Rules of the Game – Institutions as Restraints

There are a number of valid interpretations of the term “institution.” We include the following in our sense of the term:

  • Transactions between and among actors
  • A set of rules, conventions and practices established over time and tend to survive
  • An organizational structure of some sort
  • Place where special needs are addressed

Thus, for the purposes of this book, we will apply the following statements to the term institutions:

  • They are constituted by the transactions of those within them and by their rules, conventions, habits, patterns of thought and behavior
  • They encompass some actors and behaviors and not others
  • They address some issues and not others
  • They change over time but are still recognizable over time
  • They differ from each other in ways that have bearing on outcomes

Our job here is to identify the steps in research needed for assessing the character, scope, reach, lifespan and consequence of institutions for the fate of public issues

Institutions include:

  • Legislatures
  • Committees
  • Corporate board meetings
  • Committees within government and among departments
  • Public meetings
  • Expert and consultative committees
  • Councils
  • Task forces
  • Community and meetings
  • Public forums
  • Labour negotiations
  • Land claims negotiations
  • Co-management boards
  • Environmental and technology assessments
  • Standards bodies
  • Inquiries
  • Think tanks and research institutes
  • Conferences on policy matters
  • Regulatory bodies that hold inquiries
  • The media

In studying institutions, you focus on the constraints operating on actors; you learn what an actor can and cannot do and what it will and will not do by virtue of its institutional practices

Example one:  The agency that regulates broadcasting in Canada is called the CRTC. Its governing legislation does not limit participation in its deliberations to those with financial interests in the decision to be made.  Nonetheless, it has rules of procedure, long-standing policies and conventions about who appears in its hearings. It has evolved a style of reporting its decisions that entrenches a particular discourse about broadcasting issues, eschewing wide-ranging discussions of Canadian culture in favour of reporting and commenting on what the mainly industry participants in its hearings have argued. It has adopted policies for dispute resolution that place emphasis on the disputants, not the agency. It eschews acting like a court of law. Its legislation bears the hallmarks of the late 1960s when the agency was created, notwithstanding the major changes in broadcasting and technology since that time. Its deliberations always make reference to the problems of fitting the new world of communication to the values envisioned by the legislation. Indeed, one could argue that the agency was preoccupied with this task, thereby affecting its decisions on seemingly unrelated matters.

In the case of institutions, the research steps are best illustrated by the case studies. The accounts follow the steps outlined in the previous section of this chapter. They also provide useful background information on important institutions that you may know little about.



A body is an institution if it engages in or hosts deliberation and/or decision making. It must have fairly stable norms, with fairly stable expectations about what it will do and how it will do it. An institution must be seen as having the right (legitimacy) to conduct its deliberations or make decisions about public issues

Example two: a Task Force is expected to consult widely, and to be attentive to the values of the government that mandated it. A Task Force is set up by a government department and is a legitimate place for deliberations.

Example three: not all conferences meet the test for being institutions. However, if it can be argued that a particular conference is expected to contribute to deliberations about actual decisions, it is an institution.

As the term is used here, institutions can be so ad hoc or informal that no formal record of their activities exists. This does not mean the information is unavailable, but only that it has to be inferred from available materials or obtained from interviews.

Example four: conferences have no official mandate and powers, but conference documents, carefully scrutinized, indicate the nature of the deliberations and intended audiences.

Example five: A community meeting is an institution, but one with no formal incorporation or list of members. Info about the mandate must be inferred fro press statements and publications. Reports and reporters from the community press are especially useful in this regard, as are the announcements of the meeting. The best information comes from actually attending.

Rules of the game

Refers to all formal and informal rules, to conventions and tacit understandings to procedures, manuals and practices.


