Auto Trade Policy and Th Press: Auto Elite as a Source of the Media Agenda

By Chang, Kuang-Kuo | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Auto Trade Policy and Th Press: Auto Elite as a Source of the Media Agenda


Chang, Kuang-Kuo, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study, based on content analysis, showed that the auto elite set the agenda for the New York Times and the Detroit News, both of which were inclined to have their news coverage of the auto trade conflicts between the United States and Japan biased toward fair trade, not free trade. Additionally, the News was more likely than the Times to be more biased, especially when the conflicts were mounting.

The trade imbalance and resulting conflicts largely from the auto industry between the United States and Japan have existed for decades and reached a peak in June 1995, when the Clinton government threatened to impose an estimated $5.9 billion worth of punitive tariffs to retaliate against alleged Japanese unfair trade practices. Japan, on the other hand, accused its rival of abandoning the free trade principle pledged to in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Japan eventually was forced again to restrain "voluntarily" its auto exports to the United States.

The purpose of this study is to analyze and compare the news coverage of the automobile trade dispute between the United States and Japan in two American newspapers in terms of the potential agenda-setting function.1 A natural time block helped divide the study with a fifteen-year time span into two periods, each with four years-1981,1983,1985, and 1986, for period one; and 1992-1995, period two. Between 1987 and 1991, trade negotiations were either not held, or they were not reported in both newspapers. Also, 1992 saw the first auto trade talk ever conducted in a presidential election year. The conflict was developed into a hot issue in the 1992 presidential election campaign and then dominated the Clinton administration trade agenda. Accordingly, this allowed the research to investigate the issue with a longitudinal basis and approach-between period one and period two.

While the agenda-setting hypothesis has been broadly analyzed in numerous domestic and foreign policies, it has scarcely been applied to study the international trade issues or commercial policies, despite the escalating prominence of world trade.2 Whereas the concept of "fair trade" is reported and used relentlessly by the news media, it is misleading because theoretically there exists no such notion as "fair trade," as opposed to the conventional idea of free trade. How was the fair-trade concept formatted? And by whom? In short, who sets the agenda of the fair trade concept and policy?

The present study aims to offer an alternative explanation to the old question: Who sets the media agenda? Previous research3 has found that there exist a number of sources for the media agenda. The news media are potentially highly susceptible to external forces, including multinational corporations, such as automobile firms. This research can therefore also provide insights in future studies of the kinship between trade policy and the press, particularly when international trade activities and the accompanying conflicts have become increasingly notable.

Literature Review

Since the first agenda-setting research was published,4 this hypothesis has been broadly examined, developed, and extended in theories, methodology, and application. The agenda-setting hypothesis basically states that media content affects how the public perceives the salience of today's issues or events.5 Its broad application has reached over to a variety of international issues. For instance, Zucker's concept of issue obtrusiveness6 argues that international activities are more likely than local or national issues to have a strong agenda-setting effect because the public has trivial personal involvement and has to depend mostly on the news media for the information.

On the other hand, international trade issues may be perceived as less salient because of their abstractness. Yagade and Dozier indicate that news coverage of concrete issues, which can be identified and experienced by individuals, has a greater agenda-setting influence than does that of abstract ones. …

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