Political communication relates to the exchange of messages among political actors. For example, most of what politicians do is political communication. Likewise, citizens communicate politics when they discuss political issues with friends or family members, phone in to political radio talks shows, or participate in political chats on the Internet. Demonstrations and other forms of protest are more expressive, sometimes even violent, forms of political communication. However, only few people engage in such forms of communicative activity. Most citizens confine themselves to the role of passive spectators of politics that is presented by mass media. Nevertheless, the consumption of political media reports is a form of political communication too.
In abstract terms, the category of political actors includes all groups, organizations, and individuals who are participating in the process of collectively binding decision-making on the distribution of scarce resources in society. Some of these actions – and the corresponding communications – take place backstage, i.e., in the arcane spheres of party assemblies, parliamentary commissions, diplomatic negotiations, and meetings in government offices. But a major part is performed in public, for example when politicians give public speeches, debate in a parliamentary plenum, or present statements in front of television cameras.
Communication research focuses on political communications taking place in public, whereas political science is more interested in decision-making processes inside political institutions. But the research topics of both disciplines overlap considerably.
Changing Political Communication
While politics is becoming more dependent, in its central functions, on mass media, questions relating to the mediatization of politics are assuming higher ranks on the research agenda. Concepts such as “media democracy” and “electronic democracy” have been introduced in order to characterize the transformation of politics brought about by the evolution of mass media. The changes are part of a far-reaching mediatization of society, which involves all spheres of society and social life.
According to a model proposed by Blumler and Kavanagh (1999), we are now witnessing the emergence of a “third age” of political communication. This new era is characterized by media abundance, the growth of political marketing, intensified professionalization of political publicity, and strong currents of populism entering both politics and the media. Politics is adapting to the “media logic” and is thus continuously shaped by the interactions with mass media. The redistribution of power that comes along with the evolution of mass media is affecting the orientations and norms that regulate the behavior of political actors and journalists. In addition, the manner in which political actors and the media communicate vis-à-vis the general public is assuming new modes and formats.
Blumler and Gurevitch (1995) suggested conceptualizing the interface of the realms of politics and journalism in terms of a political communication system in which politicians and journalists interact in order to produce political news and comments for a mass audience. The interactions of politicians and media professionals are shaped by a specific political communication culture, which varies across countries according to system-specific role definitions and behavioral norms. Moreover, different regulatory conditions determine the audience orientations and content outputs of political communication systems. They may vary depending on the structure and development of media markets, the degree and form of professionalization of journalism, the degree of party–press parallelism, and the degree and nature of state intervention in the media system (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995; Hallin & Mancini 2004). For example, if there are close party ties with media systems, more biased political content can be expected and also more conflicts over issue priorities. By contrast, a high degree of autonomy of the media system may activate citizens to seek information and guidance about political matters.
Following up on these ideas, Hallin and Mancini (2004) present a cross-country comparative analysis which distinguishes European political communication systems according to three different models: (1) the polarized pluralist model, which applies to Mediterranean countries such as France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain; (2) the democratic corporatist model, which characterizes the situation in northern and central European countries; and (3) the liberal model, which prevails in the UK, the United States, Canada, and Ireland.
The Communication of Politics
In spite of impressive modernization trends, including, for example, the growing importance of visual communication, most of the discourse among political actors is still language based. Political elites use language for strategic purposes such as building a positive image, winning public support, or establishing specific perspectives for evaluation. Language labels are instrumental in defining particular groups as friends or foes, and labels indicate that certain problems are relevant for political discussion. On the other hand, language serves citizens to make sense of politics, form opinions, and take political decisions. For example, party labels are cues that help voters to make decisions about political candidates or issues.
The empirical study of language and political symbols was inaugurated by Lasswell and associates with their seminal analyses of propaganda during both twentieth-century World Wars (see, e.g., Lasswell et al. 1949). Analyses of the structure and functions of political rhetoric are now intensely covered fields of research. In recent times, normative discourse theories, particularly the “deliberative model” emphasizing the formation of considered opinions through argumentative exchange, as proposed by Habermas and others, attracted considerable attention. Deliberation refers to a process in which individuals discuss and weigh arguments from various points of view.
