Using Contemporary Policy Examples, Explain What the 'Three Faces of Power' Teach Us about Agenda Setting
Public policies reflect, on the surface, governmental decision making processes. At a closer look, however, contemporary policies are the result of direct and indirect pressures upon the public or upon political decision-making factors. Steven Luke’s “three faces of power” model includes the decision-making power, the agenda setting and the preference shaping power, explaining three strategies of modeling public opinion by exerting specific aspects of power (Sundstram, 2011). Agenda setting, also named the non-decision-making power of the three faces of power model is a sinuous strategy that various groups can use for placing their problems or their issue as central to general interest, with the purpose of transforming them into policies. Based on Luke’s three faces of power theory this essay will explain the power exerted through agenda setting, using contemporary policy examples.
Briefly, Luke’s three faces of power theory holds that the decision-making power is exerted by the elitist groups, who hold the economic and the political power, while agenda setting and the preference shaping are coordinated by mass media. In this context, mass media control the political agenda and shapes the public opinion based on news coverage and propaganda (Hyde-Price, 2007). Agenda setting theory suggests that there are many power groups that compete for their problems or stories to be heard, to be transmitted towards the public, but only few succeed because no system can transpose all the existent problems of society (Birkland, 2001). Moreover, the agenda setting theory posit that when a power group achieves attention, it must struggle to maintain its problem in the public’s interest, making sure that its desired approach to the problem is promoted (Birkland, 2001). As the promoted problems gain increased coverage, the public becomes more aware of the promoted issue than of the non-promoted ones, considering as important the problems that they are exposed to through continuous media coverage (McCombs, 2004). Referring to the competition between the power groups there can be stated that the elitist group that hold the greatest power and have specific interests in promoting their problem will gain the biggest attention.
Agenda setting theory was initially associated with mass media, as a strategy to select a specific content over others, generating awareness around that content, while barely treating, or ignoring other subjects. This is a strategy used to generate the impression among audiences that the debated problem is of most significant interest (Fischer and Miller, 2007). As Soroka (2002) notes, mass media has been effective if not in telling people what to think, for sure in telling people what to think about, by selecting the content. However, the agenda setting is nowadays not solely an expression of the mass media selection of the newsworthiness content, but it is applied in various social and political fields to explain the interaction between the power groups and the society (Fischer and Miller, 2006).
For explaining how agenda setting works in real life, Birkland (2001) states that, in United States a discussion about reforming the health care by increasing the government activity is perceived as a socialized medicine and the idea of socialism has negative connotations in this country. Therefore, the connection with the socialist ideology makes the health care reformation based on the socialist principles a taboo topic, influencing the society to avoid approaching this subject, setting its agenda on other topics. In relation to the three faces of power theory, this popular culture issue was shaped by the American government, which holds the executive power, for promoting an agenda setting useful for its own interests. Scholars observe that the mechanisms of agenda setting represent a combination between the hidden interests of the power groups with the intrusive and coercive forms of state interventions (Fischer and Miller, 2006, p. 47).
Fischer and Miller (2006) note that in establishing specific policies as important by using agenda setting, there must be taken into account a number of variables: the interest between relevant actors, the institutions’ effective acting and the perceptions upon public problems and the identified solutions. These factors combined lead to one direction: manipulation of citizens, which is the third force of power according to Lukes’ theory. Roberts (2004) observes that the manipulation of citizens implies that they cannot recognize their own interest, associating it with the interest of the power groups, which orchestrate media and education to position their problems as the main interest problems for citizens.
A current policy that shapes the citizens’ interest is the environmental sustainability paradigm, a concern issued by governments and power groups, supported by mass media through continuous representation of the subject and finally absorbed by masses as their own interest (Lee, An and Kim, n.d.). Combined, the three forces of power (decision-making, agenda setting and perception shaping), resulted into a global concern for environmental sustainability, which people around the world consider being to be personal interest. In fact this personal interest towards environmental responsibility was dictated by the decision making, elitist groups who negotiated this subject with other social issues for placing it as one of the most important subjects of the 21st century. Being permanently repeated indicates the elitist-group’s intention of maintaining their problem as a top subject of significant importance for citizens around the world. Being exposed continuously to the propagation of environmental sustainability media content, audiences turn green, adopting green policies and sustainable attitude, according to the messages that they receive. Shaping attitudes for reaching the intended answer from the targeted groups indicates that the elitist groups succeed in transmitting their desired reactions. Therefore, the intended result once achieved implies the manipulation of people for obtaining self-interest of limited power groups.
Lenschow (2002) notes that in terms of environmental concern agenda setting is placed in the supranational arena, whereas the decision-making is sectorial, explaining that agenda setting will offer opportunities for developing environmental friendly proposals, such as the environmental taxation policy. This policy includes specific governmental interests such as economic efficiency, but this silent interest is masked under the promise of a better and healthier life (Lee, An and Kim, n.d.). Therefore, for the purpose of ensuring one group’s interests (in this case, the government’s interests of achieving economic efficiency), problems are reshaped in a manner meant to trigger the audiences’ attention. Such a strategy is often named manipulation or disinformation (McCombs, 2004).
