality, interactivity, controllability) penetrate political institutions and decision-making – indeed it comes from US theories of media logics in the 1970s that were pushed aside. The Scandinavians are good at this. Mediality is the equivalent of IR’s recent practice turn: can we discern the effects of everyday media exchanges and practices – how we use media rather than what is said? The Germans are good at this. And some US political communications experts are revisiting classic theories to see how they operate today: Lance Bennett’s work on the Logic of Connective Action springs to mind. These are more promising avenues since they let us re-conceptualise how media, power and politics work at a time of flux.  

These are broad strokes. Unimaginative content analysis is done in Europe and fascinating work on mediatization and mediality is being done by some US scholars. ISA this year seems to reflect a slight shift to the latter. Hopefully Arsenault, Hayden and Bennett’s work will gain traction and US political communication will rediscover its scope and ambition.  

Ben O'Loughlin, San Diego, 4 April.