Looking at political communication phenomena in a systems framework is a common approach in this field of study. The term “system,” in its general meaning, denotes a multitude of component parts, depending on each other, and functioning as a whole. The nature of the political communication system is thought of as a structure of producing, processing, and communicating political messages. As Blumler and Gurevitch (1977) point out, adapting the systems approach to political communication processes implies the assumption that variation in one of its component parts would be associated with variation in other components.
Elements Of A Political Communication System
By analogy with the political culture research (Almond & Verba 1963), a political communication system can be mapped out along four dimensions. First, it implies an institutional structure that depicts the space in the media and politics in which politicians and journalists interact to produce messages. This structure is directly influenced by the set-up of the media and political system. Second, the political communication system implies an input side of public opinion that reflects the reactions of the public and, third, it implies an output side that depicts the messages that are produced at the interface between media and politics with regard to the public. The fourth dimension of the political communication system implies the role definitions and norms of the actors such as politicians and journalists. Their interactions are subject to behavioral norms and other system constraints.
The political communication system is composed of elements from two other social systems: politics and the mass media. According to theoretical considerations, integration of two social systems comes about if the exchange processes between them are institutionalized. Hence, the political communication system can be regarded as such an institutionalization, as it carries and regulates the ongoing cross-border communication between politics and the media. Eventually, it develops its own language and the more contacts are maintained, the more it develops an identity of its own.
The common unit of reference for professional roles in political communication is the public. The preferences and demands of the media audience with certain information needs, and the preferences and demands of the electorate with specific political needs, converge in the construct of public opinion. Hence, the social construction of public opinion on the part of political communication actors can be understood as the input side of the political communication system. The output side is concerned with the production, processing, and communication of political messages. Managing political issues is a major function of the politics–media interface. Since the choice of issues has an impact on the image of the actors involved, agenda setting influences public opinion about organizations and actors, and does so with persuasive intent, i.e., with the aim of generating consent.
The notion of political communication systems reflects the adaptation of political systems analysis to a theoretical framework of political communication. Perceiving political communication through the lens of a systems perspective coincides with the insight that it is not sufficient to capture the interface between politics and media through indicators of the media system or the political system only. At the same time, the investigation of political communication would fall short if it were studied only in terms of the short-term, issue-related behaviors of actors in areas such as election campaigns, political public relations, newsmaking, or public opinion. If political communication refers to “an interactive process concerning the transmission of information among politicians, the news media, and the public” that includes top-down, bottom-up, and horizontal flows of messages (Norris 2001, 11631), then students of political communication must understand the general nature of this interaction rather than concentrate on particular situations or singular issues or events. The attempt to develop a broader framework of analysis for political communication that focuses on the whole system rather than on single aspects also reflects the need for a more abstract formulation of processes of political communication that lends itself to comparative analysis. Hence, the political communication systems perspective allows for conceiving processes of political communication as an ordered system, which consists of actors and structures that can be related to each other and their environment in systematic terms.
The conception of political communication as a system is inspired by Easton’s (1965) political systems analysis and the notion of “political culture,” which was introduced by Almond (1956). The specific patterns of citizens’ beliefs and orientations to the political system and its dimensions are called political culture. A basic assumption of systems analysis is that a political system can be stable only if the citizens’ fundamental values and orientations are compatible with the socio-political and institutional structure of the society. The notion of political communication systems refers to both the institutional setting of the political and the media systems and the subjective orientations of political communication actors. These attitudes determine the interaction and the flow of messages between political actors and media. According to Pfetsch (2004) the match of the actors’ attitudes and the structures of message production is a decisive criterion for the stability of the political communication system of a given country.
The essential value of the concept of political communication systems lies in its potential as a heuristic basis for the comparative study of political communication. If political communication processes are seen as interplay between communication roles and structural conditions, the comparative approach offers considerable potential for analyzing these processes. Comparison enables us to make out which structural conditions correspond with specific constellations of actor orientations. Moreover, only comparative research can reveal the variety of political communication systems as well as the systematic link between the political system and the media system (Pfetsch & Esser 2004).
Challenges Of Future Research
The interplay between structural conditions and attitudinal and behavioral aspects has not yet been researched systematically. To date, we lack encompassing studies that reveal the variety of national political communication systems and their internal and external conditions. Current research on the interface of media and politics largely follows the path of neo-institutionalism, which has its precursor in formulations such as the Four theories of the press by Siebert and Schramm (1956). While this study has been heavily criticized for its ideological bias, recent work by Hallin and Mancini (2004) on media systems and their political aspects constitutes a meaningful point of departure for the comparative analysis of political communication systems. Hallin and Mancini develop a typology of three ideal types of media systems: the “liberal model,” the “democratic corporatist model,” and the “polarized pluralist model.” Moreover, the researchers link these types to a set of variables to describe the structural conditions in the media and the political system. These environmental conditions are associated with specific expectations vis-à-vis media organizations on the part of politics, and with political mechanisms and opportunities for exerting influence on the media. On the other hand, the setting of the media system influences how media organizations position themselves in a national media system and in the public sphere.
On the side of the media, Hallin and Mancini propose that four dimensions constitute important environmental conditions for media systems: (1) the development of media markets (strong or weak development of mass circulation press); (2) political parallelism (extent to which the media system reflects major political divisions in terms of links between media and political parties; Party–Press Parallelism); (3) strong or weak journalistic professionalism; and (4) the degree and nature of state intervention in the media system. Arguably, the four dimensions converge in the dichotomy between commercialization and politicization of the media system, which has wide-ranging implications for political communication. With regard to the structural context conditions on the side of the political system, Hallin and Mancini refer to the general relationship of state and society, especially the state’s role as owner, regulator, and founder of media organizations, the makeup of the government including the party system, and the intensity of political cleavages and interest mediation.
Although this framework reflects some of the basic ideas of political communication systems analysis as proposed here, it still reveals some shortcomings and methodological problems that emerge if the systems approach to political communication is applied in empirical designs of cross country comparison. Yet future research must solve the problem of bringing together different levels of analysis and different types of data, such as attitudinal measures of individuals’ orientations and their aggregation to the macrolevel of analysis, as well as measures of the structural makeup of the media–politics interface. Eventually, it will also be necessary to formulate a set of hypotheses about the political communication system with its environment and specify them in empirical research designs. Current research has only begun to travel this route.
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