Historically, the media has been purposefully used by actors on all sides of a conflict to control public opinion and gain support for their cause. The media is used to inform and influence public opinion and through this, it has the power to shape domestic and international policy. The purpose of this essay is to investigate how the media shapes the narrative around conflict. First, I will outline securitisation theory and the role the media plays in conflict. I will then discuss strategic narratives and framing techniques used by the media to report on conflicts. The current debate around the media’s role in a conflict setting focusses on both its ability to promote peacebuilding and to ignite tensions prior to and within a conflict. While both can use similar techniques, I will focus predominately on its ability to exacerbate conflict within a society and will use the current tension between China and Australia to illustrate how the media influences public opinion and shapes the narrative around conflict.
Traditionally, security has been defined by realist and neorealist theorists as military security. They assume the insecurity of a state is determined by an objective threat that is addressed through military action. In recent years, securitisation theory has widened the field of security studies past these assumptions. Securitisation theory is the framework I will use to examine the media’s role in shaping the narrative around conflict. It hypothesises that threats are not objective but can be created and dismantled by those with power to do so. Securitisation refers to the process that occurs when an actor positions an issue as a security threat and as existing outside of ‘normal’ politics. When an issue is treated as a security threat, actors are able to enact policies and emergency measures to respond which otherwise may not be accepted by their audience. Securitisation theory focusses on how an issue becomes a threat and identifies actors, such as the media, as a key component in the creation of security threats, rather than existing outside of this sphere. In the case of the current tensions between China and Australia, if the rise of China is securitised and viewed as a threat, the policy response can be based on national security and outside the realm of ‘normal’ politics.
The audience plays a key role in securitising an issue. A potential threat, such as the rise of China, is only seen as a threat when the audience believes it to be so and accepts this interpretation. The United States-China tension in global affairs is often the focus of media discussions and this relationship puts a strain on Australia’s relationship with both countries. Australia has a longstanding strategic military alliance with the United States and an important economic relationship with China. In a 2020 poll asking Australians for their opinion of Australia’s relationship with China, the Lowy Institute found that only 23 per cent of respondents “trust China a great deal or somewhat to act responsibly in the world” and 41 per cent consider China to be “more of a security threat to Australia”. The respondents’ overall view of China was rated as 39 out of 100, which was the “lowest score that China has received in the history of the Poll”. This indicates that for many Australians, China is viewed as a threat and an untrustworthy state. I will now examine how public opinion of China has been influenced by the media and its role in shaping the narrative around China as a threat.
While the media is not a military actor in the traditional sense, under the securitisation framework, it can have a significant impact on what constitutes a threat, the way in which a conflict is viewed, and how it is understood by an audience. Crow and Lawlor define media as “a means of mass communication – the platform or technology through which messages are disseminated” and includes newspapers, broadcast news, online blogs, and social media. Media is used by actors such as political elites, journalists, editors and corporations to educate, advance their viewpoint, and convince their audience to share their view. Media shapes the narrative around conflict through framing, and the overarching strategic narrative it presents to its audiences. Although new forms of digital media, such as social media, have entered this space in recent years, I will focus on larger media corporations, which still capture the attention of the widest audiences, and in most cases have an online presence to cater for a wider audience. When investigating media sources, I will focus on Australian news media rather than Chinese or international media.
Strategic narratives are used by the media as a tool to explain why a state acts or reacts in a certain way and shape how a conflict, or potential conflict, is viewed and understood by a specific audience. Strategic narratives are often constructed to explain an event or policy and to form a logical conclusion as to what will happen next. The narratives that are constructed determine how the actors are characterised and whether the action is seen as a threat. This in turn shapes what policy action is deemed appropriate and can serve to justify certain government action or inaction. A strategic narrative uses historical understandings and pre-existing perceptions to convince an audience of a certain worldview. Strategic narratives are often not fixed or uniform between states and regions. For example, the United States is often viewed by its own citizens as promoting democracy and freedom, whereas it is often characterised outside of the United States as getting too involved in other states’ domestic affairs with negative consequences.