However, the said manipulation resulting from agenda setting strategy can work in more than one direction. Murphy (2010) discusses about the NGOs activity while trying to persuade the government on the significance of their pro-societal proposals, explaining that in this case the NGOs are the ones who are developing an agenda setting. Murphy (2010) further notes that, through their agenda setting activities, the NGOs are aiming to determine the politicians to perceive their proposed issues as relevant, influencing the decision-making process and in the end the adoption of the desired policy.
This example suggests that the power groups are not necessarily represented by elitist members of the society (politicians, wealthy individuals or corporations), but also by members of the society who hold the power to influence others, mostly through charisma (Buse, Mays and Walt, 2005). The non-elitist groups who hold the power to influence others, even the elitist groups, exercise the non-decision making power, meaning the agenda setting, having a limited role in the decision making phase.
On the other hand, isolated social groups may not have the necessary resources to interact directly with the political representatives in order to present their issue for further developing it into a policy. In such cases, the isolated groups usually appeal to mass media, which will promote their issue as long as it contains a novelty and the potential of being controversial, for capturing the interest of the audiences (Koch-Baumgarten and Voltmer, 2010). For instance, the feminist movement used mass media for its political agenda setting purposes. Mass media decided that this topic is of interest and presented it in a manner meant to deliver a decision-making response from the policy-makers (Koch-Baumgarten and Voltmer, 2010). Currently, there are many policies being implemented or under governmental attention regarding women’s role in the society. Equal payment between women and men, the right to the same benefits, facilities, education rights, health care, etc. between men and women or the increase of women’s representation in the managerial and decision-making positions within companies are just several policies adopted (EQUAL, 2005). These policies and many other similar policies represent the result of the agenda setting, deployed by marginalized actors through mass media intervention. Because through their actions (which can involve lobbying, media interaction or direct political interaction), the NGOs or the marginalized social groups can contribute to global policymaking (Murphy, 2010).
Roberts (2004) indicates that at the country level, in a democratic state, decision-making within government implies complex processes. Boushey (2010) explains that the complexity of the decision-making process in states’ matters implies an understanding of public policy diffusion, which can be achieved through a mix of innovation diffusion with agenda setting studies. The scholar further indicates that the state related decision-makings need to respond to a sense of urgency, salience and importance, competing with other such issues, shaping “patterns of policy making” (Boushey, 2010, p. 29).
Referring to agenda setting’s role in shaping people’s perceptions based on their interaction with mass media, Maxwell McCombs says, “what we know about the world is what mass media decide to tell us” (2005, p. 2). Similarly, in public policies, what is considered as important, salient and urgent is what the politicians and the decision-makers in general decide to position as such. Regarding Lukes’ the three faces of power theory, the positioning of specific issues as salient, urgent and important over other similar problems is known as the non-decision making power (Buse, Mays and Walt, 2005). The political groups limit the importance of other problems for emphasizing their issue of interest (Buse, Mays and Walt, 2005).
Discussing about the touristic decision-making policies, Carrier and Macleod (2010) note that in this sector, policies are applied either through overt exercise of power or through non-decision making. The scholars outline the application of the three faces of power in deciding (or silently influencing the agenda) on what needs to be researched and implemented in terms of tourism (Carrier and Macleod, 2010).
The non-decision making is associated with the soft power, wherein actors who hold authority (not necessarily power) can influence others using soft methods, such as co-opting them by shaping their ideas and through attractive arguments (Buse, Mays and Walt, 2005). This is the case of the non-governmental groups or marginalized social groups who have the authority to influence both public opinion and governmental decision-making factors through the use of soft power (Murphy, 2010). Just as the actors who exert the decision-making power, the ones who exercise non-decision making power have the ability to determine how the issues are being presented and approached (Koch-Baugmarten and Voltmer, 2010). Hyde-Price (2007) suggests that the agenda setting dictates not how much power a specific group exerts, but how well it uses its power. A significant aspect in placing one’s issue or problem on the focus of the public agenda is the innovation, which dictates how rapidly its adoption into a policy will occur (Boushey, 2010).
The way in which politicians address, vote and implement the contemporary policies, represent an expression of everyday interaction between various power groups (political groups, NGO’s or marginal groups), mass media and the public (Soroka, 2002). More than an expression of the interaction between these actors, the current policies are a representation of the competition among various groups of placing their issue on the public agenda. In addition, the contemporary policies indicate the intensity with which issues turned into public policies have been supported by the groups that initiated them, with the help of mass media or political support. As related to the contemporary policies discussed within this essay (environmental sustainability, health care, tourism or gender equality), Lukes’ three faces of power theory teaches us that agenda setting can have the role of decision-making power if effectively utilized. Through intense negotiation for media attention, lobby, education or political interaction, various groups can place their issue as highly significant, determining the government to adopt the required policies, as a result of continuous social or media pressure.
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