The mass media play a pivotal role in making the political discourse open to the public. Mass media select, process, and transmit political news and current affairs content. For ordinary citizens and even for political decision-makers, the media coverage of politics is the most relevant and quite often the only source of information about current events. The picture of politics as presented by the media, whether it is accurate or flawed, neutral or partisan, is for most people a major orientation base. Because most political events elude direct personal experience, mediated information serves to form individuals’ perceptions of the political reality, including the predominating opinion climate. Moreover, when political actors anticipate the media reporting and behave according to what they think the media want, the mediated political reality becomes self-fulfilling.
Thus, political news creates the events that it seems to represent.
The indispensable functions of mass media for the newsmaking and publicity of political actors has turned the media into a “political institution” serving particularly actors of the political center to accomplish political and policy goals (Cook 2005). There is a growing demand of governments, political parties, and various interest groups for professionalizing their political communications (Negrine et al. 2007). A number of newly emerged professions provide expertise specific to publicity and political advocacy, as, for example, public opinion analysts, public relations experts, and a variety of political consultants. Professionalization tendencies are most obvious and most advanced in modern election campaigning, which makes use of the theory and practice of political marketing. The “marketing colonization” of politics, as critics have termed it, includes an increased use of public opinion polls for campaign planning and also for newsmaking and spin doctoring. Spin doctoring involves, among other things, rapid rebuttals, attacking opponents, and explaining campaign strategy to journalists.
By providing a platform for the public debate of political issues, the media construct a public sphere, that is, an open realm for the exchange of information and opinions among diverse political actors. The media-constructed public sphere has a reflexive character, allowing political actors to “revisit perceived public opinions and respond to them after reconsideration” (Habermas 2006). In principle, this is conducive to the public sphere as a filtering mechanism that serves to generate “considered” public opinions. However, according to Habermas, the dynamics of public communication may be impaired by dominating powerful actors of the political center and by deficiencies of the media system, namely commercialization tendencies and connections with special-interest groups.
Rather than confining their role to functioning as intermediaries, i.e., serving the information and publication needs of all groups in society, the media themselves have become powerful political actors, sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Media organizations pursue policy objectives, for example, by expressing specific partisan opinions, by endorsing the interests of certain societal groups, or by legitimizing the views of those in power. This may have consequences for the balance of power among the classical political estates – legislative, executive, and judiciary – and thus raises questions concerning the definition of media freedom and mechanisms of media control.
Political Communication Content
The evolution of mass media brought about contradictory results as to citizens’ exposure to political information. On the one hand, due to a number of 24-hour news networks on radio and television and, in addition, a plethora of Internet news pages, the sheer volume of available political information proliferated immensely. On the other hand, many mainstream broadcasters and newspapers have reduced their hard news coverage, especially foreign affairs reporting, and have instead extended the supply of entertaining content, soft news, and infotainment formats. This goes along with shrinking audiences of serious newspapers and public affairs programs in many countries. While politically attentive citizens benefit enormously from the enriched political media menu, particularly of the Internet, the audience majority seems to be content with being informed just about the most salient issues.
Corresponding to the key role of mass media in spreading news, much research attention is paid to the volume and structure of political content available in the press, on radio and television, and on the Internet. The focus of most analyses is on mass media’s coverage of political events and issues in the news. As political news is the most important and often the only source available to citizens and other political actors for forming an impression of current events, questions of media performance, particularly with reference to democratic citizenship, are of central relevance.
Hence, a growing field of research is devoted to assessing the quality of journalistic reporting and testing political news for its accuracy and objectivity. These and other criteria are derived from considerations of the public interest, from professional standards or from theories of democracy. A recent review of predominantly US research concludes that the quantity and quality of news supplied by mass media is adequate for citizens’ needs if one takes into account the practical realities of a commercial media system (Graber 2004). The answer might be different for a system with a strong media sector committed to a public service mission, as is still the case in some European countries.
By contrast, there is also ample empirical evidence confirming Walter Lippmann’s (1922, 358) dictum that “news and truth are not the same thing and must be clearly distinguished.” But only part of the reporting that does not meet the expectations of concerned observers is flawed by deliberate attempts at slanting the news. More often structural factors that are inherent to the news production process are responsible for differences between the political reality and its media representation. A large number of studies have documented that the news media’s picture of the political reality is characterized by elite actions, proximity, negativity, and other news values that help to select among an abundance of events entering the editors’ desks day after day.
