The conditional impact of election news on political cynicism: a cross-nationally comparative perspective

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The conditional impact of election news on political cynicism:

A cross-nationally comparative perspective
Andreas R.T. Schuck

Hajo G. Boomgaarden

Claes H. de Vreese


University of Amsterdam

Amsterdam School of Communication Research ASCoR

Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX Amsterdam


Paper presented at the 64th Annual Conference of the

World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR),

Amsterdam/The Netherlands, September 21th-23th


Previous research suggests that the news media’s reporting about politics in terms of strategy fosters political cynicism. The literature hitherto has addressed this matter mostly in single country studies and in a US context which raises questions about generalizability. The current study draws on a unique multi-method and comparative cross-country study design, combining a media content analysis (N=52,009) with data from a two-wave panel survey conducted in 21 EU member states (N=32,411) during the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. Our findings stress that the effect of strategy news on cynicism is conditional upon both individual as well as country-specific factors. Citizens who paid less attention to the election campaign were more affected. Furthermore, strategy news had more of an effect on cynicism in countries in which trust in EU institutions was lower. Overall, our study provides the first comprehensive overview over the conditional impact of election coverage on cynicism in a European context.

Keywords: strategy framing, political cynicism, election campaigns, comparative analysis, media content analysis, panel survey.

Scholarly and public debates about the role of the media during elections are heated and ongoing. Previous research has identified different content features of campaign news coverage with the potential to affect citizens in electoral contexts. An important strand of extant research has, for example, established a link between news media’s reporting of election campaigns in terms of strategy and political cynicism (Rhee, 1997; Valentino et al., 2001). Political cynicism describes a gap between voters and their political representatives and is said to have increased over the past decades, arguably driven by how politics is covered in the mass media (e.g., Adriaansen, van Praag & de Vreese, 2010; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). The news media’s emphasis on framing politics in terms of strategy thereby is suggested to lead citizens to perceive politics as a game that is remote from representing citizens’ interests.

Strategic news reporting is conceptualized as news that focuses on winning and losing, is driven by ‘war and games’ language, or focuses on the style and perceptions of politicians (Jamieson, 1992). Similarly, following Robinson’s (1976) ‘‘video malaise’’ thesis, several studies demonstrated the news media’s increasingly strong emphasis on strategic elements such as strategic motivations or the style of presentation of political leaders and showed how this mode of coverage negatively affects citizens’ political attitudes and behavior (Fallows, 1996; Farnsworth & Lichter, 2003; Patterson, 1993, 2002). Whereas a relationship between citizens’ exposure to strategy framing in the news and their cynicism towards politics has been established previously, we know little about the specific conditions under which this relationship is more or less likely to occur. Without specifying these conditions, however, we may draw incorrect inferences about the nature and pervasiveness of this phenomenon.

The literature hitherto has addressed this topic by and large in single country studies and mostly in a US context. However, we know from studies of national election campaigns in other countries that strategic news reporting is also found in election news coverage also outside of the U.S., albeit in varying degrees (e.g., Brettschneider, 1997; de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2006; Schuck et al., 2011; Stromback & Kaid, 2008). Some scholars even refer to strategic coverage as the dominant journalistic mode since the 1970s (e.g., Esser et al., 2001), but there is little specific evidence of strategic news reporting and its effects beyond the U.S. example (see Jackson, 2011) or with regard to European politics specifically. Previous research has shown, for example, how strategically framed news coverage can foster cynicism towards the EU which in turn can affect vote choice in EU integration referenda among younger voters (de Vreese & Elenbaas, 2008). What is missing so far, however, is a comparative view on news effects on political cynicism which allows to not only consider the relationship between news and cynicism itself, but also its conditionality on both individual as well as contextual, system-specific factors. It is now widely acknowledged that media effects are unlikely to be across-the-board effects and may strongly depend on recipients’ characteristics or the contexts in which they operate (e.g., Delli-Carpini, 2004; McLeod et al., 2004). In line with this we expect that the impact of strategy news on political cynicism is not equal across all countries, but differs depending on relevant individual characteristics, such as the attention paid to a particular election campaign, and context characteristics, such as factors pertaining to the overall opinion climate in a country regarding the respective election context.

To investigate the relationship between strategy news and political cynicism, this study draws on a unique multi-method and comparative cross-country study design, which combines a large-scale media content analysis with data from a two-wave panel survey, conducted in 21 EU member states during the 2009 European Parliament (EP) elections. The focus on the same election taking place in different contexts at the same time allows for a unique comparative perspective on the relationship between news contents, exposure to such news and changes in cynicism over the course of the campaign. Considering the electoral context of this study, we specifically address cynicism to the EP elections and strategy framing in EP election news coverage.

