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Ten Observations about the Past, Present and Future of Political Communication
Claes H. de Vreese
FACULTY OF SOCIAL AND BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCES
Ten Observations about the Past, Present and Future of Political Communication
Vossiuspers UvA is an imprint of Amsterdam University Press. This edition is established under the auspices of the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Cover design: Nauta & Haagen, Oss Lay-out: JAPES, Amsterdam Cover illustration: Carmen Freudenthal, Amsterdam
ISBN 90 5629 437 7 ISBN 978 90 5629 437 3 © Vossiuspers UvA, Amsterdam, 2006 All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the written permission of both the copyright owner and the author of this book.
Ten Observations about the Past, Present and Future of Political Communication Inaugural Lecture delivered on the accession of appointment as professor in Communication Science, chair in Political Communication, of the University of Amsterdam on Thursday 8 June 2006 by
Claes H. de Vreese
Ten Observations about the Past, Present and Future of Political Communication I Core: Political Communication at the Core of Communication Science II Definition: The Role of Communication in Political Processes III Institutionalization: It Started in 1974 IV Politics: The Democratic Potential of Conflict V Methods: From Erie County and California to Amsterdam VI Levels: Communicative Challenges in a System of Multi-level Governance VII Citizens: Cynical and Engaged VIII Theory: Framing Politics IX Media: New Media, Old Politics? X Approach: The European-Amsterdam Way
Mijnheer de Rector Magnificus, Leden van het College van Bestuur, Mevrouw de Decaan, Dear colleagues, friends, and family,
Introduction ‘It is a disgrace to the social sciences.’ This is how research on politics and media has been described.1 Why? Because intuitively, to most of us, the media seem to be rather influential in determining why and how we think about a variety of issues. And yet, historically, social scientists have not performed optimally in demonstrating these effects. How many of us have recently engaged in a personal discussion with a politician or joined a political meeting? Scholars from de Tocqueville to Lippmann have asserted that the media matter and indeed most of what we know about politics is through the media. It is no disgrace however. Knowledge is accumulating and I am proud to be a communication science scholar. Our discipline holds more potential for the future than some of the disciplines voicing the strongest criticism. But to realize this potential there is a long way to go. My inaugural lecture marking the appointment to the Chair in Political Communication consists of ten observations about the field of political communication. The ten points address where the field has been, where it is, and where it could be. They relate to politics, methods, citizens, theory, and media. Finally, the ten observations address history, definitions, and the future. In a time of ever shrinking sound bites it seems prudent to choose this bullet point format for conveying my message.
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I Core. Political communication research is at the core of the development of communication science. Steven Chaffee, former Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, also noted that political communication was going to be the field that would give the discipline a viable future.2 How could I disagree with this? The study of political communication is not new. It is as old as political activity itself. A few figures to set straight where we come from: From two publications, Artistotle’s Rhetoric and Politics (350 BC), we can learn that political messages and political discussions have been the object of study and debate for almost 2,500 years. However, in the form we know it today political communication is more indebted to scholars such as Lippmann, Lasswell, and Lazarsfeld. In 1922, Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion provided the first analogy to what later became the study of media effects.3 With the chapter ‘The world outside and the pictures in our heads’, Lippmann contrasted real world indicators with public perceptions of issues and discussed the role of the press as an intermediary. The book also pioneered in providing a content analysis of the New York Times’ coverage of the 1917 Russian Revolution in which Lippmann demonstrated an anti-Bolshevik bias in the news. He then went on to speculate about how, on this basis, the average American could form an intelligent opinion about political issues. Almost a century later, in 2006, we again witness content analyses showing biases in the news of, for example, the media’s coverage of the Iraq War. And again we must speculate what the coverage offers the average citizen to form an opinion. In 1927, Harold Lasswell published his PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago. Despite its simplicity and linearity, the ‘Who says What to Whom via Which channel with What effects’ still informs our thinking about communication processes in general and political communication in particular. In 1940, the Austrian born Paul F. Lazarsfeld conducted the Erie County Study. More than 600 interviews were done, each month, with citizens of Erie County, Ohio, over a six-month period. His team assessed the media’s impact on vote choice in the US Presidential elections. In the aftermath of Orson Welles ‘Invasion from Mars’ radio broadcast in 1937, the researchers were expecting to find huge effects of the media. 54 respondents in the panel shifted from one to another candidate and only a small proportion could be linked directly to the media. Lazarsfeld and colleagues subsequently concluded that the media had only minimal effects. With this study, birth was