Refers to situations where one or more of the participants in deliberations or decisions making has so much influence on the outcome that the views of other participants are not taken properly into account

Background Discussion:

Rules of the Game

To examine institutions is to lay bare the rules of the game for deliberations and decision making. The rules of the game:

  • Say how deliberations take place and how decisions are made by the institution in question
  • Indicate what information is used and which information about the eventual recommendations or decisions can be released to the public
  • Indicate requirements, formal and implicit, imposed on the institution by others
  • Say where money will come from to hold deliberations, and who has access to that money
  • Say who must be consulted
  • Say who makes the final determination and whether there is any recourse for those who do not like the current decisions
  • Say who has power to make which decisions
  • Sort out all the relations among the participants, including other policy institutions, in decision making
  • May indicate what aspects of an issue should be important or open for discussion
  • Indicate a general stance that must be reflected in decisions, a set of aims and purposes

Rules of the game matter. If no outsiders are allowed to participate, it would not be surprising if decisions were skewed towards the interests of the major stakeholders. If only scientists are considered experts, it is unlikely the institution will produce recommendations or decisions that place the Aboriginal or community interests at the center. If deliberations or decision-making take place behind closed doors, it is unlikely that even attentive people will know what is happening. If the debate is circumscribed in terms of what can be considered, obviously this will affect recommendations and decisions. If the threat of recourse to the law is realistic, all decisions will be made with an eye to those who have the capacity to undertake court cases.

Forum shopping

Contentious issues are almost always the focus of attention in ore than one institution. Rarely is any institution considered to be the only word in deliberations about controversial matters.

Example six: There was not one but many deliberations on the future of Canadian health care. There may be more yet. In the United States, there were legions of institutions, inside and outside government, involved in the reform of health care.

Example seven: In Canada, the “free trade” issue was debated, and recommendations were made in a Royal Commission. No one thinks that the then government’s view of free trade came from one Royal Commission alone. Trade issues are also the focus of attention in several institutions in the United States, and many more internationally.

Actors forum-shop. They seek out institutions most likely to be receptive to their message and to welcome their participation. Given their different concerns, resources, orientation and interests, actors press for deliberations to take place in different institutions. In theory, actors participate in all institutions open to their participation; in practice they do not. Access to resources is a crucial factor. Actors choose carefully where to focus their efforts, also taking into account how likely they are to be successful. They seek out many avenues of influence.

Example eight: An environmental assessment is not likely to be the only relevant deliberation about a proposed project. The shape of the assessment process is determined in a legislature; there will have been numerous interactions between the proponent and the government, some in forums that qualify as institutions, prior to the assessment. There will possibly have been meetings in First Nations council meetings and/or community meetings. There are many regulatory bodies likely to be involved, such as a water board. Finally, one or more of those implicated in the proposal may go to court about one or more of the issues connected to it. Actors often take their case to the media and some even lobby to establish new deliberative forums or decision making institutions.

Finally, to the extent that institutions are governmental, partnered with government or supported by government funds, government preferences matter. Governments will rely on some institutions and not others. Each government makes different choices about its favored institutions.

Example nine: Governments resort to expert committees or ignore this institution all together. They set up inquiries or shy away from them. Governments fund some conferences but not others. One government will emphasize the importance of full-scale environmental assessment while another one will cut back the amount of assessment being done and the opportunities for participation for those without financial or legal interests.


Regulation has attracted much attention concerning capture. Regulatory capture is usually understood to arise from the fact that those who are appointed as regulators are often drawn from the industry that is to be regulated. Alternatively, individual regulators may act with an eye to their future employment as lobbyists or with the industries being regulated.

When we use the term capture here, we mean more and less than the notion of regulatory capture as discussed. Let us deal with the more first.

  • Future employment opportunities for the individual decision makers is a good example of capture
  • Corruption is a kind of capture
  • Personal relationships can result in something like capture

All these fall outside considerations legitimately brought to bear on deliberation and decision-making.

Let is turn to the “less.” The personal bias of those who deliberate is not the same as capture. It could not be otherwise that personal views and predilections affect their decisions at least to a minimum degree.