Theoretical framework

The role of strategy framing in election news

A news frame is ‘an emphasis in salience of certain aspects of a topic’ (De Vreese, 2002). Research has amply demonstrated the effects news frames have on political attitudes (e.g., Iyengar, 1991; de Vreese & Elenbaas, 2008), issue interpretations (e.g., Rhee, 1997), policy proposals (e.g., Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010), or evaluations (e.g., Nelson et al., 1997). Previous research focusing on the role of strategy framing in elections has demonstrated how the news report elections with a focus on tactics and the game character of politics rather than actual substance (e.g., Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Valentino et al., 2001). A lot of this research has dealt with the presumed negative consequences of this way of framing electoral contests, such as increasing levels of political cynicism thought to be detrimental for electoral participation (e.g., Cappella & Jamieson, 1997).

But why is there such a focus on strategy in campaign news and how can it be characterized in more concrete terms? Developments towards increasing professionalization of election campaigns (e.g., Norris, 2000) and the application of advanced political marketing strategies in political parties’ campaigning efforts (e.g., Kavanagh, 1995) have led to increasing attention by journalists for what is going on ‘behind the campaign’ (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). Consequently, news relying on such a strategy frame when covering election campaigns emphasizes considerations relating to how political actors present a certain issue or event and the style of such presentation. It furthermore relates to the description of specific actions of political actors to improve their position in the public eye. In sum, strategic news is described as stressing the strategies, performances, styles and tactics of campaigning necessary to for a candidate or party to obtain and remain in a favorable position (Esser & D’Angelo, 2006; Jamieson, 1992).

Such strategic news framing appears to be a standard ingredient of election coverage nowadays, at the expense of substantial issue news coverage (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Iyengar et al., 2004). This observation applies to the US context, even outside election times (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Lawrence, 2000), but has also been made – among others – for Germany (Esser & Hemmer, 2008), the UK (Scammell & Semetko, 2008), or the Netherlands (Elenbaas & de Vreese, 2008). However, we have hardly any knowledge about the way in which campaign news frames an election in terms of strategy across countries. In the present study, in a first step, we therefore look at the presence of strategic news framing in media coverage across Europe.

Studies focusing on the role of political cynicism have referred to a ‘‘spiral of cynicism’’ according to which news media report largely strategically about politics — that is, emphasizing the political performance of and battle among politicians, as well as the tactics they use in pursuing political victory at the expense of actual content or substance — which fuels public distrust in and cynicism about politics and politicians among the public. Consequently, exposure to strategy framing in the media has often been blamed to contribute to political cynicism and, consequently, to demobilize voters (e.g., Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). Accordingly, Rhee (1997) found, for example, that news framed in terms of strategy bolster participants’ strategic interpretations of an election campaign. This is assumed to have important implications for modern democracy since other research suggests that higher levels of cynicism can – in turn - alienate people from politics, reduces learning, erodes civic engagement and can result in lower levels of participation in the political process (see e.g., Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Hibbing & Theiss-Moore, 1995; Patterson, 1993, 2002; Valentino et al., 2001). In line with these findings, already Patterson (1993) concluded that “election news, rather than serving to bring candidates and voters together, drives a wedge between them” (p. 52).

However, findings are mixed and whereas some stress the contingency of the effect of strategy framing on cynicism (de Vreese, 2005; Valentino et al., 2001). This is in line with more general observations regarding the contingency of media effects (e.g., McLeod et al., 2004). Others argue that while strategy framing might increase political cynicism this does not necessarily result in lower turnout (de Vreese & Semetko, 2002; de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2008). In the current study we apply and further extend the argument that effects of strategy framing on cynicism are not omni-present and put this expectation to an empirical test.

Individual characteristics are likely to moderate framing effects. In De Vreese (2005) it was found that strategy news had a stronger effects on citizens low in political sophistication. Also in other studies it was found that news framing showed to have stronger effects among those with lower levels of political knowledge (e.g., Kinder & Sanders, 1990; Schuck & de Vreese, 2006). We in this study rely on a composite index of political knowledge, concretely knowledge about the EP elections, and political interest, again concretely interest in the EP campaign. In concrete terms, we expect strategy framing to have more of an effect on voters who are less aware.

(H1): The effect of campaign news framed in terms of strategy on political cynicism is conditional upon the level of awareness citizens have for the campaign such that effects are greater for those with low awareness.

