Studying Political News: Towards standardization of core concepts

By : Prof. Frank Esser

We had a couple of questions about the long term implications and for reasons of time I will focus on the first. The first question whether or not we see a EU-wide race to the bottom, a reduced supply of political information. Specifically we are in our first question:

Esser 1

  • Whether the introduction of private for profit broadcasters brought about an increase in commercial orientation to adapt to the same audience winning programming strategies of their new commercial competitors.

We had a couple of other questions:

  • What happens to markets where it is very strong competition among public and commercial channels?
  • How does public versus private ownership affect news provisions, and what happens to public channels with high advertising dependency?

But I will touch upon those only briefly.

On the Research Method & Sample

We began our analysis by recruiting the structural parameters of the European TV market. The point here is not that you can see every detail in the file print of this table but to get an idea what this article provide. First, it tells us something about the thirteen countries [Austria, Belgium (Flemish), Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (German) ] under observation and the fact that commercial broadcasters were not introduced all at the same time in Europe but at different times in various markets. That the degree of competition between public and commercial channels is different in each European market and that the market position of public service broadcasters is also different. And what we can also see in the Europe is that present European states are more TV-centric, watch more TVs and they read newspapers and TVs more mass appealing and more advertising dependent than the states of north. Let me tell you what we did.

Esser 2

First we define political information programmes and we define them as including conventional newscast, news magazines, news flashes and political interviews, discussion or talk shows which air regularly between 6 pm and midnight, which is peek viewing time I believe in most television systems in around the world. We looked at four television channels in each country: the two most watched public and two most watched private channels. And looked at the developments over four decades by analyzing four years: the years 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007. And each of those years so called constructed ‘tweak’ in which we measure with cumulative air time of these various types of information programmes and the frequencies at which [these programmes are aired]. It is also important for you to understand that we were mainly interested in size of opportunity windows that these channels provided for the information hungry audiences and therefore we measured only the amount of time and frequency of the airing of these shows and not the actual content.

Main Findings

Here is a graphical representation of our main result.

Esser 3

It shows the net programme time in minutes per week of those various political information shows and then the four decades along which we analyze the various countries. Please focus your attention only on the red arrow and the red black trend line, average trend line that summarizes for developments in the various countries.

Introduction of commercial channels led to an expansion of political information programme

What you can see is that over time the amount of political information provided in these various programme times has gone up. So what we see is an increase in the supply of political information. This means that the gradual introduction of commercial broadcasters has not led to a decrease in the supply of political information but increase in the supply of political information and extension of information opportunity. Yes there are important differences between various countries and one important difference is that those countries with a very strong competition among a large number of public and commercial broadcasters; that they provide fewer political information programme and markets with less competition among channels provide more political information.

We also looked at the difference between public and commercial ownership, we see an increase on both types of channels and this refers to their main newscast, news magazine, interviews, discussion and talk shows and also news in brief but still some public broadcasters provide more political information in their various programmes.

I will be very brief for reasons of time because I want to say some afterword but few results can be summarized as follows.

If you look at the structure of the television market, you see an increase in number of channels, mainly through the introduction of commercial broadcasters; this corresponds to an increase in the political information programmes. However markets with strong competition between public and private channels will see lower levels of political information supply than markets with low competition. Ownership that still matters in so far if public channels offer more and more diverse programme genre than commercial channels, and public channels that depend heavily on advertising revenue as an additional source of income tend to provide lower levels of public affairs programme. The main result though is that the introduction of commercial channels led to an expansion of political information programme.

Limitations of the Research

However this study suffers from two important limitations.

Measuring Opportunities to Watch News, not News Watching

The first limitation is that we have only measured opportunities to watch news and current affairs programmes but whether people took these opportunities and actually watched these shows remain unclear. Some even argue that it has become easier to avoid additional news and current affairs programmes by the parallel explosion of entertainment programmes which people may prefer over news.

The Rise of Soft News

Our analysis also tells us little about the quality of information provided and it may be that the positive effect of the growing amount of information is at least in part wiped out by the rising levels of soft news that are of little democratic value.