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given to two influential ‘institutions’ in political communication research: the American National Election studies and the Myth of the Minimal Media Effects, most notably associated with Joseph Klapper.4 During World War II, the paths of Lazarsfeld, Lasswell, and psychologists Carl Hovland, Kurt Lewin, and Wilbur Schramm crossed in Washington D.C. where they were all employed in different government agencies. The war was therefore not only a defining period for the 20th century world history, but it was also the ground from which the study of communication and political communication emerged. However, given the pervasive Myth of the Minimal Media Effects and the restricted way in which effects were conceived, the study of political communication made less progress in the 1950s and 1960s than could perhaps have been expected. It was the 1970s that became instrumental to the field today known as political communication: Coinciding were institutional developments, creating space in university curricula for political communication topics, and – of course – a number of real world events that made most people interested in the relationship between media and politics, most notably Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein’s revelations about the burglary at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.5 In Europe, political communication research blossomed in Germany, including Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Chair of Publizistik from 1965. But it was perhaps Joseph Trenaman and Denis McQuail, emeritus professor of the University of Amsterdam, who really paved the way for political communication research with their landmark study of the 1959 General Election in Britain. Their 1961 book Television and the Political Image is today still an insightful book. It was also in that study that the agenda-setting function of the media was signaled – a term that only took off more than a decade later with the publication in 1972 of Max McCombs and Donald Shaw’s study of the agenda of undecided voters in North Carolina.6 In the Netherlands, the emergence of communication science and political communication research is indistinguishable. The appointment of Kurt Baschwitz as ‘Lector’ of the Press, Public opinion and Propaganda at the University of Amsterdam in 1947 was, historically speaking, a timely and anticipatory appointment.7 With subsequent chair holders such as Rooy and Brouwer (and later McQuail and Schönbach) on the one hand and Daudt and Mokken in political science, on the other hand, Amsterdam was a center of research on the press, press history, and
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the impact of the press on public opinion. The emergence of communication science as a discipline is thus a tale intertwined with the emergence and consolidation of political communication research. With issues of the press, politics and public opinion, political communication research is both part of the origin and the core of communication science.
II Definition. What is it then, political communication? Political communication focuses on the interaction between the political actors, the media, and citizens. That politics, media, and citizens influence one another is a truism. But ‘the times they are a-changi’, as Bob Dylan and many others have noted. And there seems to be an awful lot happening. On the surface, this seems to be the situation today: political parties have virtually no members, communication professionals, spin doctors, and news managers stage politics in front of an increasingly cynical, self-referential, horse race driven group of journalists who work in large commercially driven corporations, owned by a small number of moguls who offer a shrinking window of political information to citizens who either avoid politics or have become consumers of news and politics, who have no political loyalties, have given up on religion and ideology, are disengaged, disconnected, and change party by the day. This is the populist (and may I add pessimist) account.8 Political communication research is concerned with establishing the antecedents, extent and consequences of any such possible changes by looking at how each of these actors constructs his messages and when, under which circumstances, which kind of influence can take place on citizens and political actors themselves.9 One of the perhaps most simple definitions is also one of the best and most encompassing. Political communication is about ‘the role of communication in the political process’.10 However, both the notion of the political and communication are in need of further comments. When thinking about the political in political communication, we initially think about political elites, parties and candidates. Traditionally, the focus has been biased towards political outcomes such as voter turnout and vote choice. Early studies tried to explain who were likely to turn out to vote (and who were not) and why individuals voted as they did.11 In a healthy representative democracy these two variables continue to be of special interest.
