Advancing Understanding in News Information, Political Knowledge and Media Systems Research
31 December 2012 - 31 July 2014
About the project
For democracies to work two fundamental prerequisites are that their publics must be able to hold those in power accountable and that their electorates cast informed votes. While the exact meaning of concepts like "accountability" and an "informed vote" is contested, what is not in dispute is that they depend on individuals having certain levels of knowledge about, and engagement with, the political world, such as knowledge of who their representatives are and what they have done, which is in turn more likely if someone pays attention to the political environment.
For the vast majority of people the level of knowledge they have about politics is acquired indirectly, through exposure to media coverage of the political world, rather than directly. Most people do not get to meet their representatives, let alone ask them about their actions. Thus researchers have long been interested in both the supply of political information from media--how much, its focus and tone, hard news vs. soft news, the supply from television vs. newspapers--and its effects on individuals--does media coverage of politics serve to educate and engage them or have the opposite effects? Does itincrease extant knowledge gaps among the public or close them? And scholars of comparative politics ask the additional questions of whether different media systems across countries, such as a partisan or non-partisan press, or, on television, a strong public service broadcasting tradition versus a plethora of commercial, entertainment-oriented channels makes a difference. The answers to such questions tell us a great deal about the health of a democracy. However, previous research has come up with a variety of conflicting answers. Why? There are several possible reasons, but among the most likely is that researchers do not always use the most appropriate methods to examine media effects (e.g., often looking at people's media habits but not at the actual content of the coverage they expose themselves to) and that they are not always comparing like with like, i.e., media effects in one country may differ from those in another for very good reason.
In this project we use three publicly available secondary survey data sets--the 2009 European Election Study, 2006, 2008, and 2010 European Social Survey, and 2005-2010 British Election Study Panel--to examine 1) the substantive issue of the relationship between media coverage and political knowledge and engagement, and 2) four different methods to gauge media effects. Our focus is on the traditional media of television news and newspapers; while social media have a role to play their influence is still dwarfed by traditional media. We will link media content data that we have or that are available to each of these surveys in order to estimate the amount of exposure to political information, its subject matter, tone etc. and the consequences for political attitudes and behaviour. These data sets are cross-national, allowing us to examine the interaction of different media systems, characteristics of media content, and individuals.
Our project will show the potential of secondary data for answering fundamental questions about European democracies and the effects of media, particularly timely in an era that spans the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s when there are questions about people's continuing faith in democracy, and when the role of media in contemporary society is under scrutiny through bodies such as the Leveson Inquiry; while also answering the important practical questions of how to apply different methods of estimating media effects, when they are appropriate, the kinds of relationships they uncover, and when and why their findings conflict.