Saturday, December 03, 2005


The inherent logic of media pack-hunts

News media channels that choose to challenge political players, by for example revealing inconsistencies in policy platforms, may shift the focus of an agenda: But by attacking the reputation of an individual political candidate the news media can go even further – and make the news channel itself into a central part of the story. Empowered by possible support from other news channels this will in turn lead to a scene where the candidates have to respond, not to eachother, but to claims made by the news channels. When the media pack gives chase, other questions are driven off the political agenda. This is the essence of pack-hunt journalism where one elected official or political candidate has to face allegations by a journalist collective.
A media pack-hunt can be defined as continuous journalistic news-reporting about a politician’s shortcomings[i] (often in a matter of a private nature) in which the degree of sensation in the news violates accepted reporting and where the journalist corps, or the pack, establish extensive homogeneous media coverage. To treat pack-hunt journalism as an analyzable unitary element of media coverage we also need to distinguish between a ‘series of articles’ and an ‘article series’. The former is a number of articles/features planned by the editors in advance, while the latter is the result of articles published over a certain period of time, the trend of which can often be difficult for the editors themselves to control in the initial phase. Pack-hunt journalism belongs to the latter category. The progress of journalistic hunts, just as with the hunting metaphor, is determined by the terrain and the behaviour of the victim, and cannot be planned in advance.
Different newspaper articles, sometimes independent of one another, can be considered, according to our description, as a journalistic pack-hunt. But the way in which the reporting develops cannot always be judged by the individual journalist in an initial phase. Only after the articles have been put in context can we make a pattern out of them, link them to one another and categorise them as parts of a broader journalistic coverage. Complaints about ‘dramas staged by journalists’ therefore do not always fit in very easily. Anyone wanting to criticise discursively the character of ‘pack-journalism’ must therefore first define the hunt, and what articles and coverage are included in it. This then becomes a re-construction which none of the parties involved could know for sure beforehand.
Why has the media pack-hunt become a central element in contemporary political journalism? A possible explanation could naturally be that elements of unethical and illegal behavior in public life have increased in recent years and that the media pack-hunt is only a reflection of that situation. But at any rate there is little to suggest that politicians and officials are nowadays less ethical, or more corrupt, than they were earlier. On the contrary, there are grounds to explain the growth of pack-hunt journalism primarily as an expression of changes in the media market – a result of economic factors (McNair 2000:7). Pack-hunt journalism is rather an expression for a general tendency in political journalism to cover political affairs in relations to debates over policy-substance (McNair 2000:17) – the private morals of elected officials and political candidates are treated as significant ways of evaluating their proposed policy platforms.
The media’s homogeneous focus on an individual political affair can be understood as a result of synergy effects where many news media channels are monitoring each other for the latest news and follow up on stories carried by their competitors. When the journalistic assessments are largely the same in all newspapers and broadcast media, news coverage of political affairs acquires an enormous impact. Pack-hunt journalism thereby makes the media into a powerful actor on the political stage which can directly influence individual politicians and political parties. (McNair 2000:172).
To adopt game theory and neo-institutional theory to analyze pack journalism and frameworks for information is in fact a way of theorizing that has its evident predecessors in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Contrary to what is often perceived, media pack-hunts show a systematic and consistent behavior. The metaphor of the stag hunt is a suitable way of depicting the institutional setting, mentioned by Rousseau already in 1755 (Chwe 2001: 25-26) as a form for creating institutional restrictions for the dissemination of information: If all the hunters are hunting alone they only get a rabbit each. But if they sit down and coordinate their effort, they can instead shoot a deer, which would provide every hunter with more food than if they continued to hunt for rabbits on their own. However, they can only catch the deer if they all take part in the hunt. If someone defects from the plan the others will get nothing. As an allegorical device for the benefit of analyzing media feeding frenzies the stag hunt example provides us with the insight that different media channels have to make active choices about where they want to direct their attention. If they all play independently they might not be able to pursue an elected official and will loose goodwill from any such attempt. Playing it safe will instead mean to go after smaller issues.
Pack-hunt journalism is of course not that simple. A central point in the stag hunt example above, is that the solution is based on the respective actors’ utility function (Bacharach 1981: 8-9). For a negotiating plan to be perfect it must meet certain premises in which all actors act rationally according to perfect information, both about their own utility functions and those of their counterparts. In real life we often learn that this is not the case – it is impossible to know about every participant’s utility function in situations with large numbers of actors. Pack-journalism works the same way: it is almost without exception based on the fact that not all actors, if any, have perfect knowledge about their counterparts. In a number of different forms of coordination problem, it is rather the lack of information that determines the outcome. When a sufficient number (a critical mass (Schelling 1978: 117-119)) of actors know one another’s order of preferences, it is possible to coordinate efforts without knowledge about the preferences of other actors. The institutional solution in a case of pack-journalism where we can more or less assume that an infinite number of actors operate simultaneously over time, an n-person super-game, is to refer to information outside the game in which the actors themselves participate. By referring to mutual conventions, states of equilibrium can arise. Such states of equilibrium have been termed focal points (Schelling 1960: 54-67, 89-111, Klein 1999: 460). It is in these situations that press ethics, the Courts and constitutional practice can come into the picture. Even as late as the early 1970s, however, the old rules of journalism maintained a powerful hold on reporters. The press brought out plenty of allegations against the government, but only when the charges could be substantiated according to a set of ethical standards. Thus, the Watergate story developed slowly, gathering strength only as incriminating facts and credible allegations came increasingly to light. The Washington Post uncovered most of the Watergate story and did so while maintaining the strict rule that no allegation would be published unless it was confirmed by two independent and credible sources (Patterson 2000: 251-252).
As the example with Rousseau’s assurance game shows us, there are clearly strong connections to a contemporary political stag hunt, where a politician is chased by a journalist collective. The mere size of the pack hunt can force the victim to give up, which leads us to the next step in the stag hunt metaphor: Once a news collective has established a strong enough coalition, it can many times “drive” the politician out of office.
The strength of the coalition and the possibility of success suggests that the journalists will have to calculate a payoff matrix when they enter a pack hunt. The journalist who is the first to approach a hot-button issue, may very well act like an extreme optimist, with a pay off matrix that is evidently higher than all his colleagues (cf. Mueller 2003: 204-205).But as more and more journalists join the hunt for a politician, both the benefit and the risk of being a member of the pack-hunt will diminish.
The stag hunt model illustrates the choice which journalists face, when they decide if they want to pursue a politician.