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After all, the legitimacy of any political systems hinges on a certain degree of citizen participation in and popular and elite support for the system.12 Today, however, we need to re-conceptualize the ‘political’. Political is an inclusive category. Civic engagement may say as much about a viable democracy as elections. The political also includes volunteering (which is high in the US where voter turnout is not impressive), membership of interest organizations and single issue organizations, participation in parental groups, charity, writing letters to the Editor, participation in virtual, online discussions and groups, and signing (online) petitions. These are all part of civic and political activity. Some have replaced former participatory activities such as wearing political buttons, but most have complemented existing forms. And indeed, we rightfully no longer look only at turnout and vote choice, but also see civic engagement as well as political cognitions, attitudes and political sentiments as the foci of our studies. Our goal is to examine and understand the role of media and communication in relation to this widened notion of the political. But when thinking about communication in political communication, our focus has also developed over time. Advances in technology from print, radio and television to the Internet, digitization and convergence of modes of communication, and a proliferation of media and outlets are key characteristics of the past decades. And communication about politics is no longer exclusive to news and current affairs genres. The Oprah Winfrey show, Hollywood movies, The West Wing, and RTL Boulevard inform significant parts of the audience about politics.13 Political communication research is about dissecting the interaction and changes in the relationship between politics, media, and citizens and understanding in particular the role played by communication and information. By that token, political communication research is, in essence, about the quality and viability of democracy.
III Institutionalization. Is political communication not political science? No. With subtlety, it was recently noted that ‘the recognition of political communication as a unique area of study in political science came much later [than in communication science]’.14 In the 1983 first edition of the volume Political Science: The State of the
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Discipline, political communication was not one of the subfields in political science. It was not until the 1993 edition that political communication was considered a distinct subfield of study. In the period 2000-2003, 5% and 9% respectively of the articles of flagship political science journals, such as the American Journal of Political Science and American Political Science Review, addressed political communication topics. And in the Netherlands, the political science journal Acta Politica counted only five articles on political communication between 1980 and 2000. And only four articles in the three decades before.15 Compared with this, the 17% of the articles in Communication Research, 20% of the articles in Journal of Communication, and 30% of the articles in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly focused on political communication strengthens the idea that political communication research has become institutionalized at the core of communication science and on the periphery of political science.16 What marks the institutionalization of a research field? Criteria for maturity include an independent citation culture, scientific meetings, common theory building, and the establishment of professorships and chairs. As mentioned, political communication research is as old as politics itself. And scientific interest in issues of the press, propaganda, and public opinion has been around for more than a century. I recently interviewed a number of the founding mothers and fathers of the political communication field to ask them what they considered the institutionalization of the field. Earlier studies notwithstanding,17 several persons pointed to the establishment of the Political Communication Division as part of the International Communication Association.18 In 1973, a group of scholars departed from the all-encompassing Mass Communication Division and created an independent division devoted to political communication.19 A year later, in 1974, the initiative to launch a (small-scale) journal, Political Communication Review, was taken. From this modest project a new journal was born which grew in to the ISI-ranked journal Political Communication. Our entire field is indebted to the founding Editor of this excellent journal, Professor Doris Graber at the University of Chicago. In hindsight 1974 seems to be the appropriate year to celebrate the intellectual institutionalization of political communication research.20
