In the third of our interviews on the media I talked to Dr. Heinz Brandenburg of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, about political bias in the Irish media, how parties manage the media or fail to, and how the media covers politics in general.
Dr. Heinz Brandenburg has written several academic papers examining political bias in the media’s coverage of both Irish and UK elections and co-authored The Media and the Campaign chapters for How Ireland Voted 2002 and How Ireland Voted 2007. In his 2005 paper, Political Bias in the Media, A Quantitative Study of Campaign Coverage during the 2002 General Election he performed an quantitative analysis of the Irish media’s coverage of the general election.
At the start of that article Dr. Brandenburg suggests that the reason why there are so few quantitative studies of the Irish media is because of lack of funding (quantitative analysis requires the use of sophisticated data mining techniques) but also because political communication studies has not been established as an academic discipline here. However, there are other reasons. One is that, although organised centrally at a national level, elections here are still perceived to be localized affairs, with local priorities often determining a voter’s decision in a general election. The other reason is because the Irish media is seen as relatively unbiased. Unlike Britain, people in Ireland have a ‘solid, if unspectacular, level of trust in their national press, radio and television’, with half the population trusting newspapers and 70% finding radio and television trustworthy.
“The Irish media are said to distribute their coverage, although not legally obliged to do so, proportionally across the different parties, reflecting their current parliamentary strength, and to remain largely non-partisan. Irish media, newspapers and television alike, have long since been ‘classified as belonging to the so-called sacerdotal style of election reporting, thinking of themselves as providing a service and of an election as an intrinsically important event entitled to substantial coverage as of right’ (Bowman, 1987: 167). Coverage is said to be predominantly informative, unbiased, and non-partisan.“
Dr. Brandenburg mentions, however, that this perceived lack of bias should be treated as a ‘yet untested hypotheses’.
Bias is defined in Political Bias in the Irish Media as: ‘a consistent tendency to depart from the straight path of objective truth by deviating either to left or right … In news and information it refers to a systematic tendency to favor (in outcome) one side or position over another’ and breaks it down into three forms:
- Coverage bias, which refers to the amount of media attention, story space and time afforded to different actors
- Agenda bias, which deals with the extent to which media reflect in their coverage the varying issue content of different parties’ campaign communications
- Statement bias, which considers media opinions and judgment which are favourable or unfavourable to political actors
The quantitative study looked at four newspapers, the Irish Examiner, the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, and the Evening Herald, and two television channels, RTE and TV3 between 25 April and 17 May 2002.
The conclusions are striking, though in some cases unsurprising. In terms of coverage bias the party to get the most over-proportional high-profile coverage was Fianna Fail, although this was also gained as a result of much editorial criticism. The other party to gain a disproportionate amount of coverage for their size were Fianna Fail’s partners in government at the time of the 2002 election, the Progressive Democrats.
As Dr. Brandenburg comments:
“Both government parties received over-proportional amounts of prominent coverage while, at the same time, provoking much editorial criticism. The fact that the incumbent parties were also the most media-savvy and perhaps best marketed makes it rather difficult to decide which of these factors prompted such media behaviour.”
In terms of agenda bias the approach of the most of the media outlets was relatively even handed with the agenda of the politicians often matching the media’s agenda and in terms of statement bias it was not that the newspapers were biased in their opinions and judgements towards one party over another, but that they had negative opinions about all politicians. Indeed, what seems striking about the analysis is that the media, while willing to give the incumbent parties a disproportionate amount of coverage, did so while displaying a distinct bias against all politicians.
What marked out the 2002 campaign was how much the political parties themselves had developed their media management, to the point were they could quickly and easily provide the media with packages and press releases which they could then print in their newspapers or broadcast in their news reports on TV or radio.
However, when it came to the 2007 campaign this level of sophistication fell apart. The reason was simple. Almost the entire campaign was dominated by one story: Bertiegate.
In his co-authored chapter in How Ireland Vote 2007: The Media and the Campaign Heinz Brandenburg and Zbyszek Zalinski describe in a more anecdotal way how the media allowed itself to get caught up in the story. This lead to the media wrapping itself up in a rather fervent self-examination and left the political parties, particularly Fianna Fail who had been so good at managing the media in 2002, finding it much more difficult to get their agendas across in the media. Indeed, in 2007, the media became the story. Also, the ‘horse race’ aspect of the campaign came more to the fore with the focus being on Ahern and Kenny as the main candidates, turning the campaign into a kind of ‘light’ version of the US Presidential election, particularly after the leader’s debate on RTE.
