Mediatization of politics is a complex process that is closely linked to the presence of a media logic in society and in the political sphere. It is distinguished from the idea of “mediation,” a natural, preordained mission of mass media to convey meaning from communicators to their target audiences. To define politics as “mediated” is a simple truism, in that communication and mass media are necessary prerequisites to the functioning of political systems (Mazzoleni & Schulz 1999). Some scholars, such as Deutsch (1963), even hold that politics is communication. Certainly, politics and the way it is performed and communicated have been widely affected by the rise of mass media between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Such media-driven influence in the political environment is the core of the concept of mediatization. The media have become indispensable actors within the political domain. They have gained a central position in most political routines, such as election campaigns, government communication, public diplomacy and image building, and national and international celebrations.
The centrality of the media in the political arena is a peculiarity of modern democracies, which are strongly characterized by interconnecting forms of mass communication. The media’s rise to a pivotal place in the political processes has caused significant changes and developments in politics as a whole, to the extent that politics is often considered by political communication scholars as media dependent. The concept of dependence, however, is not supported by solid empirical evidence. The interdependence of media and politics seems to constitute a better pattern to represent the actual nature of the relationships between them. The media are nevertheless frequently credited with exercising overwhelming influence on political events, persons, issues, and opinions, and, at the same time, politicians are aware of the media’s attention rules, production routines, and selection criteria, and adapt their communication behavior to media requirements.
Effects Of Mediatization
Research has pointed out several effects of mediatization, among which are the capacity of the media to set the agenda of the political debate, the spectacularization and personalization of political communication, the fragmentation of political discourse, and the “winnowing” effect.
The mass media, especially the information outlets, are acknowledged to have significant power to structure and frame political reality by determining what is relevant for public discussion, by raising issues, and by providing criticism. By pointing their spotlights on certain political events and by investigative reporting, the news media are in a position to drive the public debate, influence the campaign agenda, and prompt political figures to focus and take stances on the issues raised. This power is exalted or mitigated by the nature of the political milieu in a given national context. For example, in political systems that grant large autonomy to the media, political communicators are less successful in neutralizing the agenda shaping of the media. However, in political milieus where media–politics relations are characterized by close interdependence, the political agenda is more likely to be the joint output of the interaction of both actors (Semetko et al. 1991).
Spectacularization And Personalization Of Politics
The spectacularization of politics is an effect especially linked to the influential presence of television on the political scene. The “grammar” of television language has increasingly changed the patterns of political communication. By becoming the target of an incessant dramatization on the part of commercial media, political activity has been driven to adjust its traditional forms of communication to the new canons of a media-centered environment (Mazzoleni 1987). This fact has entailed a recasting of the symbolic and expressive devices of political representation. In addressing citizens and voters, political communicators no longer rely on the mediation of militants. They can no longer “use the rhetoric of mobilization of supporters, but the rhetoric of seduction of the masses” (Lecomte & Denni 1990). In other words, the most significant effect of the mediatization/spectacularization of politics is somewhat equal to a “genetic mutation” of political discourse. No politician can communicate successfully without molding his or her message to suit the most preferred and most popular language schemes of the mass media, especially those of entertainment, showbiz, and advertising. By dramatizing politics, the news media “take advantage of the popular propensity to believe in things as they seem rather than as they are,” and jointly with politicians who have swiftly embraced the imperatives of mediated communication, the media contrive to “construct politics as spectacle” (Nimmo & Combs 1990).
A necessary condition of spectacularization is the tendency of mass media, especially those that are commercially oriented, like the tabloids and their equivalent in broadcast media, to personalize political information by focusing on who and how, rather than on issues, context, structure, and interpretation. “Average news consumers prefer to read about other people, not about abstract groups or remote bureaucracies and government agencies. To cater to these preferences, news stories, especially those that appear on television, are routinely framed from the point of view of central actors . . . Inevitably, stories about groups are transformed into stories about group leaders” (Davis 1990). Political players on the contemporary post-ideology political stage seem to respond enthusiastically to this media-driven tendency. They adjust willingly to media personalization, responding to the demands of visibility, look, and image. Television is once more the deus ex machina of this adaptation: “Political figures cannot help subjecting themselves to the rules of TV popularity, obliged as they are to be either stars or nullities . . . Television is indeed the medium that resorts more to personalisation and relies a lot on rivalry among politicians” (Mouchon 1989).