Not only individual characteristics but also context has been described to moderate media effects. In the current study we additionally focus on one contextual characteristic specific to EU politics, namely trust in EU institutions. This is important since cynicism is closely related to issues of trust (see discussion in de Vreese & Semetko, 2002). Also empirically, our case, the 2009 EP elections, lends itself well to such an investigation, given that it presents a context with considerable variance in trust in EU institutions across the different countries (Eurobarometer 73-75). We expect that in country contexts in which trust in institutions is lower strategy framing should have more of an effect compared to contexts with higher levels of trust because when trust is low susceptibility to strategy framing should be higher.

(H2): Campaign news coverage framed in terms of strategy has more of an effect on political cynicism in contexts in which trusts in EU institutions is low than in contexts in which trust in EU institutions is high.

Methodological innovativeness and prior research

Methodologically, most research on the impact of strategy framing on cynicism employ experimental research designs (for exceptions see de Vreese & Semetko, 2002, de Vreese, 2005; Adriaansen et al., 2010). However, although experiments are especially useful for testing causal hypotheses while ensuring high internal validity, the unnatural settings of and forced exposure in these tests form a limitation. While experimentation with controlled manipulations in media content is superior compared to merely establishing a relationship between news media use and political cynicism, this sort of research has two potential shortcomings. First, the high internal validity of experimentation comes at the price of unnatural viewing environments and forced exposure. The field needs complementary non-laboratory studies that can compellingly assess the effects of exposure to strategic news coverage. Essentially, this calls for a panel study in which respondents’ level of cynicism is assessed repeatedly and the media content that these respondents are in fact exposed to is analysed for the presence of strategic reporting. Previous research, such as Pinkleton and Austin (2001), investigated the link between general news media use and political cynicism by means of a cross-sectional survey. However, in order to assess the role of different media outlets more specifically and more convincingly it becomes necessary to assess the actual media content individuals have been exposed to, as well as the frequency of this exposure (see also Slater, 2004).

Three studies have initially investigated the effects of repeated exposure to strategic news. De Vreese (2004) included a one-week delayed post-test in an experimental study and found that in the case where participants were not subsequently exposed to strategically framed news, the effect on cynicism that was established in the immediate post-test vanished. De Vreese and Semetko (2002) found that exposure to strategic news media reporting about a national political issue contributed to citizens’ levels of cynicism, even when controlling for the initial level of cynicism in the campaign. De Vreese (2005), drawing on two-wave panel surveys with repeated measures of political cynicism and detailed data on news media use and content, conducted in European political and media contexts, showed that, after controlling for prior cynicism levels, the strongest increases in cynicism were among those individuals who had been exposed the most to strategic news. However, no study to date has tested the conditional nature of the effect of strategy framing on cynicism in a non-US comparative context, considering both individual-level as well as contextual-level moderating factors, within the same election context and in a real-world setting.

Study context: The 2009 European Parliamentary Elections

The context for this study is provided by the 2009 elections for the European Parliament (EP). The vast majority of European citizens receive most of their information about the EU and EP elections from traditional news media such as television news and newspapers (e.g., Eurobarometer 55-64). Previous research has stressed that information, communication, and public debate could play a key role in legitimating and shaping public opinion about the EU and further European integration (see e.g., Hewstone, 1986; Meyer, 1999; Risse-Kappen, Engelmann-Martin, Knopf, & Roscher, 1999) and have made a link between the media and public opinion. Such studies have shown that the way the media present the EU affects how people think of it, i.e. their support regarding specific EU policies (Brettschneider, Maier & Maier, 2003; Maier & Rittberger, 2008; Schuck & de Vreese, 2006; Lecheler & de Vreese, 2010), their evaluation of EU membership of their country (Vliegenthart et al., 2008) and also if and what to vote for in EU referendums or EP elections (de Vreese & Tobiasen, 2007; Hobolt, 2009; Schuck & de Vreese, 2008). Thus, the way the EU is covered in the news can affect both public opinion formation and electoral behaviour (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2006). Therefore, as most of what citizens learn about an EP election and the campaign stems from the media (Bennett & Entman, 2001), it is relevant to ask what role the news media play in shaping public perceptions of the EU.

