Instrumental actualization is first and foremost an approach to journalists’ news selection. The notion was formulated by Hans Mathias Kepplinger to explain the effect of journalists’ (political) opinions on news content. As an approach to news selection, instrumental actualization continues and complements approaches such as gatekeeping, news factors, and news values.
The theory of instrumental actualization makes four basic assumptions. First, it assumes that journalists hold opinions, share values, and advocate positions. Second, it holds that all (or most) events have inherent in them a political or conflict-related valence. That is to say, they are helpful for one side of a political issue, and bad for the other. For example, a news story on the failure of an educational program issued by an administration would provide the critics of this administration with arguments and be considered a challenge for its supporters. In other words, the central object of a conflict is linked to any number of events that have different instrumental qualities related (objectively or subjectively) to the central object. Thus, the instrumental quality of a news story is to be distinguished from its evaluation. Third, consciously or (much more often) subconsciously, journalists will ascribe a higher news value to stories that support their worldviews and conflict positions. According to the fourth assumption, the differential news values will show in the journalists’ news selection.
The approach explains bias in the news on different levels: the individual journalist’s news selection, the selection decisions of a particular medium (if the journalists employed there share certain worldviews), and even the new content of a whole media system (if worldviews are not distributed evenly among a country’s news journalists). Rejecting the separation of news and commentary, this approach holds that the opinions of a newspaper’s writers will affect its news selection.
The development of the approach was inspired by Klaus Schönbach’s (1977) work on the synchronization of news and commentary. Other inspiration came from consistency theories, especially Milton Rosenberg’s (1956) variant, from earlier work on how the news media covered political conflicts, and from work on the effects of journalists’ opinions on media content.
Instrumental actualization was developed in the 1980s by Hans Mathias Kepplinger. The author used representative surveys among news journalists and quantitative content analyses of media content to prove his hypotheses. The surveys corroborated the hypothesis that the journalists’ own position on a political issue influenced the news value of issue-related news items. When presented with news items speaking either in favor of or against a certain issue position, the respondents significantly attributed a higher news value to those news items that were in line with their own issue position.
Content analyses of real media content, comparing editorials and news, showed that each newspaper tended to prefer news that was in line with its editorial position as expressed in the commentaries (“synchronization”). The newspapers also tended to prefer stories that were harmful to the issue position they did not share, rather than stories that were beneficial for their side in the issue. This latter finding contributes to media negativism and can be explained by the higher news value and higher credibility of negative stories, and by lower selectivity with regard to them.
According to these findings, different media positions on political issues and conflicts are thus created by giving different weight to them in the news, rather than by differently evaluating more or less similar events. Instrumental actualization thus becomes a strategy in efforts to affect the media coverage of a subject: Activists can get the media either to evaluate matters differently (strategy of revaluation) or to put matters more beneficial to the advocated position in the spotlight (strategy of instrumental actualization).
Several other results from content analyses that were not conducted in the framework of the theory of instrumental actualization can nevertheless be explained by this theory. An example is the instrumental use of experts in the news, that is, the tendency of media to give space and airtime to experts who share their views in conflicts (Lichter et al. 1986; Hagen 1992).
- Hagen, L. (1992). Die opportunen Zeugen: Konstruktionsmechanismen von Bias in der Zeitungsberichterstattung über die Volkszählungsdiskussion [The opportune witnesses: The construction of bias in newspaper coverage of the German census]. Publizistik, 37, 444 – 460.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H.-B., & Staab, J. F. (1991a). Instrumental actualization: A theory of mediated conflicts. European Journal of Communication, 6, 263 –290.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H.-B., & Staab, J. F. (1991b). Opinion formation in mediated conflicts and crises: A theory of cognitive-affective media effects. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 3, 132 –156.
- Lichter, S. R., Rothman, S., & Lichter, L. S. (1986). The media elite. America’s new powerbrokers. Bethesda: Adler and Adler.
- Rosenberg, M. J. (1956). Cognitive structure and attitudinal affect. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 53, 367–372.
- Schönbach, K. (1977). Trennung von Nachricht und Meinung: Empirische Untersuchung eines journalistischen Qualitätskriteriums [Separation of news and opinion: Empirical study of a journalistic quality criterion]. Freiburg and Munich: Alber.