Political actors’ attempts at influencing the journalistic selection mechanisms affect the news media’s endeavor to present a fairly accurate picture of the political reality. Several strategies serve this purpose; for example, staging newsworthy pseudo-events or tailoring political events to the needs of news production. Professional issue management, based on communication theories and research results, is deployed not only by political parties and powerful interest groups, but also by grassroots organizations and social movements. Nation-states and governments also engage in media diplomacy as a strategy to back up or even substitute for traditional means of managing international relations. And political terrorists too are exploiting the Internet and other mass media for the diffusion of violent and subversive messages and for blackmailing political authorities.
Although democracies rest on the will of the people, most citizens do not actively participate in politics other than casting a vote on election day. Even political talk plays a minor role in the everyday life of most people. Much more common is passive consumption of the political spectacle as delivered by mass media. Television is still the main source of information about politics for the average citizen, though the Internet is gaining ground, particularly among the younger generation, at least in some countries. A high correlation of political media use with certain demographic factors is responsible for large differences in the reach of political news and in citizens’ acquisition of political information. In all countries those who have a higher income, who are better educated, and who are more strongly interested in politics are the most attentive to political information. However, due to blurring lines between hard news, soft news, and light entertainment in some mass media, there is also a chance that politically inattentive citizens are unwittingly exposed to mediated politics.
Media use can be expected to increase political knowledge, and indeed many studies show that this is actually the case. Newspaper reading seems to be most effective in this respect, though it is not quite clear how much of the effect has to be attributed especially to media exposure and how much is due to the distinct motivational predispositions of newspaper readers. People with lower levels of education and little interest in politics may, under certain conditions, gain some political knowledge from television news. Internet use, at least among young adults in some countries, was found to contribute to political knowledge too. In general, intensive news use is correlated with political reflection and issue discussion. This indicates a mutual reinforcement among political media use, political deliberation, and civic participation, according to the pattern of a “virtuous circle” (Norris 2000).
Normally media audiences follow political news highly selectively, directed by their personal interests and political predispositions. Moreover, people have a quite limited processing and storage capacity, particularly for complex and unfamiliar topics, which constitute the bulk of hard news stories. This explains why most political news offered by the media is not recognized, and even stories that audience members attend to are processed only cursorily, hardly stored, or quickly forgotten. Hence, studies testing political learning from the news show disappointing results, particularly if they apply standardized survey measures.
Whether the media’s supply of political content and the audience’s political learning from the media meet the requirements of democratic citizenship is a contested question. The answer depends essentially on how “good citizenship” is defined. If the ideal of the fully informed, participatory citizen serves as a starting point, content analyses and studies testing audience’s political knowledge inevitably come to a sobering conclusion (for reviews of the pertinent literature, see Delli Carpini 2004; Graber 2004). However, the answer is different if the reality of political communication is measured on a more modest standard such as the “monitorial citizen” standard. Monitorial citizens, according to Schudson’s (1998) understanding, need not be fully informed; they only have to scan the media for major political threats to themselves or their communities. The average monitorial citizen may rely on attentive publics who follow the political scene quite closely and who share their information with the less informed sections of the population. “The media’s role in informing monitorial citizens may thus be a two-step process” (Graber 2004).
Relationships between mass media use and interpersonal communication were observed as early as 1940, in the seminal “Erie County study” of the US presidential election led by Lazarsfeld et al. (1944). The researchers coined the concept of a “two-step flow of communication,” which states that ideas often flow from the mass media to opinion leaders and from them to population sections that are less attentive to the public discourse. The concept implies a role differentiation between opinion leaders on one side and their “followers” on the other. This notion, however, has been challenged by more recent research and substituted by the model of a social network among a number of different communication roles and positions.
Changing Election Campaigns
By far the most research activity is concentrating on election campaign communication – for at least three different reasons. First, elections usually have far-reaching consequences for the distribution of power in society and the priorities of political decision-making. Second, election campaigning is essentially aimed at influencing citizens’ political beliefs and attitudes by communication means. Consequently, the impact of the campaign and its various elements on the voters’ minds and ultimately on their electoral behavior is the crucial question not only researchers are interested in, but first and foremost, those who are running for office or managing the campaign. Third, the election battlefield usually serves to deploy new tools of mass persuasion and new ways of instrumentalizing communication media for political purposes. In this respect the arrival of the Internet and other new media provided parties and candidates with new powerful tools to organize the campaign, to solicit funding, to mobilize supporters, and to reach the electorate. At the same time, the new media environment enlarged citizens’ opportunities of accessing relevant campaign information, expressing their personal opinions, and organizing collective actions through the networking capacity of the world wide web.
