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The power of media to define what's salient
We have seen how reporting on crime has distorted public perceptions in ways that shape elections and policy. Whether they are doing it with a political agenda or not, journalists and their editors are wielding a heavy hand when explaining the world to their readers. Even though crime is decreasing in SF, based on how it was reported, residents are convinced it’s soaring, and based in part on that they recalled DA Chesa Boudin (by a margin of ~10 points) last week. By contrast, in NYC, where Mayor Adams has presided over an enormous crime spike, no media is talking about it, so the public is not bothered and there is no discourse around blaming Adams for it. I recommend Paul Waldman’s recent oped for the Washington Post about this phenomenon, noting the degree to which the public has a warped perception of both crime and the economy.
Given this, I was very interested to see a striking parallel situation in regards to immigration policy in the U.K. As Don Moynihan writes, “There is more immigration in the UK than there was pre-Brexit but people are no longer worried about it. What happened? Media and political framing of immigration as a problem to be solved disappeared post-Brexit, and so did public opposition.” Moynihan cites two charts (data from here) that show an extremely sudden divergence between actual immigration levels and public concern, once the Daily Mail stopped talking about it:
We are frequently told by political analysts like David Shor that winning elections requires focusing on and doing “what is popular.” What’s often left unstated is that the “popularity” (whether it polls well right now) of a position is only relevant to elections if the issue is salient. Whoever controls salience, controls the thrust of an election cycle. For example, when crime is salient, Republicans do well. When health care is salient, Democrats do well. Shor states this point clearly in this Slate podcast.
One takeaway from this is that it pays to control one or more mass media outlets. It’s an expensive approach, but is much cheaper than spending billions of dollars each election cycle to counter the anti-Democratic boogeyman of the day (whether it’s a “border crisis” or CRT or some other imaginative construct). I’m curious to learn more about the newly founded Latino Media Network (which just spent $60 million buying 18 Hispanic radio stations across the country) as an example of this. A second takeaway is that reframing justice work as being about ‘health’ rather than ‘crime’ is not only substantively good policy, but also smart politics, and we should do more of it.
Last, this leads me to make a depressing prediction: in the wake of the recent recall of Chesa Boudin as DA of San Francisco, when in the months ahead car break-ins and robberies do not improve in San Francisco under Mayor Breed’s appointed replacement (or in fact get worse!), no one will talk about it and people will say that crime has improved even if the stats say it has not. People will “feel” safer, because the media narrative will say that they are.
“[In 2016,] if you crosstab people who agree with [Republicans] on immigration and people who agree with Democrats on universal health care... Obama got 60 percent of those people and Hillary Clinton got 40 percent of those people. And that’s the story of the election. I think that this fundamentally was about issue positioning, that the 2012 election was a lot was about health care. And so people voted based on their views on health care. And then in 2016, people talked a lot about immigration on both sides. And so then people voted more in line with their views on immigration…
Gallup has this great polling they did in 2017 where they go and they ask, what party do you trust more on health care or immigration?… And there’s a clear pattern, which is people trust Democrats on health care, on education, helping the middle class, but they trust Republicans on things like national security, crime, immigration, taxes. And so a lot of the battle in politics is to keep the media and to keep the national conversation on the pieces that people agree with us on and trust us on, and keep it away from the pieces that they don’t trust us on.”