Studies under the heading of determination theory focus on the question of how media content is produced. The main assumption is that news releases and other public relations material play a critical role in news-gathering activities.
Public relations (PR) as a source of media content has been analyzed in communication studies since the 1970s (Sigal 1973). In English-speaking research the relationship between journalism and public relations is examined in terms of agendabuilding processes. In 1982, Gandy used the expression “information subsidy” to describe media access to information. PR professionals provide information subsidies to the media in order to systematically distribute information on their behalf (Turk 1985). In Germanspeaking research the term “determination theory” was coined after an initial study by Baerns (1979; 1991, 1st pub. 1985). Based on the results of an extensive content analysis, Baerns stated that PR determines issues and timing of media coverage. The term “determination hypotheses” was coined with regard to this statement, and communication scholars began for the first time to take PR seriously as a possible determining factor in media content.
Assumptions, Methods, And Results Of Determination Studies
Determination theory is inspired by a paradox. On the one hand, there is the social responsibility of journalism that is also expressed in the guise of investigative journalism. Independent and investigative journalism should result in a plurality of topics and opinions in mass media. On the other hand, media coverage is characterized by a high degree of concurrence. This observation leads to the question of journalists’ perceptions and selection modes concerning what is news. Research on news values, gatekeeping studies, studies examining the internal structure of media institutions, and studies on news bias all try to address this question from different angles. They have in common their focus on the journalist’s decision on what to publish, and on structural influences of media institutions. Determination theory offers an alternative perspective to this media-centered orientation: it focuses on the question of how extra-media information enters the news media and thereby becomes news itself. Thus, the use of PR material as extra-media information by news media becomes apparent.
Determination theory is based on a functional distinction between journalism and PR. While the latter is seen as self-perception and presentation of an individual’s particular interests, journalism is considered a function of the public interest. The relationship between PR and journalism is described in terms of influence. Baerns formulated what later became known as the determination hypothesis that states: the more influence PR exerts, the less influence journalism exerts, and vice versa.
The main methodology of determination theory is content analysis. As an example of the design of subsequent determination studies, Baerns’s original study will be briefly presented. In 1978, Baerns analyzed all news related to state politics in North Rhine-Westphalia in print, radio, and television coverage. Alongside this, she analyzed the corresponding releases of the main news agencies. The study also encompassed all press releases of the legislative and executive bodies of North Rhine-Westphalia, all official publications of the regional state parliament, and protocols of press conferences. In total, more than 3,500 news items were analyzed to determine whether the news items relied on identifiable PR sources, other sources, or the journalist’s own investigation. A main result of the study was that more than two-thirds of all news items appeared to be based on information provided by PR. The issues in the news were identical with the items of political PR. Obviously, journalists did not check for additional information as more than 80 percent of all news items relied on only one source. Only 10 percent of all news items appeared to be produced by active investigation of the issue by the journalist. All in all, independent inquiry and further investigation were largely neglected. The involvement of journalists was mainly limited to cutting the PR material. Also, Baerns’s study shows a fast dissemination of PR material. News agencies, radio and television distributed the PR-based information the same day they got the material; print media used the information the next day.
Furthermore, Baerns’s results indicate an absence of disclosed PR sources. A disclosure of sources was indicated when phrases such as “statement in front of journalists . . . ,” or, “a ministry informs that . . . ,” were mentioned in the news item. Sources were mentioned most often by news agencies; more than 50 percent of all news agencies’ releases referred to the origin of the information. In television, on the other hand, the source was mentioned least. In addition, the mentioning of sources in the news reports was misleading. Articles based on news releases were marked as agency reports in more than half of all articles in daily papers; the rest of the articles were published under the name of the journalist or anonymously. From this Baerns concluded that absence of reference to PR sources is possibly one reason why even researchers all too readily ascribe to journalism what is in fact a product of PR activities.
Extension Of Determination Theory
The notion of PR and journalism as antagonists competing for influence, and the assumption of a largely passive journalism, provoked considerable follow-up research. This research tried to verify the quantitative influence of PR on media coverage. The studies come to different results: in fact, the amount of PR-based news articles ranged from 7 to 78 percent. This wide range of results is due to methodological differences in determination studies. First, the quotas differ depending on the definition of PR influence: is influence a literal adoption of PR messages, must the source be referred to or is it sufficient when there is an indication that PR information was the reason why a certain item was reported?
Second, a systematic comparison of determination studies reveals that there are two different ways to define media output: one way is to analyze all media coverage on a specific topic and to compare it with the PR input on the topic. This is the original design of determination studies and calls for use of determination quotas. Alternatively, all news articles based on PR material can be analyzed using selection quotas that show how successful news releases are in generating news stories. Selection quotas inform on PR’s effectiveness to get its messages published in the news media while determination quotas give evidence on PR’s capacity to influence the agenda of the news media.
Alongside differences in methodological design, the wide range of determination and selection quotas is explained by situational variables. Some studies identify the status of the PR organization as critical. Official sources are quoted more frequently (Hallin 1993) because governmental sources are assumed to be more reliable, more informed, and easily accessible (Sigal 1973). Other studies show the critical role of news agencies. They serve as a kind of catalyst for PR releases; media are more likely to publish information that is distributed by news agencies (Donsbach & Meißner 2004). PR information that is considered newsworthy (prominent actors, relevant topics, and timely information) is more likely to be used by journalists (Turk 1985; Schnitzmeier 1989; Saffarnia 1993; Gazlig 1999; Donsbach & Wenzel 2002). Determination studies indicate that press releases have an impact on media coverage, especially in routine situations. In crisis situations, however, journalists tend to become more investigative, questioning PR messages (Barth & Donsbach 1992). Studies also suggest that the section makes a difference. Determination research initially focused on political journalism and excluded local pages. Further research suggests that local reporters make less use of PR material. Another variable that influences the use of PR material is the possible bias of news media. A partisan perspective in news media appeared to determine the way news releases of political parties were treated by different news media (Knoche & Lindgens 1988; Donsbach & Wenzel 2002; Kepplinger & Maurer 2004, 123). Finally, determination theory was combined with frame analysis. According to a study by Fröhlich and Rüdiger (2004), setting the issues is a PR activity, while framing the issues is a function of journalism.
Limitations Of Determination Theory In PR
Studies based on determination theory are not homogeneous. But most of them have a certain method in common: they use an input-output analysis and compare systematically media content and PR material. From this comparison, conclusions are drawn with regard to the determining influence of PR on journalism. The advantage of this nonresponsive method is that conclusions regarding the interaction between PR and journalism can be drawn on the basis of the result of this interaction. This delivers a more accurate picture than surveys and expert interviews with journalists, because journalists tend to routinely underestimate the degree of influence of PR activities. The disadvantage of content analysis is that much research is limited to the use of printed PR material by print media. In addition, determination effects have been shown mostly in quality papers. Compared with this, media coverage in tabloids seems to be less influenced by PR material (Donsbach & Wenzel 2002). Determination theory in PR is conclusive mainly with regard to the possible influence of news releases from relevant political sources on political journalism in quality papers.
The assumption of determination effects on journalism does not implicate PR efforts as reprehensible. In fact, determination theory is not so much about PR success as about journalism’s performance. It challenges the normative image of journalism as an objective, neutral, and critical force. Determination theory confronts this image with a highly influential PR practice that exerts its influence mainly in obscurity. Thus, determination theory has given proof of PR’s ability to set the agenda in the news.
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- Baerns, B. (1987). Journalism versus public relations in the Federal Republic of Germany. In D. L. Paletz (ed.), Political communication research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 88 –107.
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