Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward’s chapter is entitled ‘Newspaper Coverage’. They ‘focus mainly on the New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times’, but ‘also include aspects of The Press and Dominion Post coverage’. The context of their analysis is the media studies concept of ‘Media logic’ whereby its thought that commercial criteria results in newspapers ‘prefer stories that entertain (such as those on lighthearted and trivial campaign events) to stories that inform (such as stories on policy proposals)’ and that the coverage of elections and politics is the worse for it.
Volume of coverage
Rudd and Hayward methodologically counted up all the election stories published in New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times during the last month of the campaign – just as they’ve done in previous elections. The found that there had been a ‘disconcerting’ yet modest decline in the quantity of election coverage. Across both papers, there were 614 stories, 8 headline stories (a ‘dramatic’ decline) and 29 editorials. In terms of editorials, the ODT ran an election one every second day and the Herald every third day.
Number of election stories:
1999: 561 stories
2002: 669 stories
2005: 636 stories
2008: 614 stories
Number of election headlines:
1999: 22 headline stories
2005: 30 headline stories
2008: 8 headline stories
Number of editorials:
1999: 20 editorials
2002: 22 editorials
2005: 31 editorials
2008: 29 editorials
Strategy versus substance
Rudd and Hayward categorised all the election stories to see whether they fitted into either 1) game/strategy related, or 2) policy substance. Basically, in 2008 the newspaper published twice as many strategic-related stories than policy issues. This was down from 2005, when the newspapers published three times as many stories on the election game.
Proportion of stories on policies:
2002: 36% on substantive issues
2005: 24% on substantive issues
2008: 34% on substantive issues
Election issues reported
The looming economic recession was clearly the most reported issue, with 54 stories across the two papers. In fact, ‘The global financial crisis and how the government and main opposition party would respond to this, was the election issue for the first two weeks of the campaign’. And half of the 8 headline stories related to the political response to the global financial crisis. But more general economic issues were not common – with only 15 stories, and only 12 on issues of tax (well down on the previous election). After the recession, the next biggest stories were Law and order (25 stories) and Treaty/Māori (21). Transport was very highly reported (18), which Rudd and Hayward say can be accounted for by ‘Labour’s controversial buy back of Kiwirail’ and the fact that ‘both parties included road building as part of their infrastructural plan to stimulate the economy’. Other main issues included Health (19), Education (14), Environment (14), and Housing (12).
Interestingly, there appears to have been less focus in 2008 on opinion polls. Rudd and Hayward found that ‘There were 40 opinion poll stories in the two newspapers. This was the lowest number across the four elections since 1999’ and such opinion poll stories ‘were also less prominently featured than in previous elections’. There was also a greater concentration on aggregated ‘polls of polls’.
Opinion poll stories on the front page:
A surge in vox pop election stories
Rudd and Hayward say that in 2008 ‘the human face approach appears to be used to balance the anonymity of opinion polls’. The ‘voice of the people’ were reported more than ever before, continuing a trend they’ve noted previously, with stories on what individual voters think as well as reports from newspaper focus groups. Insightfully, Rudd and Hayward say this trend ‘mimics the very popular “reality TV”’ phenomenon and generally represents a greater emphasis on reporting the ‘game’ rather than the substance.
It is also noted that the New Zealand Herald made a significant effort or experimentation with social media, advertising ‘to readers that the paper made election news available on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, MSN, and that the paper had a mobile site and a Google map mashup of leaders’ whereabouts on the campaign trail’
Is there an increasing focus on party leaders in newspaper coverage of elections? Rudd and Hayward aren’t so sure. They say that in 2008, ‘every second story about either party had a leader-focus’, but that this isn’t exactly a rocketing trend, as previous elections have also contained a leader-focused coverage (albeit less so in 2002 apparently). It seems that the coverage is already so incredibly presidentialised, the trend couldn’t get much worse.
Was there a structural bias against one party?
There wasn’t any significant unequal quantity of coverage for the parliamentary parties. Obviously Labour and National received the ‘lion’s share’ of newspaper coverage during the 2008 campaign, but what of the minor parties? Rudd and Hayward found it was relatively fair in terms of the popular support for those parties.