In the present study, we investigate to what extent, and under what conditions, strategically framed news coverage can foster cynicism towards the EU and thus contribute to deepen the divide between Europe and its citizens. For the 2004 EP election it was shown that the amount of strategy framing differed considerably between the member states, with Latvia, Estonia, Denmark or Luxembourg showing very little, and Greece, Poland, or Slovakia a substantial share of EP election news framed in terms of strategy. Exposure to this strategy framing in the media significantly affected political cynicism towards politics (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2008). The 2009 EP elections offer a unique opportunity to further investigate the connection between strategy framing and political cynicism and the factors which condition any potential effects, both on the individual as well as on the contextual level. As we outline below, we do so combining both large-scale media content and panel survey data from 21 countries and thus provide the first comprehensive overview over the conditional impact of election coverage on cynicism across Europe.
Data & Methods

We add the role of the news media to our understanding of how attitudes towards the EU take shape and take actual media content characteristics into account. Since we in this study are interested in the dynamics of public opinion we do not draw on cross-sectional survey data but rather on a dynamic model of change in public opinion.

A multi-method research design including a content analysis and a two-wave panel survey was employed, first, to investigate how the news media in the different EU member states have covered the campaign, and second, to assess the impact of such coverage on the decision of voters to turn out to vote.

This design enables us to assess the effect of campaign news more specifically by building in the results from our media content analysis with regard to the media framing of election coverage directly in specific news outlets into our measure of individual news exposure to those same news outlets in our panel survey analysis. For this, we analyse the media content of exactly those specific media outlets which are also included in our panel study design and for which respondents report their individual exposure. Building in actual media content characteristics into individual exposure measures yields a more accurate and realistic account of modelling media effects.

What is furthermore unique about our design is that it includes an in-depth content analysis of campaign coverage in 21 of the 27 EU member states and combines it with panel survey data in the same 21 countries, allowing for a multi-level analysis assessing the impact of both individual-level and country-level variables as well as their cross-level interaction on the mobilization of voters in the 2009 EP elections across Europe in one single study.
Media content analysis

To empirically test our expectations and collect information to build into our weighted measure of news exposure in the analysis of our panel data, we rely on a large scale media content analysis. This content analysis was carried out within the framework of PIREDEU (, Providing an Infrastructure for Research on Electoral Democracy in the European Union. PIREDEU is funded by the European Union’s FP 7 program (for more details see data documentation report in Schuck et al., 2010).

Sample: The content analysis was carried out on a sample of national news media coverage in all 27 EU member states.i In each country we include the main national evening news broadcasts of the most widely watched public and commercial television stations. We also include two ‘quality’ (i.e. broadsheet) and one tabloid newspaper from each country. Our overall television sample consists of 58 TV networks and our overall newspaper sample consists of 84 different newspapers.

Period of study: The content analysis was conducted for news items published or broadcast within the three weeks running up to the election. Since election days varied across countries also the coding period varied from e.g. May 14th-June 4th for some countries up to May 17th – June 7th for others.

Data collection: For television news coverage, all news items have been coded; for newspapers, all news items on the title page and on one randomly selected page as well as all stories pertaining particularly to the EU and/or the EU election on any other page of the newspaper have been coded.ii In total, 52,009 news stories have been coded in all 27 EU-member countries, 19,996 of these news stories dealt specifically with the EU of which 10,978 news stories dealt specifically with the EU election.iii The coding of EP campaign strategy framing was based on EP election campaign-specific stories only. The unit of analysis and coding unit was the distinct news story.

Coding procedure: Coding was conducted by a total of 58 coders at two locations, the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and the University of Exeter (UK). Coders were trained and supervised and the coder training included repeated tests of intercoder-reliability which yielded satisfactory results (reported below).iv

Strategy framing. We rely on Cappella and Jamieson’s (1997, p. 33) work which we adapted to the current study context and coded three indicators of strategic news. (1) ‘Does the story mention a person’s, group’s, institution’s or organization’s presentation and style – of how, in which way, in which manner they handle an issue?’, (2) ‘Does the story mention that an action of a person, group, institution or organization was taken in order to stabilize, consolidate or enhance his/her/its position, in order to make him/her/it look better in public opinion or in the political arena? I.e., does the story mention a tactical, calculated or strategic move with a certain motivation?’, and (3) ‘Does the story use one or more metaphors from the language of games, sport and/or war?’. Each of these items was coded as being either present (=1) or not present (=0) in the news item and the individual item scores were then summed up and divided by three to build an average index which represents the relative presence of the frame per individual item and news outlet (reaching from 0-fully absent to 1- fully present) (see e.g., Semetko & Valkenburg, 2000; de Vreese, 2004; Schuck & de Vreese, 2006, 2009). The three items form a common factor in a principal components analysis (Eigenvalue = 1.65, 55 % explained variance, factor loadings > .71) and an acceptable scale (M = .29, SD = .33; Cronbach’s alpha= .59). These scores are later built into our outlet-specific survey news exposure measures.
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