Example ten: A judge is intended to be impartial. Legal procedures and judicial practices are designed to enhance and protect such impartiality. Impartiality here attends to the parties appearing in the court proceedings and to reliance only on the evidence brought before the court. That said, two judges, each properly impartial, may come to different decisions because one is preoccupied with law and order while the other believes crime is in part a response to social factors. Within the law, there is usually room for impartial judges to exercise discretion.

Deliberation versus decision-making

Think of institutions as falling on a continuum between exclusively deliberative at one end and formal decision-making at the other. An inquiry is a deliberative institution; a court is a decision-making one.

Interestingly, the institutions that lack final decision-making powers are often where more comprehensive discussions take place. Freed from the responsibility to make decisions, actors are less likely to be very guarded in what they say.

Example eleven: One often hears the Senate in Canada dismissed as being mainly irrelevant to what governments do. However, Senate committees are important deliberations (see case study in chapter seven). The constituent interest groups and many experts will have spoken, often more frankly than they might in a body more likely to be influential in decision making.  The issues will have been canvassed, as well as sometimes the options for governmental response. The various members of the Senate committee represent political parties and thus, in their interactions and questions, Senate committee hearings provide a good sense of the issues underlying parliamentary debates. Discourse is shaped in these committees.

Expectations versus reality       

It is commonplace to think of institutions as having greater power or scope of action than they do. You should pay attention to expectations as a separate issue from that of mandate, powers, activities and participants. Expectations confer legitimacy on institutions regardless of their participants, activities and outcomes. Expectations also lead to disappointment and cynicism about institutions and their capacity to act.

Example twelve: An environmental assessment panel is widely thought to include an assessment of the necessity and desirability of a particular project or is thought to be a place where the governments’ energy, water or trade policies can be discussed. Rarely is this the case. The terms of reference for an environmental assessment indicate which issues are on the table. Often they are very limited.

Example thirteen: Disappointment often follows closely upon the final report of an inquiry, even though its assessment was only intended to produce recommendations. People expect inquiries to deliver solutions to major problems, such as police attitudes, the overall regulation of all health practices or the general orientation of government economic policies. Inquiries might discuss and even make recommendations about such broad issues, but recommendations that deal with pragmatic issues are much more likely to be adopted, and indeed to be seen as viable.

Steps in research

  1. Create a list of institutions!
  2. Narrow the list to something manageable. Eliminate institutions without mandate or powers in relation to your public issue, jurisdiction and timeframe. Step two puts you in a position to choose the institutions you will study in great detail. You will likely only be able to study one in depth, but hopefully that single institution will help you to identify the network of institutions involved without needing to look closely at all of them.
  3. Step three focuses on the formal aspects of the institutions you have chosen. For example, maybe you are interested in the legal framework that governs its operations, as indicated in legislation or documents of incorporation. Collect any rules of procedure, staff manuals and the organization chart for the institution. Identify executive members, directors and sponsor organizations, as well as staff. Note the budget and collect available records of how money has been spent. Collect any agendas for conferences, lists of publications and records of participation etc. Interviewing is useful when all other avenues for collecting info are exhausted, as interviewees will have access to material you need that may not be publicly available.
  4. Focus on the participants. Once you determine the kind of participants included or excluded, examine closely the ones involved. Think of them as actors, and follow through the usual questions you ask about actors, their character, modes of operation, access to resources etc.
  5. Focus on the history and evolution of the institution(s) you have chosen. Collect any histories. Books and news will provide a degree of history. Look at mandates and procedures and compare funding and participants from previous time periods and compare them to those of the time period you have chosen
  6. Focus on constituent interest groups, assessing their power and the degree to which they seem influential. Is capture a useful way to describe to situation?
  7. Focus on deliberations. You want to follow the course of the discussions and note which issues are and not raised. Scrutinize how participants are dealt with, the level, scope and amount of discussion, the formality of discussion, and the manner in which debate is closed off in order to reach decisions.
  8. Focus on recommendations, decisions and outcomes. Note that this is a separate consideration. You want to exercise caution that you do not leap directly from, for example, a discussion of the participants to conclusions about outcomes. To be sure, participation, interaction, formal rules, deliberations and capture all have an impact on outcomes; but none is fully determinant.

