Introduction: Studying Elections
Why study media coverage of elections?
Election campaigns play a fundamental role in democratic systems. They represent, after all, a time when political parties showcase their vision for the future and citizens consider, if at all, how best to cast their votes. Since the news media act as the primary source of election information for most people during a campaign, they play a crucial role in communicating news to voters. But what kind of logic do the news media follow when reporting election campaigns? How well do they inform citizens about their democratic choices? The aim of this book is to answer these (and many more) questions by comprehensively examining how election campaigns are reported. In doing so, we reflect on the value of election reporting and consider how the logic of campaign coverage can better serve the democratic needs of citizens.
While scholars have increased their interest in how the news media report election campaigns over recent years (Strömbäck and Kaid 2008), many book-length studies deal with national issues and concerns (see, for example, Young 2011 or Oates 2008) rather than considering broader international trends and patterns. Moreover, most studies focus exclusively on 'first-order' elections, such as presidential or general elections, which are viewed as more important to voters than 'second-order' elections, such as European Union (EU), state or more localised contests (Reif and Schmitt 1980). The aim of this book is to assess election reporting in both first- and second-order elections. We do so by developing an evidence-based understanding of the media logic shaping election reporting and consider the democratic value of campaign coverage.
By 'media logic' we refer to the kind of organising principles behind the editorial selection and communication of news about election campaigns (Altheide 2016). In political communication studies, media logic is widely understood as reflecting 'the institutional, technological, and sociological characteristics of the news media, including their format characteristics, production and dissemination routines, norms and needs' (Strömbäck 2011: 373). It is the rules shaping election reporting that we aim to uncover. In understanding the influences behind the day-to-day reporting of election campaigns, many layers need to be stripped away and interpreted (Semetko et al.. 1991: 178-9). But the lead protagonists in agenda-setting, above all, tend to be political parties, journalists and voters (McCombs 2014; Strömbäck and Esser 2014). While there is clearly an interdependence between these actors, there is an independence from one another as different interests and needs shape the agenda-setting process during an election campaign (McCombs 2014; Semetko et al. 1991). We need, in other words, to consider the main agenda-setting factors that influence coverage during campaigns.
Writing about US media in the 1960s, Katz was one of the first scholars to question how election campaigns were reported. He cast considerable doubt on their democratic value and suggested that the coverage served primarily a political rather than a public logic. In his words, 'one is led to the conclusion that election campaigns are better designed to serve the political parties, particularly the dominant ones, than to serve society or the voter' (Katz 1971: 314). Two decades later, Semetko and her colleagues published a pioneering book-length study about US and UK election reporting and identified a strong media logic shaping campaign coverage. They observed that US journalists, in particular, exercised considerable 'discretionary powers' over the agenda-setting process (Semetko et al. 1991: 4). Nonetheless, their comparative focus led them to conclude that 'the formation of the campaign agenda is a complex process that varies from one culture and one election to a