Figure: The Stag Hunt

The model holds the following relations:
a > c >= d > b; w > x >= z > y.

When the coalition has been formed, the legitimacy of the politician versus the news collective may best be described via hypothetical collectives in a chicken-race model: In the short run, with just a few rounds being played, it can lead to positive outcomes and high credibility for journalists. But if the politician, in the midst of a drawn out pursuit, starts to blame the journalists we will end up in DD: Both the political collective and the journalist collective will suffer from the lack of trust by the public, thus they both may be blamed for hurting the democratic legitimacy. The possibility for politicians to retaliate against the reporting from news media outlets is implied by the pure principal-agent dependence between the media, politicians and the public. A free media is supposed to preserve democratic virtues and public discourse by serving as an agent who supplies its principals (elected representatives and the public) with information and a public forum for debate.
Due to the intensity which different media outlets often apply to scrutinize elected officials (and beat their competitors in creating headlines) the perspective of accountability often gets skewed where the news coverage, on an aggregated level, opens up for criticism about agenda pollution. In the end we arrive at a situation in which the media focus on an individual will be almost total. This can lead to a point where, even though a question of general interest may be written about by journalists, it achieves unreasonably large proportions in the total media supply – all journalists jostle to cover the politician in question. When the synergy effect of a homogeneous news capture is emphasized by a large majority of media outlets they can be collectively blamed for taking things out of proportions and distorting the political agenda.
A rational theory that is firmly anchored in a micro-perspective instead points in the direction of a classical case of tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1971: 1243-1248; Schelling 1978: 110-115): The decisions made by individual media outlets are guided by their marginal utility (mu). So long as the marginal utility of the news value is not less than 0 [mu >0], more reports will be written. Even if the marginal benefit diminishes, the exploitation of public resources continues. (The argument is applicable not only to environmental damage, but can also be used in relation to other general benefits or problems, such as media exposure.)
It is, however, important to point out that an agenda is neither universal nor eternal. The reason is that no institutions can guarantee that the game actually taking place (within the institution’s frame) is independent of the method used (Riker 1986: 142-143). Adjustments are often made in the game when a leading actor succeeds in changing the problem formulation for the agenda which other actors are thereby forced to follow – for example by revealing genuinely new information. In the long run there is a form of self-regulating character in similar games – a so-called spontaneous order arises.