A side-effect of personalization is what could be termed the “leaderization” of politics. In certain political milieus political leadership is strongly personalized, either for institutional reasons (as in a presidential system such as that of the US) or induced by the influence of the mass media. Political leaders extend their personal charisma (or idiosyncrasies) to the whole political process, setting themselves against collective actors such as parties or any shared expression of authority. The natural preference of the media for personalized political discourse provides a powerful support to the process of the strengthening of leadership in modern politics, and also in contexts where collective, impersonal, party-centered political action is the traditional pattern.
The media exert a further strong influence on political messages when these messages are carried on the mass communication channels. During this process, political debate fragments into “pills and clips.” “Audiovisual communication tends to propose a political speech which is fleeting, fluid, instantaneous, privileging verbal tricks rather than discursive strategy, in like manner of jingles-ads” (Courtine 1993). The well-known practice of sound bites favors the coverage and reporting of short and preferably catchy sentences at the expense of information on perhaps more substantial topics and issues in the domestic political debate. Like personalized framing of stories, sound-bite communication makes politicians into the accomplices, whether willing or unwilling, of media producers. In doing so, politicians attempt to adjust to the velocity of contemporary broadcast news, squeezing up their speech and thus increasing their chance of being covered by the media.
Fragmentation Of Politics
This sort of fragmentation of political discourse, triggered mostly by highly commercialized broadcast news media, has different national intensities, according to the strength of local news-making traditions. For example, in a number of European countries, such as France, Germany, and Italy, the news media still allocate a great deal of space to the complex dialectics between the many political contenders, and European politicians still exhibit a preference for articulated and somewhat lengthy declarations. Even if political discourse in these countries still enjoys significant attention in the media, there are several signals of an “Americanization” in the news coverage, thanks to the proliferation of channels and the sharp increase in competition between them for the conquest of audiences.
Effects On Recruitment Of Political Personnel
A final effect of the mediatization of politics is the selection (“winnowing”) of political elites through the imposition of media-driven requisites and coverage formats upon political communication as a whole (Matthews 1978). There is also some indication of a progressive weakening of party organizations in many western democracies. For example, there has been a transfer of methods for recruiting political personnel (leaders, activists, candidates, mayors, etc.) from party machines to external agents – mostly communication experts, spin doctors, and media professionals – that implement tactics and follow criteria that collide with those of traditional professional politics.
The actual selection of political personnel and candidates is to a certain extent affected by the degree of media attention. Leaders chosen in this manner respond to the media’s predilection for telegenic, controversial, and possibly colorful personalities. Politicians who are natural newsmakers are assured of significant public visibility, while the media ignore those who are not “media-genic” talents. “Those who eventually succeed in election contests are no more local notables, but ‘mediatic personages’, individuals who master better than others communication techniques; . . . a new breed of communication specialists takes the place of militants and of apparatchiks” (Manin 1995).
Vis-à-vis the rapid diffusion of online media, Schulz (2004) questions whether the traditional patterns of mediatization of politics will disappear to leave room for new ways of interdependence between the new media and political players. In fact, the new communication environment created by the Internet and other new media is likely to challenge the media logic that characterized the era of mass communication, and consequently its clutch on political communications. Schulz’s argument is that there is not yet an end of mediatization as we have known it to date: “Since the new media do not displace the old media, the mediatization effects of the latter endure in the new media environment.” In addition, the new media bring along new patterns of mediatization. Clearly, the new media logic will affect politics and political discourse, but the adaptation process will be mutual, not simply on the part of the political players, thanks to interactivity, a feature that conventional media do not possess.
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