Example fourteen: A panel considering an action by the police may be comprised of people with no experience of racial profiling. It could be that such a panel was acutely sensitive to issues of race, class and gender and of the implicit and formal profiling actions often taken by the police

  1. The last step is interviewing!


Case Studies

Public inquiries

Public inquiries go by different names.  In Canada, they might be called Royal Commissions, inquiries or special task forces among other names.  The differences between, say, a Royal Commission and a special task force are not important in this context, as there is no Canadian Administrative Procedures Act (although there is an Inquiries Act, but not all “inquiries” are officially designated as inquiries).  In other countries, inquiries go by yet other names, and in some cases, there are more formal rules of the game. In the United States, for example, an “independent counsel” or a specially mandated judiciary or Senate committee might be asked to conduct an inquiry.

The task of an inquiry is to investigate an issue, controversy, conduct or policy, and to arrive at advice about how to handle it.  Inquiries produce reports, and they issue recommendations.  It is up to the mandating government to decide how to follow through on the recommendations, or whether to ignore some or all of the recommendations.

All inquiries have at least some discretion about how they choose to inquire, and almost all establish their own rules of procedure, notwithstanding whatever legislation and legal precedent may apply. Inquiries have legal counsel of their own, that is, lawyers hired to conduct the investigation.  The legal counsel is very important. Indeed, lawyers have input on every aspect of its activities and deliberations. Lawyers ask questions at public hearings and monitor cross-examination, if there are any hearings. Lawyers prepare the draft report and recommendations.  Many inquiries are similar to court proceedings, inasmuch as nothing will be considered to be fact until it has been tested through cross-examination.  Legal standards exist about who is considered expert.

Some inquiries also have research staff, and sometimes inquiries issue lengthy research reports or discussion documents.  If inquiries will hold public hearings, there will be a transcript of the hearing proceedings.

Each inquiry has its own rules about access, that is, about who is entitled to participate, but if funding is needed, and not available to participants, participation is obviously limited to those who have or can secure it. The length of time required for participation also determines the character of an inquiry, as many actors simply cannot maintain a constant presence over the life of the inquiry. Inquiries often schedule different kinds of participation opportunities: formal hearings, community hearings, public meetings, private consultations, focus groups, hot-lines, websites asking for input or requests for letters.  Not every kind of possible participant will be welcome in each case.   In most cases, potential participants must have a demonstrable interest, that is, a financial and legal interest, in the issues under consideration. Community meetings (also called hearings in some cases) may be scheduled to allow for participation of those without significant financial or legal interests.

Example fifteen: The examples of two inquiries dealing with proposed developments in the northern regions of Canada will illustrate the significance of different modes of consultation.  The Berger inquiry was unique in that it not only solicited participation from Aboriginal people, but it spent time acquainting them with the issues to be discussed before holding informal, in-community hearings. The Bayda inquiry also solicited and valued participation from Aboriginal people, but it did not conduct the same intensive preparatory sessions in each community. The result was two reports that different dramatically in how they approached their recommendations and also in their outcomes.

Mostly, an inquiry depends on those who have interests and opinions to find their own way to participate. If major trade associations or corporate policy actors or departments of government choose not to participate, there is little the inquiry can do to require them to do so short of formal legal measures.

Participation in inquiries is sequential. Opportunities for policy actors to interact with each other are found only outside the inquiry proper. If there is to be compromise among policy actors, it is fashioned by the inquiry in its report and recommendations. Negotiations and bargaining may well go on in the back corridors, but an inquiry is not set up to encourage them, unlike a stakeholders consultations for example.

