Political news was published in leaflets and early newspapers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, shortly after the advent of printing. However, only the cheap, mass circulation press in the nineteenth century and, most notably, radio and television about a century later made political news available to a general audience. Today, regular newscasts on many radio and television programs, 24-hour news networks, and a multitude of websites on the Internet make political news continuously available and pervasive in society. The deployment of global news logistics – foreign correspondents, news agencies, and news pools around the world – as well as advances in cable, satellite, and other transmission technologies, have brought about an enormous expansion of the political news supply.
In addition to studying the historical, technological, and organizational aspects of news production, communication research concentrates on three questions when examining political news: how does political news portray political reality? What kind of political knowledge does the audience get from political news? What are the functions of news for the political system?
Content And Structure Of Political News
According to common understanding, political news is a representation of current events and relevant issues, of individual politicians, and collective actors (such as states, international organizations, national governments, parties, interest groups, social movements, and citizens), and of their actions as well as the public discourse among these actors. At a closer look it becomes apparent that most political news relates to verbal behavior, i.e., statements, political claims, declarations of intent, accusations, denials, etc.
News analyses typically focus on characterizing the content and structure of the political reporting of newspapers, magazines, radio and television channels, news agencies, and Internet websites. Content analyses applying more or less elaborate coding schemes measure the topical substance and formal features of news; for example, the respective shares of reporting on international and domestic affairs, on different policies (e.g., economic policy, defense, education), on political issues, on the representation of political organizations and personalities, and on how such actors are portrayed and evaluated. News analyses also examine the published statements and opinions of political actors, and the style and rhetoric of public discourses.
Content analyses of political news provide a description of politics, or as one should rather say: of scientific perceptions and interpretations of politics. However, content analyses quite often pursue goals beyond a mere description of reporting. Instead, researchers are interested in the relationships between the news and the reported political occurrences, or between the news and the media audience, or between the news and the political system as a whole. Such relationships are either inferred from content analyses results, or studied directly, with research designs including observational, survey, or experimental methods.
News And The Political Reality
It was Walter Lippmann (1965, 226) who set the theme for generations of researchers when questioning the news–reality relationship, by stating “that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.” Among the deficits research has diagnosed are, for instance, too much reliance on the elite, particularly on government officials and their news management; an excessive personalization and dramatization of politics; a preference for negativism (“bad news”); and a shortsighted presentation of isolated happenings, resulting in a fragmented picture of reality (Bennett 2001; Patterson in press).
News analyses may be roughly categorized into two types. Studies of “news bias” try to disclose journalistic malpractice, which is often attributed to the ideological motives of the journalists or the commercial interests of media owners. Studies of “news mediation,” on the other hand, try to identify and explain the structural factors determining the selection and construction of news. Both types of studies contrast real events and their media representation, at least in principle, but sometimes also operationally by comparing the news with the reality or, more precisely, intra-media data with extra-media data.
For several reasons, both types of studies mostly focus on political news. First, the political reporting of the mass media is, for the ordinary citizen – but quite often for political decision-makers as well – the only information source about relevant political events. This is generally the case for international and national politics, and even for most political events on the community level. Second, it is well established that the picture of political reality as presented by the media, whether it is true or false, accurate or distorted, neutral or biased, influences the political behavior of individual citizens, societal groups, political leaders, and nation-states. Third, political news has reciprocal effects on reality and sometimes even creates the events that it seems to represent. Repercussions may occur, for example, when politicians anticipate media reporting and behave according to what they think the media want. Thus mediated political realities may be self-fulfilling (Nimmo & Combs 1983). Fourth, the content of political news is to some degree the result of the strategic news management of policymakers. In international politics, for instance, the news media are used for addressing foreign governments and publics or as a substitute for diplomacy. Hence analyses of international communication and propaganda as well as of election campaign communication quite often serve to discover the political intentions, goals, and strategies of political actors.
Political News And The Media Audience
As audience research shows, a large majority of the population in modern democracies follows public affairs in the mass media day in, day out. However, the intensity of news usage as well as the amount of information people extract from the news vary considerably, depending mainly on the recipients’ age, education, political interest, and previous political knowledge. Television is still the main source of political information, yet the younger generation is increasingly turning to the Internet for news.
A key concern of communication research is to specify the mass media’s contribution to citizens’ political knowledge and understanding. There is ample evidence of a positive association of political knowledge with public affairs media use, although less with watching television news than reading broadsheet newspapers. This relationship seems to be transactional rather than causal, following a “virtuous circle”: people with higher political interest and previous political knowledge are more likely to attend to news reporting, and in turn, benefit from the news exposure (Norris 2000). However, long-term studies in the US spanning five decades do not show a considerable increase in the population’s political knowledge, in spite of the enormous increase in both news supply and media exposure over the years (Delli Carpini & Keeter 1996).
