Policy, Media and the Public: Driving the Agenda for Change

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

How much impact does the media actually have on policy change?  How much impact does the public have?  Knowing the answers to these questions is absolutely critical in a global moment where the effects of climate change necessitate a swift environmental policy or regulatory response. Knowing what the components of change are and how they work together is crucial in identifying the intersections of influence needed to pressure government to take appropriate and constructive action. Dr. Juliet Carlisle’s work looks at how the public, media and government officials attend to a slow-moving crisis (like drought, for instance), and how this attention shifts across the slower lifespan of the crisis. Looking at the relationships between corresponding streams of attention can help explain how windows for policy change open. Dr. Carlisle shows that even a crisis that takes years to unfold can capture attention and produce policy change. This underscores the significance of our roles as producers and consumers of media and citizens of a nation. 

On Tuesday, January 28th,  Professor Carlisle will help explain how the recent California drought captured and sustained attention to yield policy change in her lecture, “Driving the Agenda?: California Drought in the 21st Century,” from 4-5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Carlisle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Utah. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Washington and both her M.A. and Ph.D., also in Political Science, from the University of California Santa Barbara. She has investigated public attitudes around environmental issues like offshore oil drilling, large-scale solar development and vaccines. Her work seeks to explain the causes and characteristics of public opinions, attitudes, knowledge and behavior regarding politics, the environment and energy development. In this lecture she will focus on the ongoing drought in California over the last two decades, engaging with the interplay of attention given by the government, the public and the media and the corresponding policy change that has occurred.

“Policy is for the most part fairly static,” says Carlisle, “not all problems result in policy change.” Her research, therefore, looks at how and whether politicians respond to environmental crises and what factors explain policy change when it does happen. Sudden, devastating, catastrophic events demand immediate attention from the public. Large-scale tragedies like plane crashes, hurricanes, or earthquakes affect a lot of people instantly, and the resulting attention creates opportunities for policy change.  However, slow-moving crises that can take years rather than minutes to unfold tend to be more complicated and are often harder to define. The effects on most people’s daily lives may be comprehended gradually, if at all. A slow-moving crisis gives rise to questions like: Do we even notice a crisis is occurring? Can it capture the attention of the public? To what extent is the media covering it? Does the crisis have the potential to produce a significant policy impact or change? What Professor Carlisle wants to know is how and when policy change is affected for a slow-moving crisis.   

Dr. Carlisle looks at how the media’s coverage of the more recent California drought correlates to the public’s views and potential to propel policy change, helping prove that even a slow-moving crisis can shift policy. Her findings point to the need for more research on what types of media stories are most effective in creating urgency around regulatory change. “The public has a lot of power to push change,” Carlisle reminds us. When we are aware and mobilized, the pressure on our political systems can be hugely effective. 

To hear her speak and learn more about the co-mingling relationships influencing policy change come by on Tuesday, January 28th from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210.  As always, there will be coffee and treats for you, so bring a mug and enjoy!


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