Aside from the issues outlined in the mandate, two other themes run through almost all inquiries.  The first theme is related to “wrong-doing”. As noted, although Commissioners will go to great lengths to distinguish inquiries from courts and to indicate that blame will not be assigned, the fact is that issues of legal negligence, guilt, due diligence and legal liability are always just below the surface.  The second theme arises from the fact that inquiries often investigate matters where government institutions are involved. They put “the state on trial” for its neglect, conduct, or policies that produced controversy or problems. However, all involved with an inquiry are mindful of government expectations. Political considerations are always factored in, because those conducting the inquiry want their recommendations to be accepted. Often there is much consultation behind the scenes between the inquiry and the government that originally mandated this seemingly independent investigation.

Everyone who participates in an inquiry likely couches their contribution in terms of values and broad principles.  Few inquiries permit wide-ranging discussion about broad general issues, however. To the extent that lawyers are actively involved in inquiries, the scope of discussion tends to be quite narrow.

It is worth repeating that an inquiry can only recommend. An inquiry has no capacity to secure compliance with its recommendations and obviously no powers of enforcement. It is therefore not surprising that many inquiries go to great lengths to justify the recommendations they produce, publishing lengthy research studies, detailing reasons for recommendations and especially making transcripts of the proceedings available.  They usually produce extensive reports detailing the rationale for their recommendations.  Most inquiries produce a transcript.

Inquiries are important, even if many people dismiss them because they believe, wrongly, that inquiry recommendations are not adopted by government.  To be sure, they are costly, but so too is inaction on the part of governments. Inquiries, especially if there are successive inquiries on related topics, provide a channel for the development of particular understandings of the issues and thus of the options for decisions related to them.  Even with their limitations, inquiries open the door to wider participation than most of the usual deliberations by and within government.  Inquiries often bring research into play in a manner that resource-poor departments are not likely to do.  They bring research into the public debate, helping, at least a small bit, to support informed public debate.  And of course, the fact that an inquiry is called raises the public profile of an issue, making it likely that governments will feel impelled to respond.

Standards development institutions

Standards are ubiquitous. A standard is a guideline for an acceptable level of performance or harm. It can be called a “standard”, a “guideline”, a ”criterion” or a “code”. There are very few products and services for which there are no standards, at least for some aspects their manufacture, safety and potential harmful effects or about what constitutes “good” or “acceptable service.

Example sixteen: There are standards for how much pollution is allowable in the air (how much harm is acceptable), for how much radiation should be cause for concern, for the quality of service to be expected from telecommunications systems (what quality of service is acceptable), for the heat produced by boilers and tea kettles, for the resilience of hockey helmets etc.

It is surprising then that so little is known about standards development institutions.  Some body must have come up with the number, protocol, code or algorithm that constitutes the standard.  That body is usually an organization that operates at the margins or entirely outside of government.

Most often, governments devolve some or part of their legal responsibilities onto standards organizations that produce and oversee the development of standards or codes.  A private sector organizations will pull together a coalition of major producers, major users, labour and government officials .The resulting standards are voluntary. Governments can and do alter voluntary standards thereafter, adapting them or turning them into regulations

Governments are involved in standards development even when they do not themselves generate standards, however. Government officials often attend, and may even be members of the private-sector organizations.   They participate in their capacity as users of standard.  For example, governments need standards for procurement, and they often have some legal responsibility for ensuring that standards exist.

Governments tend to get more heavily involved if and when they have legislation specifically mandating them to deal with particular activities.

Example seventeen:  A government is unlikely to be the primary actor, and may not be a participant at all, in setting standards for hockey helmets or in developing codes of corporate conduct. Governments are more likely to be involved in air pollution standards, but not every pollutant falls under government policy, regulation or law.  Governments are almost always involved in the case of drugs and pesticides, because there are regulations concerning these.  Governments are directly involved with fire safety and building codes, because these are regulations.

Some standards set by inter-governmental bodies. Even in these institutions, industry trade associations (and officials from some corporations participate fully in decision-making. They are advisors, members of delegations to international meetings, members of expert and consultative committees etc.  It is hard to imagine a standard or code being developed by a government that did not include active consultation or participation by the industries and other interest groups affected.