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IV Politics. Politics, in a democracy, is about the co-existence of competing and often conflicting ideas about how to organize society. Schattschneider’s working definition of democracy is ‘a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process’. He continues by stating that ‘conflict, competition, organization, leadership and responsibility are the ingredients of democracy’.21 Conflict is thus an inherent and necessary feature of democracy. However, in the communication science literature, there seems to be a strong aversion towards and fear of disagreement and conflict. The media’s endless focus on conflict and political strategy fuels a spiral of cynicism, we are warned.22 The emphasis on conflict and battles portrays politics as a game and undermines democracy.23 However, from a viewpoint of democratic processes and informed citizenship, conflict in news about politics has more advantages than disadvantages. Conflict is inherent to political reasoning and in democratic theory conflict is an essential part of decision-making.24 News focusing on disagreement, conflict, and differences of opinion between political actors therefore provides mobilizing information by showing what is at stake and that there is a genuine choice. If citizens – through the media – realize that there is something to choose from, conflict has positive effects on citizens’ political attitudes and participation. Citizens may, for example, come to the conclusion that democracy functions well, may be activated to talk about political affairs or may feel a greater incentive to vote. Moreover, conflict is a feature that pervades news. Research on news values points to the importance of conflict and the presence of conflict is consistently listed as an essential criterion for a news story to make it into the news, not only because it ‘sells’, but also to meet professional standards of balanced reporting.25 Contrary to what much of the pessimistic literature tells us, in the intersection between media and politics, conflict is a feature that should be celebrated for its democratic potential. To take an example from 2006: the party battle in the Dutch liberal VVD party between Mark Rutte and Rita Verdonk generated more political interest and engagement in the party leadership than ever before. Was the attention devoted to this internal party battle disproportional to the importance of the issue? Yes most likely. Was too much of the conflict about the personalities and
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leadership styles of the two combatants? Most likely, but then again, in this particular political choice, personality and style were important elements of the choice and fact of the matter is that the conflict was beneficial to citizen interest in, awareness of and engagement in politics. In this country, long the epitome of consensus, heterogeneity, disagreement, and ‘hearing the other side’,26 in other words bringing conflict (back) in, is welcome, both in politics and in the media.
V Methods. Political communication research is haunted by chicken-egg problems: Does the fact that readers of NRC Handelsblad have an above average knowledge about politics stem from the fact that they have read NRC – which is a media effect – or do individuals with an above average knowledge about politics tend to read NRC more frequently – which is a self selection effect. Why are we too often not in a position to make stronger and more substantiated claims? Oftentimes because our studies are not good enough and our data inadequate to answer the questions we pose. In the US, much of what we know about political communication stems from the cross-sectional parts of the American National Election Study. In fact there are more political scientists in the US analyzing these data than there are respondents in the survey and they, the researchers, always have to reiterate the limitations of their good scholarship. These survey data – and studies such as the Eurobarometer – are simply not adequate to answer questions about media effects and campaign dynamics. A static instrument is poor to study a dynamic. It is not incompetence on the side of researchers that has created this problem. It is a matter of one of the most essential aspects of life and research: money. It takes funding to investigate processes of political communication adequately. (That was a message to the funding agencies and university administration). But there is also a message for us scholars. In a recent publication Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar noted – alluding to McLuhan – ‘The Method is the Message’27 and with that he referred to his own landmark experimental studies, advances in data collection modes, and the need to investigate a number of our questions experimentally, at least as a complementary research strategy. In an experiment, rather than handing out medicine as the medical experimenter would, the political communication researcher tests for the effects of differences in information. The beauty of
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‘clean’, controllable experiments in which participants are randomly assigned to different media content enables us to make statements about causality which we can only dream about in most other studies. Legitimate reservations about external validity notwithstanding, to be blunt, there is not enough experimentation in political communication research. Another viable path is the panel and rolling cross-sectional survey design. In Lazarfeld’s 1940 study in Erie County, Ohio, 600 respondents were interviewed seven times. That is a labor and resource intensive design. But it is a design we can learn from even today. As the work of the team of my VU colleague Jan Kleinnijenhuis and my own research have demonstrated, we are, with experiments and dynamic panel studies, able to say much more and much more compellingly about the role the media play in political processes. Learning from Erie County and California, the bottom line is that we need our own studies, in addition to the institutionalized studies, such as election studies.28 After all, most of our theorizing conceives of media effects as dynamic, conditional, and often non-linear.29 To make data and theory meet we are in need of new and better data.
