This Political Science Theory Explains Why Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Exploded in Mike Pence’s Face

The meteorology of a modern media storm.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a press conference March 31, 2015 at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

On Monday night, the front page of the next day’s Indianapolis Star began rocketing across Twitter: it bore a blaring, all-caps headline demanding that Indiana Governor Mike Pence “FIX THIS NOW,” meaning the state’s new “religious freedom” law that had touched off a national furor by allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The Star’s extraordinary front page was the culmination of a wave of media attention that built with astonishing speed and force. Understandably, many people wondered why, since, as Pence strained to point out during his bludgeoning by George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, other states have similar laws.

It’s true, as several people have noted, that conditions were primed for a backlash. The Supreme Court is about to hear oral arguments on gay marriage; an appeals court ruling last year already legalized gay marriage in Indiana; and religious conservatives, smarting from these losses, have fought back with so-called “religious freedom restoration acts” or RFRAs. But to me, that doesn’t add up to a satisfying explanation. Neither does the conservative lament that meanies in the press are simply doing the bidding of liberal activists. The most persuasive explanation I’ve found for why stories like Indiana’s catch fire is a theory of the political news media put forward by Amber Boydstun, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, in her recent book, Making the News: Politics, the Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun’s work not only posits a convincing reason why “media storms” like the one engulfing Pence happen, but also suggests that they may have the power to shape policy in a way that most news stories do not.

Political scientists have long sought to understand the press and over the years have produced various models that attempt to explain how it operates. An early example is what academics call the “patrol model”—the idea that reporters are like cops walking the beat, scanning the streets and acting as sentinels by conveying information to citizens about government and society. “It’s the idea that the press is a watchdog and has a duty and capacity to pay attention to things and let the public know what’s going on,” says Boydstun. This model is regarded as prehistoric since it doesn’t address the discrepancy between the vast streams of information coming into the world every day and the limited capacity of even the largest newsrooms to cover them (to say nothing of the public’s finite cognitive capacity to absorb them).

This led to the rise of a different model, the “alarm model,” which first developed in political science literature from the study of congressional oversight. Congress, like the media, lacks the time and resources to cover absolutely everything. So congressional scholars explained the oversight process by likening it to a burglar alarm. When an “alarm” is tripped—a whistleblower, a disaster, a presidential candidate with a secret e-mail server—Congress leaps into action. Not only does the alarm model better describe the reality of congressional oversight, but scholars argue that it’s actually a better, more efficient, use of resources. 

They’ve also argued that it applies to the media. The idea is that news outlets, like lawmakers, only respond to alarms—big, honking, sensational stories that seize their attention. But this model is flawed, too. “It suggests perpetual lurching,” says Boydstun, “that news outlets just flit from one story to the next without covering anything in depth.” Pence is probably nodding vigorously. And this does capture an element of news coverage. But the alarm model ultimately fails because it can’t account for the existence of in-depth investigative reporting or even beat reporting.

In Making the News, Boydstun observes that media outlets have incentives to respond to both the patrol and the alarm models and behave accordingly. But her real insight—and this goes right to the heart of what’s happening in Indiana—is that sometimes the two wires cross and create a huge conflagration. Last year, in the journal Political Communication, she and her co-authors Anne Hardy and Stefaan Walgrave termed this occurrence a “media storm.” Her book employs the slightly-more-resonant “sustained media explosion.” One day you’re the governor of Indiana and the smart set’s dark horse bet for the White House. The next, your hare-brained law is tearing through the national political media and before you know it, you’re standing lamely before a ravenous press horde that’s ripping you to shreds.

Boydstun suggests that the news media produces these storms through a process that sounds a lot like nuclear fission. “Every reporter on a beat is doing patrol-based coverage,” she says. “But you also get instances where the shock of an alarm draws coverage to a certain area: New Orleans after Katrina, Florida after Trayvon Martin’s shooting, health care after Obamacare. Now, religious freedom laws in Indiana.” Public and political feedback amplify the coverage, which quickly expands. “The way to think about it is that news outlets lurch to that item and then embed reporters and resources to deepen and broaden the coverage,” says Boydstun. “Once they’re entrenched—either literally, as in Ferguson, or figuratively, if their minds are fixated on a certain policy area—then they’ll continue to produce stories and essentially morph into patrol-based coverage.”

The bad news for Pence and other RFRA supporters is that there’s evidence to suggest that media storms cause a quantum jump in social awareness—the sudden shock of a big burst of news—followed by sustained coverage of the issue, as journalists compete to supply a steady stream of stories. 

What seems to happen next is that the issue breaks through and becomes part of the broad public agenda. “You pass that invisible threshold of social awareness,” says Boydstun. “There’s something unique about the type of media attention that not only goes from a low level to a high level very quickly, but that also is sustained over some period. It has a way of grabbing the public’s attention that even a high level of coverage of an issue that wasn’t introduced suddenly does not. And we’re more receptive to something the more information we get about it.”

Eventually this shapes public opinion and in turn, as Pence finally conceded, public policy. Academics don’t consider something to be a bona fide media storm until the explosion has carried on for a couple weeks. But the conditions look ripe for this to happen on RFRAs: there are growing factions on both sides, new stories to fuel the fire like the Walkerton, Indiana, pizzeria that’s refusing to serve gays, and the issue's expansion to Arkansas, whose governor said Wednesday he wouldn't sign a similar measure in its current form.

“It’s hard to know if this will last for weeks,” says Boydstun. “But that Star front page—wow. My hunch is that a media storm is exactly what this is turning into.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the name of Stefaan Walgrave.

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