Example eighteen: The International Telecommunications Union and Codex Alimentarius are examples of inter-governmental standards development organizations. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the national standards bodies in most countries are examples of private sector led standards development organizations. In both cases, government officials participate, but in the case of the ITU and Codex, government officials head delegations. In the case of a private sector body like ISO, government officials attend but government presence is justified because governments are major users of standards.

Standards development organizations are trade-related institutions, regardless of their other goals.  For example, the United Nations-related standards development organization considering pesticide standards will not even begin setting a standard for a particular pesticide unless that pesticide, or the food sprayed with it, is traded internationally.  Many commentators have argued that standards constitute non-tariff barriers to trade.

Example nineteen: The Europe Commission banned GMO foods by stating that such foods did not meet Europe’s standard for public health and safety. The United States argued that the European action was taken in order to prevent American GMO products from being imported and sold in to Europe and that the ban was mainly anti-competition.

There are very few examples of standards development organizations where members of the public are welcome to participate.  Even in matters of health, safety or the environment, advocate groups are not likely to be directly involved in decision-making, although they often have involvement later in deciding whether the standard becomes a government regulation. In some standards development organization coalitions, provision is made for input from consumer groups, but consumers are rarely full partners to the decisions.  Even when opportunities for participation exist, the costs of participation are prohibitively high.  However many standards organizations prepare a transcript of their proceedings,\ and make it available at a cost.

Because of the potentially anti-competitive aspects of standard setting, corporations are often represented by their industry associations.  The development of a standard requires negotiation among interested parties. A compromise is reflected in the decision about the standard. Negotiations take a lot of time, because the interests and controversies are so great, often years of intermittent meetings.  This means that only those parties that actually want there to be a standard, and those with lots of resources participate. Small countries or corporations are very unlikely to be involved, even though their interests are affected.  In fact, notwithstanding the fact that standards development is a highly interactive process, the interactions involve only a small portion of the actors with interests at stake.

Example twenty: IBM was a consistent participant in standards development in past decades, but Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems and other computer-related giants were not.

As institutions, standards development organizations are often very hierarchal.  That is, whereas final political and trade-related decisions are made by the members of the organization (on in some cases governments) as a whole, there is a chain of lower-level technical committees whose members are deemed to be experts.  The lower-level committees do assessments and pass their recommendations up the chain. Rarely are their technical recommendations overturned. An “expert” in this case is someone familiar with the products’ manufacture or with the technical nature of the service being performed. In other words an expert is often someone from a corporation that manufactures the product in question.  In the case of health, safety and environmental standards, government or academic scientists are sometimes also experts (often they are not), but in all standard setting, as noted, it is presumed that expertise lies with the corporations.

Almost all private sector standards development organizations operate by consensus.  Consensus does not mean that every participant agrees with each decision.  It means that those who do not agree with the decisions consent to remain quiet about their opposition with respect to the particular decision being made.  Because the resulting standard is voluntary, those who do not agree are not bound by the result if they wish otherwise. They can afford to stay silent as opposed to registering their opposition.  If consensus cannot be achieved, even after considerable time has elapsed, standards development organizations can resort to voting, but they do so reluctantly.

At the lower levels of a standards development organizations discussion is quite informal, and certainly there is nothing resembling a formal hearing. As the proposed standard moves slowly up the chain, debate becomes more formal.  In the penultimate stage of decision-making, discussions can be very formal indeed. Written documents are now produced.  They explain the technical basis of the standard, but they do not raise the political or trade issues, however important both are.

Because standards development organizations have the potential to be anti-competitive, and because standards are often seen as non-tariff barriers to trade, it is commonplace for the standards themselves to be fairly basic, relating to the infrastructure for product development or the general principles that should be followed, as opposed to specific products and activities. When standards become government regulations, much more specificity is introduced, as otherwise it would be very difficult to know when it has been breached.  Only a governmental institution is in a position to issue detailed rules (regulations) for specific products, activities or in regard to potential harms.