Communication researchers take advantage of election campaigns as a testing ground for advancing theories and methodologies. Several of the keywords that are in use to denote the change processes constituting the mediatization of politics originate from election campaign research. For a certain time period, it was common to regard the changes as signs of “Americanization,” in the sense that advanced American campaign practices are exported to other countries, or adopted by campaigners outside the United States. The critical overtone that was often associated with the Americanization concept derived from cultural imperialism theories, which had their followers particularly during the late Cold War period. As an alternative, some scholars suggested to conceive of the changes in election campaigning as a process of “modernization” (Swanson & Mancini 1996) or “postmodernization” (Norris 2000).
However, there are more precise characterizations of the transformation of election campaigning. For example, parties and candidates tend to extend their activities over the whole legislative period so that pre-election campaigns have been turned into permanent campaigns. Quite often hidden campaigning through means such as newsmaking and issue management remains unnoticed by the average voter since it is interwoven with everyday politics. Targeting as a campaign strategy to reach specialized audiences benefits from the increasing diversification of mass media and from the emergence of new personalized media, particularly emails and mobile phones. The importance of television as an information source for voters as well as the persuasive power of visual communication have boosted the tendency to personalize election campaigning, i.e., to organize the strategy around the leading candidates and to emphasize their personal characteristics. As a result, candidate images and the “horse race,” that is, who is leading in the polls, may get more public attention than political issues and the parties’ political programs.
The extensive use of election polls and forecasts, which are quite often commissioned by the media in order to enhance their campaign reporting, regularly gives rise to speculation about potential “bandwagon effects,” implying that voters tend to follow what they perceive to be the majority opinion. On the other hand, the “underdog effect” hypothesis states that voters may tend to support a competitor who is expected to lose. The research evidence speaks for a weak bandwagon effect rather than for an underdog effect.
A critical issue, particularly in the United States, though in some other countries too, is the practice of negative campaigning, especially the growing number of negative political advertisements. While there is clear evidence that negative ads do affect voting preferences, the consequences for voter turnout, political efficacy, and political trust seem to be negligible, as studies in the United States show.
Political Media Effects
As the study of mass communication is generally based on the premise of media effects (McQuail 2005, 456), it is also a central presumption of political communication research that the media have a significant impact on politics (Graber 2005). A large number of key communication concepts and theoretical hypotheses in general relate to political cognitions or political behavior. These include, for example, agenda-setting theory and related concepts, which have inspired very much research activity in recent decades (Bryant & Miron 2004). In almost all cases, the studies deal with the agenda of political issues.
From the perspective of certain political actors – namely politicians, political parties, government officials, and interest groups – the media are often seen as an instrument of political persuasion, i.e., for exerting purposive influence on public opinion or on specific target groups. Traditionally, this type of communication was labeled “propaganda.” But the central role of propaganda in the fascist and communist regimes of the twentieth century brought the term into discredit. Nowadays more neutral terms such as information policy, public relations, or strategic communication are preferred to denote deliberate persuasive communication aimed at specific goals.
A broad field of communication research is devoted to examining the effectiveness of persuasive influence attempts. Part of this research is focused on the persuasion of individuals under experimental conditions, an approach that was introduced on a broad scale by Hovland and his research team during World War II (Hovland et al. 1949). The tested messages include variously structured messages, different kinds of media formats, and also advertisements. Another strand of research looks at influence processes in campaign contexts, for example, in health campaigns, in political information campaigns, in social marketing campaigns, and most often in election campaigns.
In the early days of systematic experimental study of persuasion, media effects were conceptualized primarily in terms of attitude change. As empirical research showed that mass media quite often do not bring about the presumed attitudinal effects, or the effects are conditional on contextual or situational factors, increasingly complex models of persuasion were developed. More recent models are trying to take moderating conditions into consideration. For instance, the O-S-O-R model suggested by Markus and Zajonc (1985) and McLeod et al. (1994) stresses the importance of individual differences (“O”) – demographic, cultural, cognitive, or motivational – and of intervening reactions of recipients while they process a message. Another example is the “elaboration likelihood model” by Petty and Cacioppo (1986), which posits a dual route to persuasion. Message involvement or importance decides on whether audience members apply a central or peripheral route of message processing.