Proportion of minor party coverage:
New Zealand First: 5%
Māori Party: 5%
Act Party: 4%
United Future: 2%
Partisan bias of newspaper coverage?
Traditionally there’s been a bias in newspapers against Labour and in favour of National. But in 2008 that no longer exists according to Rudd and Hayward. They say that ‘reading the news stories of both the New Zealand Herald and Otago Daily Times it would be difficult to infer a favourable or unfavourable orientation towards any of the political parties’. Of 103 opinion pieces published, Rudd and Hayward only found that 15 showed partisanship.
This was particularly the case in terms of editorials:
In the 2008 election, of the 29 election editorials featured in the New Zealand Herald and Otago Daily Times, only eight of these had an overt partisanship, and neither of the election eve editorials came out in favour of any party. The Dominion Post also gave no preference for either party on election eve, preferring to criticise all parties. The Press focused on the economy in its final election editorial and presented a balanced view. In the New Zealand Herald, three editorials were anti-Labour, and one anti- National; in the Otago Daily Times, National received one favourable editorial, Labour, the Māori Party and all parties collectively received one critical editorial respectively.
Rudd and Hayward point out that although the Greens might have got a rough ride in the past, in 2008 previous editorial criticism was absent, and the ‘Herald even ran an editorial that sympathetically profiled the minor party, called: ‘Greens policy worth a look”.’
Did ‘issue bias’ favour a particular party?
Having found that the newspapers were fairly even-handed in terms of the parties, Rudd and Hayward investigate whether the papers might have ‘giving disproportionate attention to issues know to benefit a certain party?’. Again the answer seems to be ‘no’. They say that the significant policy convergence of Labour and National has meant that – unlike in the past – neither of the two main parties now ‘own’ particular issues, and hence, ‘The incumbent Labour government seemed comfortable raising financial economic management as an election issue; National was only too keen to discuss health and educational issues’. Therefore the old ‘issue-bias theory’ seems to have broken down.
Rudd and Hayward are somewhat critical – or at least questioning of – newspapers for assigning ‘ulterior motives to the parties’ policy stances’. In this sense, the media seeks to explain parties releasing policies in terms of strategy – e.g. “Labour have just released a policy on guaranteeing bank deposites that is intended to trump National’ etc. Rudd and Hayward thinks this is a negative behaviour on the part of the media, as it
may have encouraged readers to be cynical about election choices, and to question whether or not parties will follow through on election promises once in government. So, on the one hand, such cynicism could ultimately be harmful to citizen engagement in the political process in general, and voter turnout in particular.
Here, I’d disagree with Rudd and Hayward. I think that the media are simply reflecting reality. They are reporting policy issues as ‘the game’ because that is exactly what it is. It’s the political parties that operate cynically releasing policy because of its game-value rather than any deeply-held political principles that characterizes modern elections. The media can hardly be blamed for reporting this fact. They should indeed be seeking to uncover and explain what they think a politicians’ ulterior motive is in pushing a particular policy line. If this leads to declining voter engagement, then we should be pointing the finger mostly at the political parties, not voters nor the media.
Academics – and especially lefty political scientists – are often pigeonholed as being great critics of the media and emphasizing their deleterious role played in modern politics, but Rudd and Hayward have put together an important chapter that goes beyond all the old assumptions, investigates methodically, and comes up with some very interesting and fresh results. And despite being wary of the entertainment and commercial logic of the newspaper operating model, Rudd and Hayward argue that newspapers aren’t actually doing such a bad job in reporting elections.
Janine Hayward is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. She teaches New Zealand politics and comparative politics. In collaboration with Chris Rudd, she has edited Political Communications in New Zealand and has published a number of articles and book chapters on political communication (including ‘Metropolitan Newspapers and the Election’, in Left Turn: The New Zealand General Election of 1999, and ‘The Coverage of Post-War Election Campaigns: The Otago Daily Times’, Political Science (2002)).
Chris Rudd is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches poltical communication and campaigning. In collaboration with Janine Hayward, he has edited Political Communications in New Zealand and has published a number of articles and book chapters on political communication (including ‘Metropolitan Newspapers and the Election’, in Left Turn: The New Zealand General Election of 1999, and ‘The Coverage of Post-War Election Campaigns: The Otago Daily Times’, Political Science (2002)).
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd