GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS: How media influences public opinion

Many newsrooms across
the world experience it. A disgruntled reader or member of the public sends a
letter to the editor or calls the editor personally to complain that some form
of coverage creates a false perception by mischaracterising or misrepresenting
an issue, an individual, an organisation or even a country. Rightly or wrongly
the writer or caller feels the press, radio, TV or web coverage will have a
negative effect.


Tax haven or offshore
financial centre?

The Cayman Islands
has had experience with unflattering coverage particularly in foreign media for
a while, with terms like ‘tax haven’ and ‘tax evasion’ often used synonymously
with the islands. Some say the effect of this coverage is hard to reverse,
particularly because it had been underestimated for some time.

 “For ten, twenty or thirty years business here
was so positive that no one thought public relations was important,” said
Cayman Finance Chairman Anthony Travers. “That was a mistake.” He believes
there has been insufficient investment by the private sector in the public
relations issues and the private sector is now paying a price for not having
made full and proper investment.

Although the
mischaracterisations of the financial services industry in the Cayman Islands
by international news media are not based on fact but motivated by a different
agenda, he said, they nevertheless taint the legitimate function of the
financial services industry.

“It was clearly a
mistake not to better identify and characterise its function, because by leaving
a PR vacuum by not investing in getting the story out, we have allowed
distracters to fill the vacuum with negative characterisations.”

Cayman Finance is now
following a strategy of countering negative coverage but, as Travers says, “it
is now far more difficult to set that aside when perceptions have become far
more entrenched than it would have been had better investment been made by the
private sector from an earlier period in terms of getting the story straight in
the first place”.


Agenda setting

The effect mass media
has on public opinion has been a matter of scientific debate for some time. In
the 1960s popular opinion followed the mantra coined by Bernard C. Cohen, that
“the media doesn’t tell us what to think; it tells us what to think about”.  The development of agenda setting theory in
the 1970s went further.

In a series of
analyses researchers Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw found that issues that
receive more media coverage will be perceived as more important by the public.
McCombs and Shaw at the time analysed media reports for pertinent issues during
a US election campaign and compared this to survey results of what people
thought the key issues of the election were. They found that public perception
was strongly influenced by the amount of coverage certain issues receive.

Since then numerous
studies have confirmed the theory that the media agenda influences the public
agenda. In addition to the cause and effect of agenda setting, where more
coverage equals greater importance in the public mind, other research has
focused on the question whether the media, in contrast to Cohen’s assumption,
not only tells us what to think about, but also how to think about it, for
example through negative or positive coverage.

Priming and framing

This so-called
“second level” agenda setting theory can be summarised in the “framing” and
“priming” of specific topics, individuals or organisations. Priming suggests
that the media by emphasising certain attributes, while neglecting others, will
influence how the public thinks of certain issues or individuals. The first
researched example of priming was again the media coverage of a US presidential
election campaign, this time in the 1990s.

 According to polls at the time the public
believed that, while George Bush senior handled the Gulf War competently,
Bush’s management of the economy was poor. At the same time Bush’s image
measured in surveys asking respondents how satisfied they were with the
president overall was very negative.

Proponents of the
priming theory stated the image of the president was the direct result of the
media focusing significantly more on the economy than on foreign policy and the
Gulf War. This effect was amplified by Bill Clinton, who managed to set the
media agenda proclaiming: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Closely related to
priming is the framing of news. It encompasses the way media present or define
an issue, in other words the perspective from which or the context in which a
certain issue is presented. Framing touches on the question that every
journalist and editor will ask: “What’s the story?”

Coverage of
unemployment, for example, can focus on unemployment statistics, economic
reasons for unemployment, individual reasons for unemployment such as the lack
of education, the plight of the unemployed in their struggle to find a job and
many more possibilities. As a result, proponents of news framing say, the media
can affect how the issue of unemployment and ultimately the unemployed are
regarded by the general public.

