There is an assumption in the literature on the media coverage of elections that it is being Americanised or ‘dumbed down’. Election coverage can be thought to vary on whether substantive policy issues are discussed or if the coverage centres on the likely result and/ or the parties’ electoral strategies. For instance in the last few days of the 2012 US Presidential election 20 percent of traffic to the New York Times website went to Nate Silver’s blog analysing opinion polls. For some this was a trivialisation of an important decision that the nation was making. Poll analysis is usually thought of as treating an election or politics as a game or sport and is discussed in the same way. Ireland appeared to be following this trend; policy coverage in the Irish Times during the short election campaign fell from about 60 percent in 1973 to close to 30 percent in 2007.
What might explain this?
In a paper written with Heinz Brandenburg, Roddy Flynn, Iain McMenamin and Kevin Rafter that is forthcoming in European Political Science Review (an earlier version is available here) we suggest a number of media and political factors. Commercial pressures make it more difficult to produce comparatively expensive policy analysis that appeals to fewer readers. Coverage of elections as sport is cheap to produce and easy to read. The increase in opinion polling will also feed this. There is also a norm in Ireland against partisan bias, which makes covering elections as a ‘game’ preferable, because discussions of the substance of policy issues might make it more difficult for the journalist to hide any policy preferences they hold. Where there is a narrow policy space, as in Ireland, discussion of policy may seem pointless because there aren’t competing policy ideas out there. And in a majoritarian political system where there are clear winners and losers in elections, it is easier to cover elections in this way. All of which points to Ireland continuing this trend to less policy coverage.
We argue that the context of the election must also matter. In particular if an election takes place in an economic crisis there will be greater demand for policy coverage, because policy matters again. We carried out extensive coding of press coverage of the 2011 election, which supplemented the coverage Brandenburg had earlier carried out in 2002 and 2007. We observe the long term trend of decreased policy coverage dramatically reversed. Policy coverage in the election-related articles increased across all papers we have data from earlier elections.
There was also high policy coverage across all types of paper, including tabloids, though the amount of election coverage in tabloids was much lower than for broadsheets.
We also see that coverage is on what we would expect it to be if the economic crisis caused the increased election coverage. Coverage of the economy increased dramatically (if not surprisingly). A little more surprising was the increase in coverage of the political system, though given that many parties were pointing to reform of the political system and voters in surveys showed that they felt the political system was broken, this might not be as surprising we might first think.
This case shows that when it matters the media can shift focus quite dramatically and concentrate on policy – in Zaller’s (2003) words, they raise the ‘alarm’ and move to lessen dramatic and entertaining routine coverage to more focused coverage that alerts the otherwise ‘monitorial citizen’ whose urgent attention is required. This outcome questions the argument that media drives the public agenda more than real-world indicators.
Another conclusion relates to the qualities of democracy. Sen (1999) and many others argue that democracy can prevent catastrophes because policies are observed and questioned earlier by a free press and other institutions. That the Irish press moved so firmly to cover policy in the 2011 election might support Sen’s (1999) argument. So we could have a less pessimistic outlook on the press than other commentators have had: the media can be responsive and responsible. Unfortunately this attention came too late to prevent the economic collapse as, like elsewhere, the Irish media did not discuss or question the policies that ultimately provoked the crisis.