As distinct from such rather pragmatic approaches to media effectiveness, there is a broad field of political communication research with a critical or pessimistic orientation that starts from the more or less explicit assumption that mass communication may have negative implications for democratic citizenship and for the political system as a whole. Among the harmful media effects that have been hypothesized are eroding trust in political institutions, loss of social capital, and declining political efficacy. The empirical evidence for these and other problematic media effects is mixed and obviously dependent on the specific political context, the historical situation, and the media environment under study. By and large, more detrimental political effects have been observed for the United States than for other countries, which may be due, at least to some degree, to the large number of studies undertaken in the US context. A typical example is research on political cynicism. Studies in the US context have shown that exposure to news stories that frame politics as a strategic game rather than an endeavor to solve social problems does activate corrosive cynicism among citizens. Yet studies in the European context have provided evidence of the contrary, namely positive connections between cynicism and political sophistication.
Political Communication and Research in Flux
Evidently, the context of political communication is rapidly changing due to societal trends such as globalization, economization, individualization, and, above all, the rapid proliferation and diversification of mass media. The advent of the Internet and other new media has removed some of the constraints that traditional media have imposed on communication processes. Due to the enormous increase in content diversity, citizens can choose according to their individual political interests among an excessive variety of outlets and media products. While audience members can select more freely, the traditional media are losing some of their gatekeeping and filtering functions. Messages filtered according to journalistic routines and conventional news value criteria can be sufficiently compensated for. Political actors can bypass the mass media and use their own channels for directly addressing the public or specific target groups. Thanks to the availability of convenient software, citizens can easily disseminate messages via weblogs or Internet platforms such as YouTube, or in direct person-to-person networking. The new media seem to enhance both mediated expressions of political opinion and direct political interaction.
Research is trying to keep pace with these developments, though not with fully satisfying results. On the one hand, there is the interest of a well-established field – such as political communication research – in the continuity of theories and methods. On the other hand, this may also impede a commensurate adaptation to environmental changes.
The systematic study of political communication is a relatively young field that developed gradually during the twentieth century, though reflections on political communication, especially on strategies of political rhetoric, have been quite common in political philosophy and can be found in the ancient Greek works of Plato and Aristotle. As a field of academic study and teaching, political communication was formally institutionalized only in the 1970s with the foundation of special divisions within scholarly organizations such as the International Communication Association (ICA). Yet there are clear signs of maturity, as demonstrated by a considerable number of textbooks and handbooks that have appeared in recent decades in many countries and languages (e.g., Chaffee 1975; Mazzoleni 1998; Kaid 2004; Schulz 2007) as well as specialized scholarly journals (e.g., Communicazione Politica, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, Political Communication). Signs of maturity notwithstanding, the field is characterized by a fragmented intellectual structure due to the fact that political communication researchers are either based in neighboring disciplines or have different disciplinary backgrounds, such as political science, psychology, journalism, or speech communication (Lin & Kaid 2000). And many relevant articles are still scattered through various journals of several related disciplines, predominantly mass communication and political science.
An analysis of professional journals that appeared at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Graber 2005) may convey the impression that only a minor part of the relevant research follows closely the fundamental changes of political communication arising from the evolution of mass media. Most well-covered research themes have been on the agenda for decades. By far the most attention is paid to election campaigns. Other familiar topics on the list are international relations, information processing, public opinion, and campaign advertising. Studies of new media rank second, though. This signals that at least the transformation of media systems by new media has drawn extensive attention.
Another somewhat novel theme near the top of the list is civic engagement. The label refers to research that tests the presumed (mal)functioning of mass media for political participation. While this category of studies continues the critical strand of research mentioned above, it also represents a trend in political communication research that was already emerging, according to McLeod et al. (1994), at the end of the last century and has been rapidly growing since. Research on civic engagement includes studies with an explicit orientation to normative criteria, especially to standards derived from theories of democracy.
Still underdeveloped, but showing hopeful signs of growth, is international comparative research (see, e.g., Esser & Pfetsch 2004). Even though many countries around the world are catching up with political communication research, there is a great preponderance of studies conducted in the United States. A growing body of international comparative research may serve to prevent a premature generalization of results pertaining to a specific political and media context or, as Blumler & Gurevitch (1995, 75–76) have put it, may act as an “antidote” to “naïve universalism” and “unwitting parochialism.”
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