How We Influence the Media and How the Media Influences Us

Was there really a conspiracy to raise the price of cottage cheese in Israel, or was it merely market forces at work? Did it matter to the students and other protestors who organized a boycott of the leading cottage cheese brand in the country with a social media campaign and demanded lower prices?

Although the boycott is perhaps not an issue of great economic significance, Northwestern University Professor Igal Hendel’s study of the boycott fascinated the audience of economists attending the Media and Communications conference, who broke in frequently with questions and comments on the issue and on the research.

“This is what makes it such a fun conference;  we bring together people who otherwise are not usually at the same conferences or in the same audiences,” explained conference organizer Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University. “It’s an opportunity to look at really eclectic topics from a lot of points of view.”

For the second year, Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of Brown University organized the conference at the University of Chicago with the intention of examining core questions about what role communications play different aspects of life and society. “We felt the first one was a success, and we were prepared to wait a couple of years for a second conference, but when we looked around after six months, we found there were absolutely enough volume [of research] in this area and enough interesting ideas to do it again,” Shapiro said.

Their goal was to create a conference in the old-fashioned Chicago seminar style, in which presenters are constantly interrupted with questions and comments.  “Plus, a lot of the work we were interested in is being done in Chicago,” he added.

The research presented differed greatly—some was data driven, some was theoretical, while other papers were more traditional in nature.  Still, they all centered around the core questions social scientists have been considering for years in relation to the media: What role does the media play in the markets, in the economy, in politics, and in policy? Is the influence all one way or is there give and take?

The conference began with a provocatively named presentation entitled, “Death and the Media,” in which Matthew Kahn of UCLA looked at media reporting of infectious diseases in the 19th and 20th centuries. He explained that all news coverage was very responsive to unexpected increases in the death rates, but was less responsive to unexpected decreases in that same rate.  His analysis raised the question: do consumers find bad news more useful or more interesting than good news?

In a related vein, Julia Cagé of Sciences Po discussed how newspapers are coping with changing readership. She discovered that newspapers prefer one-off purchasers to subscribers for two reasons. First, they pay more for the actual newspaper, and second, they tend to read more of the newspaper as well. “This is important for advertisers because they believe their advertisements are actually being read, as opposed to subscribers who often don’t open their papers or who only look at specific sections,” Cagé explained.

In a look at how a government might be using the media, rather than the reverse, perhaps the most provocative paper presented was “Attack when the World’s Not Watching,” by Ruben Durante of Sciences Po. He and his coauthors found evidence that policy makers may strategically time unpopular measures to coincide with other big news events so that the unpopular action gets little or no attention.

The authors used daily data on from attacks on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and found that Israel was likely to time big attacks or retaliations the day before a big US news day, in what may an attempt to help its international reputation. “That was really a highlight of the conference, and is potentially very important,” Gentzkow said.

Another noteworthy paper discussed well into the dinner hour on the second day of the conference was Columbia University Professor Andrea Prat’s conceptual paper on media power and the fear that the media can interfere with or control the electoral process. “How would voters respond if the media were actually unbiased?” Prat asked.

A new addition to the conference this year was the official discussants, who were provided with the research ahead of time and made short responding presentations.  “The respondents really came up with questions and ideas and even further research that the original presenters often had not considered,” Shapiro said. “Most of them don’t even work in media to begin with, so their perspective is very different. I think that added a lot to the conference.”

The organizers and attendees of the Media and Communications conference are eager to see what new research will be developed in the next year as they plan to do this all over again. “Recognizing that the tools of economists can be used to examine media is helping us to get all of this wonderful research and all of these new ideas,” Shapiro said.   

Robin Mordfin