VI Levels. Political communication is embedded in media systems and political systems. The former, the media system, today features more competition and choice than ever before. The latter, the political system, has developed towards a system of local, regional, national, and supra-national levels of governance. One of the key intricacies of today’s political system is the push towards European integration. The multi-level system of governance has proven to not only be a challenge for political institutions, but also a communicative challenge (and, by the way, an extraordinary ‘natural laboratory’ for studying political communication comparatively). The European Union’s so-called ‘democratic deficit’ that touches on the unelected nature of the European Commission and the limitations of European Parliamentary power is said to be reflected in a lack of popular support, legitimacy and engagement in the EU amongst European citizens.30 The importance of the media in alleviating or contributing to the problems is obvious, but EU institutions have been unsuccessful in shaping European identity and public opinion and in promoting connection between citizens and institutions.31 For a long time, an ideal, theo-
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retical notion of the European public sphere was thought to be the remedy to overcome the public communication deficit.32 All attempts in this area, ranging from the newspaper The European to Euronews, have failed and the notion remains a grim example of elite dreaming. As an alternative, several scholars have later formulated minimal criteria for Europeanized national public spheres. The criteria include corresponding media coverage in different countries, shared points of reference, and the definition of particular issues as European problems.33 Over the past ten years work has been conducted here in Amsterdam, by myself and by several current and former colleagues, on the role played by the media in shaping public opinion about European integration. Initially no one in the Netherlands showed a particular interest in this research program. Most people were ‘drugged’ by an apathetic consensus when it came to Europe. In the aftermath of the 2005 referendum that has changed. What do we know? We know that European affairs in the news tend to be marginal, cyclical, domestic and slightly negative. Let me elaborate: Coverage of European affairs is cyclical in nature with coverage of the EU being virtually absent from the news agenda and then peaking around important EU events to then vanish off the agenda again.34 EU actors (such as candidates for the EP and members of EU institutions) tend to be only marginally represented in the news, in fact most European issues are discussed by national actors.35 Finally, news about European issues is largely neutral, but when it contains evaluations, these tend to be negative.36 (The latter is, by the way, a pattern that pertains to political news in general so there is no reason to feel sorry for selfpitying Euro-politicians who feel unfairly treated). However, there is huge variation to this pattern. While television news in for example Denmark devoted more than 20% of the news leading up to the 1999 and 2004 European elections to these elections, news in the Netherlands devoted between 2 and 8% of the time to the elections,37 almost making the Netherlands European Champions in neglecting Brussels. These findings give us a substantive foundation to discuss the media’s impact on public support for integration. Previous studies of public support for matters of European integration tend either to neglect or inadequately model the role of information and the media. Our research, however, has investigated how news media content affects public support for different EU developments. The effects of the media were shown above and beyond other, well-established influences on support for integration, such as eco-
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nomic evaluations, anti-immigration sentiments, domestic political considerations and cognitive mobilization.38 Many questions remain to be explored in the field of media, public opinion and European integration. With the emergence and potential consolidation of public Euroskepticism, the uncertain future of the EU Constitutional Treaty, and the discussions about the possible membership of Turkey in the EU, there are plenty of avenues for advances in our knowledge. We warn Europhiles, though, because ‘communicating Europe’ is not about making citizens love the idea of ‘Europe’, but to equip them with enough information to make them understand and care about European developments. A possible outcome of increased information exchange about Europe is Euroskepticism. It might be that the more some people hear about integration, the less they like it.39 But let it be clear that multi-level governance, including European integration, is a cornerstone of our political communication (research) agenda.