[i] The term also occurs in connection with noteworthy coverage of more general political phenomena, organisations or issues. In some respects the hunt metaphor is then distorted. It is often more appropriate in these cases to term the news focus as a trend, a bias in news assessment or an agenda-steered structure.


Institutions at risk - Moneymaker vs Farha

Excerpt from dissertation text [introduction to institutions]: Institutions do matter, just like Alexander Hamilton noted in the hours before his duel with Aaron Burr. There would be a number of rational reasons for the inexperienced Hamilton to avoid facing Burr in a pistol duel. However, there was one argument he could not escape – the fact that a duel was an institutionalized way of solving a conflict between two men in the early days of the United States. Nobody would take Hamilton seriously if he fled from the arranged meeting.
Not only do institutions matter, they also seem to be changing over time. Ever so often do these changes cause a severe impact on our decision-making ability.[i] Insitutions are game settings, rules for engagement, or restrictions (in the shape of laws or social conventions) put up by actors to define the forms of human interaction and help to limit the scope of decisions by establishing a norm system (North 1990a; Coleman 1994: 265; Klein 1999: 458; Rosenthal 1978). Institutions become important parts of the strategy in game theory models, especially when we analyze the way standardized patterns of decision-making, or focal points (Schelling 1960: 54-67, 89-111; Klein 1999: 460), can influence the games – and even more so when we notice how defection from these conventions can cause serious harm to opponents. Examples from the world of tournaments in various competitive games can give a good idea of just how big a part these institutions and strategies play. Excessive brinkmanship, though risky as it may be, can force institutions out of order. Let us look at two illustrative cases. First we have a poker tournament where everyone knows that the institution of the game holds that a player should fold a less strong hand to avoid getting beaten. Given this universal strategy set for a game, the institutionalized way of playing may be altered when someone is trying to fool other players into believing that he holds a much stronger hand: A poker player may bluff his way out of a situation which his opponent can not possibly predict (Bewersdorff 2005: 374-379[ii]; Packel 1981), like Chris Moneymaker against Sam Farha at the final table in the World Championship of Poker 2003. Moneymaker was the newcomer, a bold but inexperienced gambler who had never before participated in live poker and who qualified to the WSOP by winning a satellite tournament. Farha was the old-timer – known to be able to see through any bluff. When they were the last two remaining players at the final table Moneymaker went all-in on an impossible hand. Farha’s problem was that he had invested heavily already and would risk the championship by calling the bet. His whole cards did not give him any help in reading the situation. Deploying the risk-aversive strategy Farha decided to fold and in doing so let Chris Moneymaker into the game again (which he eventually won).
Another great example from the world of chess is the third game between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in the 1972 title match for the World Championship of Chess in Reykjavik. Fischer, with black pieces, reinvented a classic Benoni defense and Spassky who was not prepared to face Fischer in this opening (an opening Fischer seldom played) was taken aback by his opponent’s lack of consistency (Edmonds and Eidinow 2005; Kasparov 2005: 336- 491). Fischer won the game (and later the match), to a certain extent by merely doing the unexpected.
[i] Professor Gerard Alexander from University of Virginia once gave me a great illustration of this when we were walking across Wyoming Avenue in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC: “When Americans walk on the sidewalk and try to cross a busy street, all drivers are crazy and potentially hazardous vehicle owners. But as soon as they step into their own car, all pedestrians are transformed into an irresponsible crowd.”
[ii] “Bluffing in Poker: Can It be Done without Psychology?” Ch. 35 in Luck, Logic, & White Lies: The Mathematics of Games.

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