Commercialism Vs Professionalism. That’s the tension present in modern media coverage of politics according to Babak Bahador, who’s written a very good chapter entitled ‘Media coverage of the election’ in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 (edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts). Bahador asks, ‘So how did the New Zealand media balance these forces during the 2008 election? Did they follow commercial trends in other Western democracies towards increasingly partisan, negative, presidential and superficial coverage? Or did they maintain a reasonable degree of professionalism in their coverage and fulfil their democratic duty?’. He attempts to answer these questions with a comprehensive content analysis of the New Zealand Herald, Dominion Post, the Press, and TV1 and TV3 evening news. He comes up with some very interesting results. [Read more below]
Bahador’s chapter is based on a detailed content analysis of 875 news and analysis stories published and broadcast in the eight-week period leading up to the election. Within these stories, 17,608 statements and 28,930 references were identified and coded in terms of their quantity and tone (positive, negative and neutral). This allows Bahador to provide answers about the nature of the New Zealand media and in particular ‘whether any systematic or specific media bias was present during the 2008 New Zealand election campaign’ (p.153).
One paragraph from the chapter’s conclusion is particularly clear and comprehensive in summing up the findings:
The 2008 New Zealand election demonstrated a degree of balance between the forces of commercialization and professionalism within the mass media, manifested through limited evidence of media bias, including the tone of political coverage, the degree of presidentialisation (or leadership focus), and the types of issues and topics selected for news coverage. There was no obvious partisanship in favour of a particular party or party leader, or between the larger and smaller parties. While the Labour Party received more coverage than National, John Key received more coverage than Helen Clark. While National and John Key attracted more negative coverage in news stories, Labour and Helen Clark received more negative coverage in analysis stories. While smaller parties clearly received less coverage than larger parties, their share of news coverage was significantly greater than their proportion of public support in the election itself (p.168).
There are a few issues here that are worth elaborating on further.
Distribution of coverage
Of all the quantity of material that was published and broadcast about the parties during the campaign, how much of it dealt with all the parliamentary parties? Were some parties under- or over-represented in the media? The table below shows the breakdown of the quantity of references to the various parties.
NZ First: 5.6%
United Future: 2.4%
The first thing to note here is that the minor parties appear to have received ‘more coverage than their overall popular support’ (p.154). This might therefore dismiss legitimate concerns that ‘the media are biased in favour of the two larger parties’ (p.154). Yet, the minor parties still receive much less attention than the majors, and Bahador says that ‘the smaller parties could claim that the reason for their lower polling and voting support was due to their lesser media coverage… [thus] the status quo is likely to become entrenched’ by this unequal distribution of coverage (p.155).
A second obvious point of note is ‘the relative lack of coverage for National compared to its polling and electoral support. For example, whereas National received 33.5 per cent media coverage, it received 44.9 per cent of the vote on election day’ (p.155). So perhaps the media was biased against National? Probably not, according to Bahador. He also looked at the quantity for media coverage of all the party leaders, and found that National’s John Key received significantly more attention than anyone else – see the table below.
John Key: 40.5%
Helen Clark: 25.7%
Winston Peters: 18.6%
Peter Dunne: 3.8%
Tariana Turia or Pita Sharples: 3.6%
Rodney Hide: 3.0%
Jeanette Fitzsimons or Russel Norman: 2.7%
Jim Anderton: 2.7%
In terms of the minor party leaders, it’s clear that Winston Peters received a proportion of attention (18.6%) well beyond his level of public support. As Bahador says, this was due to his ‘involvement in a controversy over an alleged illegal donation’ (p.156).
In contrast, the Green Party leaders only received a mere 2.7% - much less than their party’s public and electoral support. Obviously this could reflect poor leadership performance, or perhaps more likely, it could be a reflection of the party’s deliberate attempt not to emphasise its leadership. But you have to wonder whether this is an effective strategy for the party. Another explanation – that of media bias against the Greens – is unlikely given other evidence found in Bahador’s research. For example, the Greens were found to have had the highest proportion of positive coverage in the media news stories (33.6%) and the second-lowest proportion of negative coverage (18.4%), after the Maori Party. (It is also notable that the Green Party leaders only gained 17.5% of the coverage of their own party, with is significantly lower than the average of 37.2%).
It was actually National that had the greatest proportion of negative media coverage (37.9%) followed closely by Labour and NZ First. Bahador usefully subtracts the proportion of negative coverage from the figures for the proportion of positive coverage, to give an overall net positivity score, which can be seen in the table below. Here, National stands out as having the ‘worst’ media coverage (-15.6%) and the Greens the ‘best’ coverage (+14.3%).
NZ First: -16.3%
United Future: 0.9%
All parties: -8.2%
Bahador notes that ‘it is important to differentiate between news and analysis stories in order to get a clearer picture regarding the sources contributing to a story’s tone’ (p.157). He thus counts up the different negative and positive references separately for analysis stories by the likes of John Armstrong and the news stories by, for example, NZPA. The breakdown of the ‘analysis’ stories can be seen in the table below.
NZ First: -35.8%
United Future: -6.3%
All parties: -15.1%
Here Bahador finds that Labour fares worse than National from the media’s political analysts:
In analysis stories… Labour had 18.7 per cent more negative references than positive, while National had 15.3 per cent negative references. This means that when it came to journalists presenting their own independent views on the parties, Labour received a slightly less favourable judgement. This outcome, it could be argued, balanced the news story coverage that was more negative for National (p.158).
Similarly, although minor parties like the Maori and the Greens still got much more favourable coverage from the political analysts, it’s not as favourable as the straight news stories:
Looking at the smaller parties, the Green and Maori parties, which had received relatively favourable coverage overall – getting over 10 per cent more positive than negative coverage – their coverage becomes far less favourable when only news analysis stories are considered (p.158).
It’s also notable that Act and the Progressives, in particular, got much more negative, and less positive, coverage from the media’s political analysts, with very low net positive scores of -27.0% and -57.1%, respectively.
Turning from the parties to their leaders, Bahador finds that ‘John Key (-6.6 per cent) received more negative coverage than positive compared with Helen Clark (3.2 per cent)’ (p.158). But again, when he differentiates between news stories and analysis stories, National is better served by the analysts, and Labour better served by the straight reporting: ‘In news stories, John Key (-7 per cent) attracted more negative coverage than Helen Clark (4.7 per cent). In analysis stories, however, Helen Clark (-5.2 per cent) received slightly more net negative coverage than Key (-4.5 per cent)’ (p.159).
The chapter also looks to gauge the degree of presidentialisation in New Zealand politics ‘by comparing the frequency of references to parties… and party leaders in media coverage’ (p.163). The finding is that presidentialiation isn’t yet as extreme as elsewhere: ‘Overall… there were nearly twice as many references to parties as to party leaders (62.8 per cent to 37.2 per cent)’ (p.164). And it’s interesting to note that ‘National was far more strongly identified with John Key (who attracted 41.7 per cent of the coverage given to the National Party) than Labour was with Helen Clark (who accounted for 28.6 per cent of Labour’s coverage)’ (p.164).
Overall, Bahador’s chapter is very interesting and informative. It should be read alongside other similar chapters such as Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd’s chapter on ‘Newspaper coverage of the 2008 NZ election’ and Margie Comrie’s chapter on ‘Television coverage of the 2008 NZ election’ – both published in the 2009 book Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig).
Further book details:
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Nigel (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.