The conclusion of the Media and the Campaign chapter sums it up in this way:
“The 2007 general election campaign might turn out to be significant for Irish politics. It marked a failure for the parties’ communications machines, which sought to dictate the news agenda. The media found it increasingly difficult to navigate the stormy waters of conflicting interests of commercial endeavours, public interest and impartiality. The Internet offered a new public space, a new ‘town square’, and with the Web 2.0 emphasis on user-generated content it might grow to offer a truly alternative, citizen-oriented election coverage. In many respects the coverage of the 2007 election was still quite traditional.”
Perhaps the most striking things that I noticed between your article based on the 2002 election Political Bias in the Irish Media and the chapter on the media and the 2007 campaign is how, from a media perspective, the two campaigns were very different.
In the 2002 campaign you were able to conclude that the Fianna Fail spin machine was able to work efficiently, but that in 2007 the media became the story and it was very difficult for political parties to set the media agenda.
Do you think that this was a glitch in that it went against the trend where the dominant political parties were able to control how they are being represented more than the smaller parties, or was it more indicative of the power of the media to act independently of the dominant political players?
Keep in mind that the How Ireland Voted chapter on the 2007 campaign was based on anecdotal evidence mainly. We will have a dataset comparable to the one from 2002 by the end of the year, which will allow making more conclusive statements about party control over media coverage. But the 2007 campaign was certainly somewhat unique in that it was driven by a certain issue (Bertiegate) which impacted on traditional patterns of media coverage mirroring party (and especially big party) campaign activities and strategies.
Irish media were clearly impressed and somewhat annoyed and introspective about Fianna Fail’s effectively run 2002 campaign, and one might want to suspect that 2007 was a backlash against being instrumentalised. But one campaign in, and without yet having enough hard data to measure media independence, it is too early to make judgments about whether Irish media are freeing themselves from party-driven campaign coverage.
Following on from that do you think that 2007, with the focus on Bertiegate was an anomaly, bucking the trend of greater media management within modern political parties, or do you think that it illustrates a change in the relationship between political parties and the media?
Partly answered above. One thing to be kept in mind is that 2002 was the first time that a party (FF) did actually emulate campaign sophistication of British or US party machines. Fine Gael, Labour etc. have not caught up with that yet. So while the media maybe aiming to counter such media management from FF, it is to be seen to what extent other parties will improve their strategic behaviour (especially Sinn Fein who are so far working with more traditional means, but probably are the only ones with a machine to match FF), and if all parties become more professionalized in their campaigning what kind of media reaction that will provoke. Evidence from US and UK rather shows that media, as they did in 2002 with Fianna Fail, are enticed by campaign sophistication, and that party control over media coverage increases through campaign professionalisation, no matter how much journalists and editors claim that they want to maintain their independence.
In Political Bias in the Irish Media (PBIM from now on) you conclude that while bias could be discerned in the disproportionate amount of coverage given over to the Government parties that a lot of this coverage was negative. So, rather than showing bias in the papers, that they showed instead a dislike of politicians in general. Can you think of why that might be the case?
Just a general trend. I find exactly the same from content analysis of campaign coverage in US and UK. Even heavily partisan newspapers in the UK, like the Daily Mirror or Daily Mail, do not express endorsement of a party with praise of that party in their editorial pages. Daily Mail endorses Tories by being neutral towards them and only thrashing Labour (and Daily Mirror does vice versa). Many in the US have argued that media are contributing to public distrust in politicians and institutions and political apathy by presenting politics negatively. There is little evidence that this negative coverage of politics actually has those effects, but the media are certainly presenting a negative picture of politics. Peculiarity in Ireland, which adds to the pattern, is, as I briefly mention in the IPS article, that Irish papers aim for unbiasedness. This means that there is little to no room for praise. Parties, their leaders and programmes are being scrutinised and never endorsed, which may result in neutral to negative statements.
Your analysis of the coverage of policy is very interesting, especially from the point of view of how much is given over to this type of coverage. You seem to conclude in PBIM that when such coverage occurs that it is presented in a fairly even handed manner and that in the case of Labour it is generally more even-handed then with Fianna Fail, for example. However, it seems that the trend is for less space being given over to this type of coverage than before and more emphasis being placed on the ‘horse-race’ aspect of the election.
“Less space” would imply that campaign coverage was more issue-centred in previous decades. We do not have the data to make that comparison. And also it is a general but unfounded claim about the good old times when political coverage and news was still political. But I am sure that, for example in Ireland, there was enough personality focus in the times of Eamonn de Valera, or Haughey. Horserace coverage is likely to have increased, simply because there are more polling institutes in most countries than existed 30 years ago, and it adds an element of making campaign coverage sellable, the focus on who wins.
In the Tasc article What the Papers Say, which looks at the media performance during the 2004 European Elections Paula Clancy et al suggests that the media chastises politicians about engaging in campaign strategies to win media support and interest through gimmickry and marketing techniques of various kinds, while also purposely avoiding any real direct engagement with policy.
WTPS makes the point that politicians were actively engaged in getting their policy ideas across but that the media failed to respond. I quote [from the Tasc article]:
“We have seen the kind of trenchant criticism of politicians and candidates offered by the media. But a review of a sample of the press releases issued by the candidates and or the political parties during the period do not support these allegations. On the whole, compared with the performance of the media, the political parties and candidates made a much more creditable effort to address issues. Almost sixty per cent of the primary material conveyed in the 156 press releases analyzed for this study addressed a substantive discussion of either a European or a National issue, while a further four per cent focused on a local issue.
While sixteen per cent were focused on some aspect of inter-party rivalry or political critique less than twelve per cent were concerned to promote a candidate or party. To the credit of the candidates less than eighteen per cent of the press releases could be termed an example of negative campaigning.”
This is partly giving the parties too much credit, since it is in the nature of press releases to emphasize certain issue areas each day of the campaign. Also press releases emanate from policy spokespersons invariably emphasising their area of responsibility. Most press releases are also short summaries of speeches or announcements made by policy spokespersons. What does happen of course is if one party criticises their opponents in a press release, and do so on policy grounds, the media tend to translate this, certainly in their headlines, into “A attacks B” and only way down the article it is mentioned that A did indeed attack B’s EU stance or health policy or budget plans. Parties clash over policy matters, and what is primarily interesting for media is that they clash.
In the 2007 election, as your account suggests, there was even more examples of the media involving itself in self-reflection about whether or not it was fulfilling its normative role of informing the people as part of the democratic process.
Because so much was given over to this discussion it seems to have been even harder for political parties to discuss issues, and from that for the people to be able to make an informed decision based on what their potential representatives could offer them.
Do you think that the media by providing so little coverage to policies and issues effectively block the passing of information from politicians to the public?
That would require campaign material to consist of the passing of information to the public. It is of course not (just) information but propaganda that is aimed at the public. Issues are too complex to allow full informing of the public on many matters. And we have seen that in both 2002 and 2007 campaigns largely consisted of FF and FG out-pledging each other, FG instead of criticising the government and offering a political alternative, mainly trying to tell the public “hey whatever FF has provided you with and is offering for the future, we are promising you that plus something”, without much care for fiscal responsibility. In that as many cases of campaigning, simply relaying campaign propaganda to voters does not necessarily amount to informing them more and better. For media to do their “job” of informing the public, they would have to provide independent scrutiny of competing party proposal, which they are partly doing, and certainly A LOT MORE in Ireland, or Britain, or other European countries than the US media are doing, who would never dare to approach scrutiny with independence, but rather in a cross-partisan way (if they report that Republicans propose X, they will also ask some Democratic spokesperson about their party’s opinion on X). But the problem is that what most people tend to read is rather the campaign stories not the analysis pages, which means that what reaches them mostly is the listing of pledges rather than any scrutiny thereof. And most papers (certainly in 2002) did let the parties get away with outpledging each other, as if there were no budget constraints.
In PBIM you conclude: “Since the Irish media tend to refrain from openly endorsing political campaigners, coverage tends to consist of (more or less constructive) criticism, which logically results in negative averages across all parties.”
The WTPS article suggests that the media has a tendency to trivialise politics and politicians and puts more emphasis on personalities. Do you think this tendency is reflected in your findings that coverage is largely critical of all parties?
Trivialisation does not necessarily imply criticism. Personality stories tend to be largely neutral, cause once you have a reporter actually meeting a politician and writing a profile (assuming that the majority of politicians are actually quite normal, functional, non-evil human beings which I am sure they are), you get the bits from the campaign trail which are the least likely to piss off the general public. It is the focus on negativity between parties that turns readers/voters off. I really don’t think people mind trivialised politics; just means that politics becomes less relevant to citizens’ lives. And journalists are being driven by parties towards negativity either through excessive media management (even though they were enchanted initially by FF’s professional reporter treatment in 2002), or through incompetent media management (the ill-fated Noonan campaign in 2002 for example, or FF’s inability to get the Bertiegate issue of the agenda in 2007. And really, whatever the parties are doing, they will get some bashing in the media. Kind of like the Jeremy Paxman effect; many journalists think that critical/independent/investigative coverage manifests itself in suspicion that there is some hidden agenda behind everything politicians do or say.
In your conclusion to the chapter on the media and the campaign in 2007 you say:
“Essentially, one of the biggest stories of the 2007 campaign became the media themselves. In that sense, this Irish election campaign provides us with an ideal-typical example of a phenomenon that communication scholars in Europe and the US have paid increasing attention to in recent years: the paradox of expecting commercial news media to act in the public interest.”
Could you explain more about this paradox in an Irish context?
Broadsheet or quality papers in Ireland as elsewhere are becoming more self-reflective when it comes to campaign coverage. And to some extent that is indicative of reporters/editors being aware of the paradoxical situation they are caught in. I do think that journalists see themselves, certainly strongly so in Ireland, as fulfilling an important social/democratic function, namely informing the public. But at the same time, Irish newspapers as elsewhere are commercial organizations, and increasingly chain-owned, hence driven towards sensationalism, personalization of campaign coverage, emphasizing conflict, horserace, anything that makes political news interesting and a sellable commodity. On their editorial pages they tend to flagellate themselves over their inadequate, and bottom-line driven, approach elsewhere on the news pages. Nothing peculiar about Irish journalists there, I guess, just caught in the same situation as in other countries.
What is the significance of pack journalism in the Irish media? What is the negative effect for the public?
The Bertiegate story illustrated how incapable the media are, because of their pack behaviour, to avoid being dominated by a singular event, or developing a story, because the reporters all by and large live within the campaign for those weeks, and have no outside view, no corrective for what seems to drive them all in the same direction at the same time. And the Irish media (similar to the US) maybe more driven by pack journalism than British or German media, because of the lack of a partisan press. The general quasi-neutral approach renders all reporters of all papers driven in their interest by developments rather than partisan interests. If you have partisan papers, and a certain development which primarily shines a bad light on one party, that party’s endorsing papers will shift focus to different matters, which may result in overall rebalancing of news focus across the spectrum. US and Irish media, by virtue of their professional impartiality, are more caught and with less of a rebalancing corrective mechanism in their pack behaviour.
In a recent published article in New Left Review Alain Badiou wrote, in relation to the French election in 2007 and the press:
“We should not underestimate the role of what Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’-increasingly through the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than TV and radio-in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments.”
Based on your research do you think this is a fair assessment of Irish print media?
Badiou’s argument, to my taste, over-intellectualises over-interprets the state-media nexus. Certainly, journalists and editors are not detached observers of political and economic elites but integrated part. And that will invariably impact on their writing about politics in general. But I am no friend of conspiracy theories. Chomsky’s non-conspiratorial theory of propaganda is perhaps more to the point. If journalists’ most authoritative sources are the main competing factions within the political elites, then their presentation of politics is limited to reflecting those positions and necessarily leaning towards instilling acquiescence of the larger public into mainstream beliefs. Irish media are certainly not more or less independent from the elites they report on than their counterparts in other countries. The problem in Irish politics is perhaps that despite the multi-party system, it tends to be reduced to a government vs. main opposition dichotomy. This does include a pathetic little pointless party like the PDs, whose positions are well publicised, but excludes Greens and Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein marginalisation is similar to marginalization of, for example, the Linke (Left) in German politics and until recently marginalization in political coverage. Because of history (Sinn Fein/IRA and in Germany Linke as second generation successor party to the GDR state machinery) more than policies, which are perfectly agreeable if somewhat leftist in the party system, these are being excluded which looks good as pretentious indication of principled politics by the mainstream parties, are also partly marginalized by journalists who have long-seated grievances with the organizations involved. And in those cases we find a thoroughly inadequate reflection of the full breadth of existing political alternatives and the true range of policy positions within the current party system.
Finally, what changes to political coverage do see coming about as a result of greater use of the internet, especially the new citizen orientated coverage, or new town square? I suppose I’m interested in this too, as I wrote posts for Irish Election, which you cited in your chapter, The Media and the Campaign.
Not sure what to expect. Blogging in Ireland is only developing. A bit unsure about what direction this phenomenon is going to take in Europe. In US, blogging etc. is either highly activist-driven (as with DailyKos) or the alternative to established media which can more easily break stories because of lower standards as to how factual some rumour actually is (as with Drudge Report). I am quite sceptical about the capacity of online media to seriously initiate more citizen dialogue and more public deliberation. It is only those at the high end of political interest and activation who are being reached or already participating. Maybe Ireland has more potential than most countries because it is a country which I think is characterised by relatively high levels of interest in news, radio listenership etc.
 Brandenburg, Heinz Political Bias in the Irish Media p298 (Irish Political Studies Vol. 20 Number 3, 2005 ) Taken from: McQuail, D. (1992). Media Performance. Mass Communication and the Public Interest (London: Sage Publications Ltd). P 191
 Brandenburg, Heinz and Zalinski, Zbyszek: How Ireland Voted 2007: chapter The Media and the Campaign (Ed. Gallagher & Marsh 2007) Palgrave
The image above is of the one of the best known media ‘events’ of the 2007 election, The Rumble in Ranelagh between John Gormley and Michael McDowell.
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