VII Citizens. As I outlined earlier, in political communication – it seems – everybody is dissatisfied. Politicians believe they receive insufficient and negative coverage with a minimum of substance. Journalists complain about uninteresting politicians swamped by spin. Citizens are allegedly cynical and disengaged. A bit more about the latter, we, the citizens. Is it really that bad? The news media’s impact on citizens’ political attitudes is center stage in much scholarly research. Conventional wisdom, also articulated by a significant part of the research community, is focused on the negative effects of news media on political attitudes and participation in democratic processes. According to Harvard professor Thomas Patterson and others40 the news media have contributed to declining interest in, enthusiasm about and participation in politics in the United States. An influential line of work in this field has become known as The Spiral of Cynicism-Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that news media report largely strategically about politics which fuels public distrust in and cynicism about politics and politicians. This cynicism erodes civic engagement and depresses electoral participation.41 Strategic news reporting is conceptualized as news that focuses on winning
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and losing, is driven by ‘war and games’ language, emphasizes ‘performers, critics and audiences’, and focuses on style.42 Contrary to most previous research, in a recent study I tested this proposition in the context of European politics, outside of the United States and outside of the context of an election campaign. This study, drawing on two-wave panel surveys and content analyses of news media in two countries, challenged the pervasive perspective. The study suggested that the relationship between news media and political cynicism is conditional. Yes, strategic news can foster cynicism, but it depends on the pervasiveness and actual content of ‘strategic’ news. Moreover, there is scant empirical evidence that actually shows that political cynicism depresses political participation. In fact it seems that citizens are perfectly capable of being both cynical and critical – and also engaged.43 And from a democratic point of view a critical citizenry is not at all such a bad thing. These findings challenge conventional wisdom about the negative effects of news media44 and remind us that we should not underestimate citizens.45
VIII Theory. A key focus of political communication research is the impact of communication. Agenda-setting, priming, knowledge gains, and framing are amongst the effects that receive most attention in research.46 In particular the latter, framing, holds potential for political communication research to understand how media content can affect cognitions, attitudes and perhaps even behavior. Pertinent questions are: What are frames? How do framing effects work? Framing implies that political, economic and social events and issues are presented to citizens as alternatives.47 An example, when thinking about, for example, oil drilling, citizens may be presented with frames of reference such as gas prices, unemployment, environment, or dependency on foreign energy sources.48 Such frames are parts of political arguments, journalistic norms, and social movements’ discourse. They are alternative ways of defining issues, endogenous to the political and social world.49 In Amsterdam we have developed a strong body of research on what can be labeled journalistic news frames.50 Journalistic framing implies that journalists and news organizations inevitably emphasize some aspects of a topic while downplaying other aspects. This process may result in frames, some with an in-
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herent valence that focuses on positive or negative aspects of an issue. This is important because the way the media frame issues may shape public opinion. Journalistic production processes not only pertain to the selection of events and issues, but are also translated into templates for the content that provide an ‘organizing principle’ to the news story. By that token, the journalistic quest for conflict, human interest, and economic consequences provides also a template, a frame, for telling the news.51 How do frames work? One of the most interesting and contentious issues in framing effects research concerns the underlying psychological responses to news frames. Our understanding of how news frames affect opinions and attitudes is improving. Framing effects are not merely about memory accessibility, but about stressing specific values, facts or other considerations, endowing them with greater relevance to an issue than under an alternative frame. In Framing Europe I concluded that studies of framing ‘have posed as many questions as they have answered’.52 The framing concept holds potential for further understanding the news media’s role in political processes. In Framing Politics,53 a project about to start, we hope to answer some of the questions (and probably pose new ones).54 In this research project we will look at framing across a variety of issues and we will also investigate the duration of framing effects. In previous studies I have demonstrated how the effects of exposure to news frames disappear if an individual is not re-exposed. I have also demonstrated though that framing effects may be more enduring if repeated exposure takes place. Framing research is already a bit of ‘trademark’ of political communication research in Amsterdam and as a concept, framing holds potential for the future.
