Among the press's roles are what are called the "three I's"—information, interpretation, and interest. Roger Hilsman, a political scientist and State Department official in the John F. Kennedy administration, identified "the gathering and dissemination of information" as a major function of the press. The flow of information through the press—among all the people seeking to influence policy in Washington, from the capital to the public, and from the public back to officials partly through press coverage and reporters' questions—is the lifeblood of America's democratic system.
Information in press coverage of foreign affairs is almost always accompanied by interpretation. Journalists provide contexts (often called "frames") in which information is conveyed. "By suggesting the cause and relationships of various events," the political scientist Doris A. Graber observes, "the media may shape opinions even without telling their audiences what to believe or think. For example, linking civil strife in El Salvador [in the 1980s] to the activities of Soviet and Cuban agents ensured that the American public would view the situation with considerable alarm." Among policymakers in Washington, Hilsman notes,
the press is not the sole source of interpretation. The president, the secretary of state, the assistant secretaries, American ambassadors, senators, congressmen, academic experts—all are sources of interpretation. But the fact that the press is there every day, day after day, with its interpretations makes it the principal competitor of all the others in interpreting events.
The press also can play an important role in stirring interest in an issue both in Washington and among the public. During the Ronald Reagan years media reporting awakened public interest on starvation in Ethiopia, a topic that Americans had shown little interest in prior to the appearance of illustrated stories about dying children in the press and on television. An example from the James Earl Carter years was the debate over whether to deploy enhanced radiation nuclear bombs (also called neutron bombs) in western Europe. The debate began with a story by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post on 6 June 1977. A quotation in the story noted that the bombs would "kill people" while "leaving buildings and tanks standing." Once the story was framed in this negative way—on television and radio as well as in newspapers and magazines—the administration was not able to gain public and congressional support for deploying the new weapon. The unfolding of this story illustrates a frequent pattern in foreign policy: print journalists often bring stories to public attention, after which they are covered by other print and electronic reporters.
Stirring interest through extensive news and editorial coverage is often called the agenda-setting function of the media. The political scientist Bernard C. Cohen explained this concept cogently: "The press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. It may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. "
Building on Cohen's path-breaking research, other scholars have refined the concept of agenda setting. While agreeing that the news media often play an important role in the agenda-setting process, most analysts now believe that agenda setting is a complex process in which unexpected events or administration officials or (less frequently) members of Congress or interest groups often play at least as significant roles as journalists. Because officials and other participants in the policymaking process in Washington frequently work hard to get their viewpoints into the press, the communications professor J. David Kennamer notes, "[t]he news media are as much the target of agenda-setting as they are the source." Moreover, the relative importance of journalists to other actors in agenda setting varies from issue to issue. Thus, although the press plays a significant role in deciding which foreign policy issues to cover and which ones to make into "big stories," it shares the agenda-setting function with other actors in the political process.
In another important role, that of "watchdog," the press ferrets out and publicizes questionable policies or abuses of authority. As a reporter for a Midwestern newspaper told Cohen: "We are the fourth estate, and it is our duty to monitor—to watch and interpret—what our government does." Because officials often control the flow of information to the press in regard to secret operations, the press's performance as a watchdog has been mixed. During the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s, for example, American journalists were slow to learn about the operation—indeed, the story was broken by a publication in Lebanon well after the administration had engaged in illicit activity in the Middle East and in Central America. After the story broke, however, leading newspapers and magazines did an excellent job of bringing details to the attention of policymakers in Washington (including members of Congress) and the American people.
Journalists also can play an important role as critics of particular foreign policies. Although far fewer people read editorials and columns (opinion pieces) than read front-page news stories (or, for that matter, the comics and the sports pages!), the people most interested and involved in foreign affairs—officials, journalists, other leaders in society, and the "attentive public" (the roughly 10 to 20 percent of the public with the greatest interest in public issues)—not only read editorials and columns regularly, but they often discuss them with other people, thus enhancing their impact. In influencing the thinking of elites, editorial writers and columnists affect the public discussion of foreign affairs that gradually works its way down to many average voters. While the exact influence of editorials and columns cannot be determined, it seems clear that the serious questions that were being raised about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam on the editorial pages of numerous newspapers beginning in the mid-1960s helped to create the climate of opinion in which the continuation of the war by the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon administrations became increasingly difficult.
Finally, the press contributes greatly to the policymaking process in Washington, both in the executive branch and in Congress. Administration officials read leading papers and magazines to learn what other officials and members of Congress are thinking and doing, and to try to figure out which other officials are "leaking" information to the press and what policy goals they are seeking to advance by doing so. Officials also are interested in reading stories by journalists stationed in other countries in order to get opinions other than the ones being sent from the U.S. embassies there.
Members of Congress and their staffs are eager to learn what is going on in the administration, so that they can support or oppose the current direction of policy. Especially since the late 1960s, many members of Congress—particularly ones who are not members of the president's party—have been eager to limit the executive branch's power in foreign affairs and increase their own influence on particular foreign policy issues. To achieve these goals, they frequently have worked closely with reporters.
Robert J. Kurz, a former legislative assistant, wrote in 1991 that members of Congress "form alliances with the press because they share a common interest, often a rivalry, against the executive." Kurz continued:
These alliances solidify during times of controversy and tension with a president. It is not unusual for the Congress and the press to work together to discover what the executive is up to, uncover wrongdoing, or expose inherent contradictions in policies or their implementation. They share the desire for the notoriety and attention that comes with this conflict.
An important role for the press, therefore, has been to help to maintain the tenuous balance of power between the executive branch and Congress in foreign affairs. Cohen has written that, because "the media are themselves one of the most articulate and informed outside participants in the foreign policymaking process," they "unavoidably affect the environment in which foreign policy decisions are made by 'insiders.'"
The "alliances" between reporters and members of Congress that Kurz writes about provide an apt illustration of Cohen's point.