Strategic narratives are often grouped into three levels; international system, national, and issue. International system narrative refers to the structure of the international system, national narrative refers to the histories and identities of specific states, and issues narrative refers to how a specific issue is discussed. The different levels of strategic narrative can influence each other. At a national narrative level, for example, China is characterised by Australia, and other ‘Western’ states, as traditionally not adhering to the international rules-based orders of liberal democracies. The military power struggle between a ‘rising China’ and the United States, Australia’s historical ally, is an example of an international systems narrative. This national narrative is likely to determine the way in which the international systems narrative is viewed. Given the understanding of China not adhering to a rules-based order of liberal democracies, it follows that the rise of China may be cause for uncertainty and instability in global politics. By building on these established narratives, the media can reinforce stereotypes, historical understandings and posit future actions or scenarios. In terms of conflict, this can serve to either exacerbate tensions or encourage peace-building and cooperation.
To reinforce established strategic narratives, the media decides how the information they gather about a conflict is framed and understood by an audience. Crow and Lawlor describe framing as changing “a simple list of facts into a story by selecting and emphasizing attributes that draw attention to the situation and persuade readers to understand an issue in a particular light.” By framing an issue, the media focusses on certain events and interpretations of these events, while dismissing others. Framing allows for information to be easily understood by a wide audience, which is essential when publishing information on complex topics for the general public. Conversely, it is an “equally powerful tool in limiting discussion over policy topics”. By selecting the information that is included and highlighted, media corporations decide which issues are important and worthy of public attention. Actors compete to frame events in the way that promotes their interests as the framing used shapes public perception of an issue and the subsequent debates and discussions. This in turn limits or broadens policy responses.
The perceived meaning of China’s actions play into the framing of China as a military threat and an alternative frame, such as one in which China is acting for economic gain, is largely disregarded by the media. One case of this is the Luganville Wharf project in Vanuatu. Multiple media corporations reported that this wharf was likely going to be used as a military base. The Age newspaper, for example, took an alarmist tone, claiming that building the base could lead to a “globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep”.The Guardian, meanwhile, published an article on how Australia should respond to Chinese military bases in Vanuatu, despite a lack of evidence that they existed there at all or were going to exist in the future. Consequently, Australia and the United States built a military base in Papua New Guinea to counter this perceived threat. If this port had been viewed as solely an economic development or if China was viewed as a military ally, this port would not have been portrayed as a military threat. Despite the lack of concrete evidence indicating that China had military plans for this development, the media focussed on a narrative which aligned with national and international systems narratives about China’s motivations on a global stage and in the Pacific. The response from Australia and the United States of building a competing military base shows that how the threat is framed influenced how this incident was responded to.
To be sure, there is no definitive evidence that China’s actions are not a military threat and this motivation should, too, be examined. However, the current media rhetoric focussing on only a military threat is the dominant narrative advanced by prominent media corporations and comes at the cost of ignoring an in-depth analysis into China’s foreign policy and limits the discussion of China as anything but a threat, shaping the government policy response.
Strategic narratives and framing are not only used by the media but also by political elites. A member of the House of Representatives, Andrew Hastie, declared that China was a military threat and warned of the dangers of cooperation by comparing China to pre-World War II Nazi Germany. The , meanwhile has pledged to increase the defence budget to two per cent of GDP by investing $575 billion into Defence, with $270 billion going directly to the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Thereby reinforcing the importance of increased military capabilities. Securitisation often involves multiple actors and the media cannot be held entirely accountable for positioning China as a military threat and moving Australia towards conflict. It is, however, responsible for failing to critically evaluate Chinese foreign policy and investigate alternative motivations for its actions.
The media shapes the narrative around conflict using carefully employed strategic narratives and by framing issues in ways that reinforce their desired message. The media is a significant actor in securitising an issue and in focussing on a specific actor or event as a threat, they help to move the actor or event from the area of ‘normal’ politics to that in which extraordinary measures can be taken to address the threat. This serves to move military actions to an acceptable response. Although the media is not the only actor with the means to securitise an issue, they can reinforce or undermine government rhetoric. In the case of tensions between China and Australia, the media has not rendered military engagement inevitable. It has, however, used specific strategic narratives and framing of China as a military threat, which has exacerbated tensions and fostered mistrust. The lack of critical analysis in the case of China’s foreign policy motivations and the tendency to view China through a militarised lens, makes it much more likely that the policy response to Chinese actions will be military action. Although the media is not solely responsible for a government entering into a conflict, they are responsible for shaping public opinion and choosing what narrative to tell their audiences. The media has a great deal of power in propelling a state towards a conflict and the consequences of the message it conveys should not be understated.
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