The conventional approach to studying the media’s contribution to information gain by testing people’s factual political knowledge has been criticized as a “civics fallacy” (Norris 2000, see also Graber 1994). Citizens may not need to acquire encyclopedic information to participate in politics, e.g., to make reasoned electoral choices. More importantly, “civics” tests hardly correspond to the way people make sense of the news. Usually people process political information selectively and parsimoniously, investing just as much effort as is needed to get an impression of the salient events and relevant issues of the day (Graber 2001). Moreover, news use quite often is a form of entertainment. Against this backdrop some authors suggest that the normative standards for citizens’ role in politics as well as for the mass media’s news reporting should be reconsidered.
News And The Political System
Theories modeling the role of the mass media in politics, explicitly or implicitly, postulate that the news serves specific political functions for the adaptation, integration, and operation of a democratic system. For example, political news, in addition to recording the events of the day, is expected to reflect public opinion, act as a “watchdog” to disclose political misbehavior, facilitate public discourse, and foster citizens’ political participation. Such normative requirements are, according to common understanding, best performed under press freedom, a condition which is defined by the absence of censorship, the availability of a plurality of sources and information, and open access to the media for all citizens. Although the worldwide expansion of news channels and of political news supply has been conducive to these requirements, there are still large differences in press freedom in different countries, so that the news media can perform their positive political functions much better in some countries than in others. Press freedom is relatively high in central and northern Europe, but low in most third world countries (Reporters without Borders n.d.).
Further, the positive functions of political news depend on the organization of news production and on the news-making behavior of journalists. In democratic societies these conditions are regulated by media law, by media market and ownership arrangements (e.g., private versus public ownership), and by more or less formal communication norms and journalistic standards (see, e.g., Graber 2002). Conventional standards of news-making, such as accuracy, objectivity, independence, plurality, or balance, are rooted in fundamental democratic principles (McQuail 1992). Hence empirical studies examining how far these standards are met indicate to some degree the democratic quality of a given political system.
Nevertheless, there are arguments in favor of lowering the conventional norms of journalistic performance. According to the “burglar alarm standard” proposed by Zaller (2003, 122) as an alternative to the “full news standard,” journalists should concentrate on important issues “by means of coverage that is intensely focused, dramatic, and entertaining,” and thus take into account citizens’ limited capacities to process political news, as well as recent changes in news style.
Changing Political News
The “full news standard” requires, among other things, a clear separation of news from commentary, as well as of public affairs (“hard”) news from entertaining “soft” news. Both distinctions seem to be eroding, resulting in a changing news style. While the lines between news and entertainment are blurring, there seems to be an increasing tendency among journalists to intermix factual reporting with interpretations. New media formats and channels for publicizing public affairs have emerged, and the scope of political reporting has been expanding with the growth of strategic communication and mediated politics (see, e.g., Graber et al. 1998). These changes may be attributed to several developments.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the range and conception of politics have been changing dramatically, and so has the media’s definition of politics. Most notably, processes of globalization and international cooperation have resulted in an increasing media attention to foreign affairs, particularly from mainstream elite media and specialized news channels. At the same time, the extension of state influence – through legislation, regulation, taxation, subsidization – has led to a growing politicization of major parts of society, including the economy, arts, sports, even the private lives of citizens. Correspondingly, myriad interest groups engage in articulating their interests through public relations activities, issues management, protest action, even terrorism, leading to an ever-increasing stream of politically relevant information and forcing the media to focus on the most noisy and dramatic events.
Second, the expansion and commercialization of media markets have brought about fierce competition for audiences, including audiences for news. Some media are trying to extend their market shares by softening up the news with human interest, mixing political information with entertaining elements, or presenting political issues in entertainment formats.
Third, due to the emergence of the Internet, mediated political information abounds more than ever. Internet users do not only have at their disposal online news produced by offline media; the web also carries a vast quantity of information offered by various political stakeholders, including ordinary citizens. Search engines and web-based companies provide links – sometimes categorized and annotated – helping the user to find a path through the information bazaar. In addition, a plethora of blogs, podcasts, and other kinds of politically relevant information is available from various share and discussion sites. These developments blur the lines not only between different genres and formats of political news, but also between producers and consumers of news.
- Bennett, W. L. (2001). News: The politics of illusion, 4th edn. New York: Longman.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Graber, D. A. (1994). Why voters fail information tests: Can the hurdles be overcome? Political Communication, 11, 331–346.
- Graber, D. A. (2001). Processing politics: Learning from television in the Internet age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Graber, D. A. (2002). Mass media and American politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Graber, D. A., McQuail, D., & Norris, P. (eds.) (1998). The politics of news: The news of politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Lippmann, W. (1965). Public Opinion. New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1922).
- McQuail, D. (1992). Media performance: Mass communication and the public interest. London: Sage. Nimmo, D., & Combs, J. E. (1983). Mediated political realities. New York: Longman.
- Norris, P. (2000). A virtuous circle: Political communications in postindustrial societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Patterson, T. E. (in press). The news as a reflection of public opinion. In W. Donsbach & M. W. Traugott (eds.), Handbook of public opinion research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Reporters without Borders (n.d.). Press freedom index. At www.rsf.org/rubrique.php3?id_ rubrique=639.
- Zaller, J. (2003). A new standard of news quality: Burglar alarms for the monitorial citizen. Political Communication, 20, 109–130.