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Media Matters: Part I

How a government agency responds to information requests depends on how it envisions shaping the news.

Words: Kelsey Atherton

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

As I write this, two new images from Hamid Karzai International Airport are circulating on social media. The first, blurry, is of a C-17 US Air Force transport aircraft flying over Kabul, with a figure slipping off the outside and crashing below; reports suggest it was a person clinging to the wheel who fell. A second image, higher resolution, shows a crowd on the runway making it difficult for the C-17 to safely take off, as people cling to the outside of the plane.

These are grim images, and they succeeded in a way where few others had. If the timing of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan had been designed to avoid a repeat of the Saigon image, it instead created the unique specter of the Kabul image.

As an object of media focus, images like this can spur bureaucratic activity. A February article in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory demonstrates how media attention to bureaucratic failing can spur both action and resistance.

“Our findings suggest that anomalously heightened media attention has markedly different effects depending on the nature of the media attention,” write study authors Aaron Erlich, Daniel Berliner, Brian Palmer-Rubin, and Benjamin E Bagozzi.

If the timing of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan had been designed to avoid a repeat of the Saigon image, it instead created the unique specter of the Kabul image.

For their research, the authors looked at information requests and responses to 22 Mexican federal agencies between 2005–2015. By processing 150,000 news articles, the authors were able to find periods of anomalously high attention. By cross-referencing this news database with the time period of information requests and nature of attention, the authors then matched government responses to crises with media attention.

The attention matters, and the kind of attention matters. Stories about corruption generated less information and fewer overt government responses, which the authors theorize as a way to limit coverage.

Yet there were other instances where heightened attention brought about a real and immediate change in behavior.

“Negative attention owing to government failure — for example botched responses to natural disasters — is associated with increased responsiveness, likely in an effort to salvage the agency’s reputation.”

There is more at play. How a government agency responds to information requests varies greatly on how it envisions shaping the news. If asked about a newly announced policy, being able to publish documents that support it lets the agency claim credit.

If the news is bad, and the information requests flooding in are instead a reaction to crisis, the organization may slow its response as a part of blame avoidance. Yet that isn’t always the case; by responding quickly, a government agency may instead be trying to bolster its reputation for competence, letting the fast media response take the place of doing the job right the first time.

While not every government will have public records requests as a handy metric, understanding the way bureaucracies incentivize sharing some information and suppressing others is a crucial tool for policymakers and the public. A collapse of security that seems sudden in public may in fact have an extensive paper trail in documents for official use only, and one way to unearth that is to convince the parties responsible that publishing their right-yet-overlooked grim assessments serves them more than hiding the existence of dire predictions after dire news.

Kelsey Atherton

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