This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

How powerful are the newspapers?

According to popular wisdom, newspapers are important political actors. Newspapers certainly like to think so. And the public seem to believe it. Claiming 'it's The Sun wot won it' (as in 1992) just would not make sense in any other context. When newspapers declare their positions going into an election, it makes news.
But we know that newspapers are much less powerful than many people believe. Journalists are simply not trusted. Just 13% of people say that they would be pleased should their child become a tabloid journalist. If we do not trust people, how likely are we to slavishly follow their opinion? More importantly, newspapers are not a hypodermic needle injecting opinions directly into passive readers. For the most part, readers are critical and engaged.

The real power of newspapers comes in their ability to ‘frame’ news. This is the process by which a newspaper selects a story for publication, interprets it, and reports it. By highlighting negative issues, and importantly keeping the negative news focus upon a particular party, issues can be subtly shaped.

A paper in the Journal of Politics showed how newspapers can have a noticeable impact upon perceptions merely through the process of 'framing' news. These 'frames' are the ways in which newspapers cover electoral issues, whether the reporting is positive or negative towards a candidate or party. The impact of exposure to 'framed' news which systematically favours one candidate is about one-fourth as large as the impact of party identification. Given the importance of party identification, this is not trivial. Moreover, there is evidence that more extreme 'frames', such as those employed by Fox News in the USA, can be important not only in increasing vote share (where Fox News caused an increase in total Republican vote of about 0.5%), but also by encouraging greater turnout among non-voters who are more easily swayed by 'framed' news (resulting in a 3 to 8% shift in vote intentions to the Republicans among viewers). This implies that the non-political readers of 'framed' news will be more prominently affected. This lends credence to claims that tabloids – for whom political coverage is not the primary focus – could have an important impact.

As the election approaches, these 'frames' will increasingly come into play. They can be fairly obvious – such as The Sun's claim that 'MILITANT unions have given more than HALF of all donations to Labour since the last General Election' or the Mirror’s belief that the election is a choice between fairness or greed. Or they can be a bit more subtle but still important – the Guardian's focus upon Chris Grayling's comments about homosexuals is an example; a story which will clearly have a negative impact upon potential Conservative support among Guardian readers.

Newspaper's declarations, such as the recent News of the World declaration for the Conservatives, are not important in their own right. But a change in news frames will make those readers who might have voted Conservative more likely to do so. Those readers who have always voted Labour will almost certainly remain unmoved.

Jonathan Rose

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