Often standards are sold to potential users.  In some cases, contracts are signed with those who want to use the standard.  Under the contract, the user of the standard agrees to abide by it, in return for the right to publish the fact of its compliance.  Companies often sign onto codes that they have helped develop, but this is an agreement about principles, not activities. Codes often have no provisions for enforcement.

The character of a standards development organization is determined partly by its invisibility, the voluntary nature of participation and by the length of time it takes to reach any decision. Notwithstanding its close connection to trade and anti-competition, despite the importance of decisions to relations among countries, and despite the undercurrent of legal issues,  trade  politics and legal questions are almost never openly discussed. Because standards development organizations often operate at the margins or outside government, the character of any standards development organization cannot be assessed without a close examination of its actual relationship to government.


We spoke about media as actors when we were dealing with corporations in chapter five.  We said that media, singly and together, are actors that promote ideas and influence deliberations and decisions through their editorial slants. In this chapter, media are considered as institutions, that is, locations where deliberations take place.  Deliberations, in the case of media, refer to debates that occur in the press or on websites.

Conventional media first: They host policy deliberation.  In shaping news stories and editorials, they influence the contours of public discussion.  In choosing which spokespeople to consult, they give prominence to some points of view and not others.

Content is filtered by media companies and journalists.  Content also reflects journalistic conventions and editorial slants as much as it does reality. The underlying assumption is that deliberations will affect public opinion, and that public opinion will affect the fate of public issues.  Conventional media do not allow for direct interaction between and among actors.  Actors learn about each other, and shape their arguments accordingly, but it is the media that generates both the perception and the reality of deliberation.

Most actors actively court media coverage even though they do not entirely control the result. They also look to the media for information about the debates they themselves are engaged in.  They learn more about other actors; they encounter other arguments.  If they do not have access to more directly deliberative or decision-making institutions, or if they sense that their contributions are not weighted as heavily as others, they look to media as the corrective.  Media are seen to be the institutions most congenial to their participation and the presentation of their arguments.  Media are seen to be a route to power, to influencing outcomes.  Whether media coverage actually garners them influence is a matter taken up in chapter thirteen.

Stories about disasters, plane and car crashes, murders and the like and inherently controversial issues such as homelessness, are likely to be generated by media personnel alone.  Most other content is proposed to, and in some cases, mainly pre-written for the media. A fair proportion of conventional media content comes to the media, in colloquial terms, it walks in the door.  Large companies prepare media content for their clients and ensure that stories get covered by the press.  They provide media training for their clients.  Even governments have information departments whose job it is to deal with the media. These are where Ministerial statements are prepared.

Even if news comes to the news media, it is not true that all actors can knock at the door, and certainly not all actors have equal access. Courting the media and providing information that looks to be worthy of coverage takes either skill or resources or both. In the conventional media, there are strong expectations that only interested parties and spokespeople will be sought out. Conventional media rely heavily on entrenched notions of expertise. Politicians, scientists and other professionals are regularly consulted and quoted.

There is virtually little recourse to the reports and recommendations produced by media, except where libel is an issue.

Social media (as opposed to conventional media now available on the web) are said to change the rules of the game.  Generally speaking, the filters are removed.  Interaction happens among actors, at least in theory. Influencing public opinion is not necessarily the desired outcome. In general, social media blur the line between opinion and news so thoroughly that it is difficult to sort out which is which.  It is often claimed that social media create circles of like-minded people who focus their deliberations among themselves, thus solidifying their points of view.  To the extent that this is so, the character of the deliberations is profoundly affected.  And of course, in most social media, there is limited fact-checking, or professional standards about veracity.

There are legions of books that describe the character of both conventional and social media.  The goal of our characterization is different. We want to understand media as institutions where deliberation about public issues takes place. In this case, the gap between expectations and reality is striking.  The expectations are that media, especially social media, are both highly accessible and quintessentially deliberative.  In different ways, conventional and social media undercut those expectations in the normal course of their operations.

No one involved in deliberations or decision-making thinks of media as inconsequential.  It may well be that those who have little access and influence outside the media are most dependent upon expectations of media’s important role, notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary.









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