A theoretical perspective is outlined that argues that for many public issues, the decision-making process entails: 1) recognition of a trend, issue or situation; 2) widespread perception of the trend, issue or situation as a problem that requires action; 3) formation of a consensus about what the problem is; 4) delineation of the range of possible policy alternatives; 5)selection of one of the policies, and 6) implementation of the policy.
The third step in this process, problem definition, is important because, as one researcher has observed, "There are great political stakes in problem definition. Some are helped and others are hurt, depending on how problems get defined." How a problem is defined can determine the range of possible responses to the problem, and being able to define a problem in a desired way may make it much more likely that a person or group or institution can shape policy responses to meet his/her/its own interests.
This paper looks at 6 months of newspaper coverage of the Bush administration policy proposed in August 2002. A Lexis-Nexis database was searched for all articles that included the terms "Bush," "forest fire" and "policy," and also all those containing the term "Healthy Forests Initiative." The search identified 486 articles from 50 different newspapers.
The findings indicate that the Bush administration used rhetoric and communication strategies designed to get across the message that America?s forests had become "sick," and that the problem was an excessive build-up of combustible material. Part of the reason for the vehement opposition to the proposals in the environmental community was that they went against a consensus that had developed over the last decade that the real problem of forest fire management was a history of overzealous fire suppression, combined with development of homes and businesses that encroached on the forests.
These findings are interpreted as an instance in which the mass media served as arenas in which powerful interests in society competed to have their different problem definitions adopted by the public.
The author argues that the way problem definitions on this issue were presented in news media reports was powerfully affected by the actions of interest groups that stood to gain or lose both money and political power. The discussion suggests conditions under which elite groups are more likely to be able to have their preferred definitions of problems included in news reports, and the conditions under which mass-mediated presentations are likely to be able to shape public understanding of what public issues are all about.