Journalists try to avoid
bias by being aware of the frame and employing journalistic techniques that
dictate the quoting of actual facts or data from the widest range of available
sources possible. Thereby the journalist will also increase the different
frames in which a particular story is presented. As a result an issue will be
ideally explored from a variety of angles in different contexts. However, this
can never lead to neutrality. A journalist may be neutral by using as many
sources as possible, keeping an open mind and avoiding personal speculation,
but the resulting coverage can only achieve a certain degree of balance, not

There is ample
evidence in favour of first and second level agenda setting theory, but there
are some caveats, too. The main caveat is personal experience. Research has
shown that the more personal experience we have with a specific issue,
individual or organisation, the less we are influenced by media coverage. In
other words a news item on how low the unemployment rate is will have a
different impact on someone who is currently unemployed than on someone who has
never been unemployed during their career.

Personal experience
is also the reason why much media research is focused on politicians. They
receive a lot of coverage and most people don’t know the presidential
candidates personally. In all likelihood, everything we know about them, we
know from the media.

It is no surprise
therefore to see all kinds of individuals and organisations from politicians to
pop stars and big corporations to not-for-profit organisations employ the
services of PR agents.  But not all
issues have the benefit of public relations support.


Crime coverage

Financial services
are not the only part of Cayman’s economy that is affected by media coverage.
There is some concern in Cayman’s tourism or real estate industry that visitors
and investors will stay away if the coverage of crime persists at the current

As RCIPS Inspector
Anthony White stated, speaking to a group of property owners and businessmen in
the Seven Mile Beach area back in August at the Ritz-Carlton: “The media, what
are they saying about crime? The media causes crime fear a bit. I mean, they’re
reporting truthfully in most instances. But sometimes it might be re-worded to
give a little bit more flair to the incident. And it can go to our perception
because that’s what we’re reading.”

He concludes that
“our perception of crime is our reality of it”.

At times it can
therefore be tempting to criticise the media coverage of an issue as not being
representative or distorting of reality, rather than the actual causes of the
negative perception. Following from first level agenda setting theory it is often
argued that a specific issue is either over- or underreported (agenda cutting)
and as a result a wrong perception among the public is created.

Police Commissioner
David Baines earlier this year criticised Cayman news media for
sensationalising crime in their coverage. Highlighting internal crime
statistics he seemed to suggest that Cayman had seen an increase in crime
coverage that did not reflect an increase in actual crime. As it turned out
crime and in particular violent crime was in fact on the rise in 2009. If and
when coverage of crime then becomes “too much coverage” is really difficult to

The issue of child
abuse for instance has been much more widely reported in international media
than in the 1950s and 60s. This may potentially create the impression that in
today’s world there is more child abuse than in the past, but there is no
statistical evidence to confirm this. Still, it can hardly be argued in this
case that the media should stop reporting on the issue, because it could create
a skewed perception among media users.

Given that coverage
of crime is not only in the public interest but also typically among the most
widely read news items, journalists can only address this dilemma by putting
crime into context, for instance by quoting statistics.

Inspector White also
suspects what media research appears to confirm, that the effect of personal
experience is much stronger than the effect of media coverage. “If you’ve been
a victim of crime before, trust me, your perception is really in tune to crime
everywhere,” he said. “If you’ve seen someone getting a purse snatched or heard
about it, It affects your view.”


The virtualisation of

Personal experience
becomes an important issue, as in a technologically more advanced world with internet,
social media, newsgroups forums and virtual discussion boards traditional media
like newspaper, TV and radio are no longer the only media impacting public
opinion.  As a result, in a globalised
world that relies on the internet and frequent travel, an insular mentality can
no longer be applied to news media.

Local media may
report that tourist attractions in Cayman are exciting and wild, but if
tourists planning their trip to Cayman read rather unflattering comments from
actual tourists on much used websites like or in cruise travel
web forums, the effects of these types of media is likely to be stronger.

In public relations
opinion and endorsement by independent third parties are often regarded as much
more important because they have more credibility than what an organisation
says about itself in a news item. The internet has liberated third person
commentary on virtually any issue, person or organisation. It is thus no longer
just the press or the TV news that influence public perception.