Against this background a natural next step would be a detailed study of news content and this is exactly what we did.

Esser 8

The Practice of Reporting and Expectations of Democratic Theory

Democratic theory expects the news media to fulfill several functions.  Public affairs coverage should be informative and comprehensive and cover policy substance; it should be inclusive and reflect the diversity of political arguments and viewpoints. It should also provide analysis and explanations to facilitate a deeper understanding of the issue. And it should fulfill a control function by uncovering abuse of power and unfitness for office. This is as the theory goes but in practices a string of very different reporting feature[s] has cast concern among European media scholars, like:

  • Media depoliticization (with quality coverage being marginalized, sensationalized and strategy for insistence),
  • Personalization (with stories being leader-centered instead of institution-centered),
  • Interventionism (with interpretative reporting styles being used to enhance journalistic voice at the expense of political voice, [and]
  • Negativity (characterized by negative topics and tonality and a focus on confrontation and conflict).

When we decided to incorporate this gap between expectations and practice in a cross national multi-country content analysis, we have to realize that despite of all the work being done in news research, there is still no agreement on the standard set of much studied variables in the literature, a substantial lack of clarity in conceptualizing key variables as well as insufficient comparability across studies. And this explains low level of cumulativity in news research. This is highly unfortunate because it restricts generalization, hampers our effort at theory building and limits our ability to provide robust policy advice.

The Special Issue of ‘Journalism’: Reviewing Key Concepts on Political News Journalism

Esser 4

As a modest attempt to remedy this deficit, we took the initiative for special issue [of Journalism February 2012] and that is exclusively devoted to reviewing concepts in news research, providing the point of reference for future research and suggest how each of these key concepts should be operationalised in content analysis. What you see here is the table of contents of this special issue and the group of authors. It is the same as in the study before. Because there are no similar efforts in the field they would like to take this opportunity and share some details with you of this initiative.

Here is as an example, the first article in that issue. It examines interpretive journalism; you also see the structure of that article. In fact all six articles in the issue are organized identically, by first outlining the theoretical approaches taken in the previous literature, in this case interpretative journalism, conceptual definitions used in the past to capture it, empirical operationalisation  and key findings produced in the European and North American literature so far. Then the article turns to a proposition towards conceptual clarity, comparability and enumerativity and coding categories.

Esser 5

Arguably the most valuable feature of each article is the appendix of all the articles which provide truth of definitions for how to apply these concepts in quantitative content analysis. Each concept is measured with several categories like in the case of interpretative journalism, that is, the news story includes journalistic speculation about the future consequences of the event or does the news story include journalistic contextualization of events or actions and each category offers additional concrete instructions. At the same time we strive to keep it as focused and as simple as possible to allow for an analysis across countries, across cultures and across languages. I will briefly flip through the other articles; this one here on strategy and game framing, on negativity, on personalization, hard and soft news and political balance in the news and if you are interested in details then look after the special issue in the Google scholar and pdf will pop up in your screen.

Comparative News Research

Currently we are conducting a content analysis with these categories across sixteen countries. We analyze television, web, print and the online editions. You can see here is a coding categories we are using but since time is short I will jump to the conclusion and say that comparative news research has become somewhat popular lately but to conduct news research that is meaningful, valid and reliable, it requires a new style of academic work; one that is collaborative, larger in scope and fairly demanding in terms of time, resources and emotional labour. It requires a systematic and programmatic approach that is made transparent at every step so that it can be checked and criticized at every junction, need to be functionally equivalent. I am happy to say more about the need to standardize this concept if we want to make progress in comparative news research.

Thank you very much.

Professor of International & Comparative Media Research at the University of Zurich, Frank Esser’s books include Comparing Political Communication (2004, with B. Pfetsch) and the Handbook of Comparative Communication Research (2012, with T. Hanitzsch).

The above text is  the transcription of  presentation Prof. Esser made in the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organized by CCMG, Jamia Millia Islamia on 25-27 February 2013 in New Delhi. 

This entry was published on May 3, 2013 at 11:41 am. It’s filed under Media Markets, Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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