IX Media. Technological advances always give rise to almost ritualized discussions about the potential benefits and dangers of a technology and/or medium. As my UvA colleague professor Schönbach highlighted in his inaugural lecture55 he once, in the early 1980s, predicted that the VCR (the video recorder, remember that ancient pre-DVD, pre-digitization apparatus) would fragment audiences, cause a decay of public political reasoning, and endanger democratic participation. Similar concerns were voiced when the radio became a mass medium, when television was
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introduced, and sure enough again when Internet developed to become a mass commodity. In political communication research the field was crowded with cyber-optimists, proclaiming direct online democracy with massive participation and cyberpessimists, proclaiming the end of rational in-depth political reasoning. Now that the dust is starting to settle we can take stock of some of the things that have happened. And one of the most remarkable – or perhaps in fact completely unremarkable – findings is that online activities primarily complement traditional media in fostering, for example, political discussion, civic interaction, and political engagement.56 It might be that many individuals have a weblog with political content, but who is reading? Unlike in the entertainment arena, the political arena seems to have changed less. With the risk of sounding like a hopeless modernist and perhaps doing injustice to an emerging research field focusing in particular on the Internet, there is, I believe, reason to be cautious about taking an isolationist view of new media or modes of communication, especially in the light of evidence to suggest that new media perhaps do little more than reinforce existing patterns and cleavages between haves and have-nots. In political communication, the arrival of the ‘Internet Age’ does not imply that we need to write off the importance of television and newspapers. In other words: It might not be Much Ado about Nothing, but it does seem to be new media, but old politics.
X Approach. The Department of Communication Science has been and is the intellectual haven to important researchers in the field. The research school, The Amsterdam School of Communications Research, is the largest of its kind in Europe and has been tremendously successful. This is not a bad context in which to operate. In addition, our discipline is part of a Faculty that has traditionally been well aware and reflective of its societal role. Political communication research capitalizes on this historical embedment and our research can serve to highlight the value of a participatory democracy with independent and responsible media. We should also emphasize the fact that we are in Europe. Put somewhat bluntly, our knowledge base is in serious need of international, non-US examples. We can
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learn a lot from the American case, but it will in many ways continue to be the ‘odd’ case. Looking ahead a number of challenges await. Our research school, ASCoR, will continue to develop to maintain and consolidate its leading position in Europe. I do not believe that one can be excellent in all areas and it is therefore pertinent that we build an institution that is on par with the best schools in the world in some areas with coherent and innovative research programs and productive and enthusiastic scholars. Political communication should be one of them. And some of the key themes and tools were identified today: changes in politics and political journalism, the psychology of media and framing effects, the impact of news and information on citizens’ attitudes, engagement and voting behavior, in particular in the context of European integration. At the end of the day, these themes address the vitality of democracy in the Netherlands and Europe and the role of the media in shaping and informing citizenship. The political communication team in Amsterdam is a small, but a competent and growing team. We will work towards building a curriculum in political communication. Amsterdam has a number of unique selling points that can be used to create an international program in political communication. The qualities of Kees Brants, Wouter van der Brug, Philip van Praag and the excellent group of PhD candidates that I have the privilege to work with, Hajo Boomgaarden, Andreas Schuck, Christian Baden, and soon others is a good position from which to expand and work with partners inside and outside of the UvA. In fact, many other individuals are involved in political communication research and there is significant synergy potential. Our aim should be nothing less than being the leading center of social-scientific political communication research in Europe.57
Acknowledgements Let me start the end with a quote: ‘De Vreese was an outstanding lecturer whose contagious enthusiasm kept his students interested. […] He was not an easy man. He always maintained, also for himself, high scientific standards and he never let a chance go to criticize
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when criticism was appropriate. The latter was of course not appreciated by all.’ This quote stems from a biography in the National Dutch library. It is not about me, but about my great grandfather, Willem de Vreese, Professor of Dutch languages at the University of Ghent. He was a controversial and celebrated international scholar who traveled to Saint Petersburg to retrieve valuable documents on Dutch and Flemish language. I take the description of Willem de Vreese as a role model and hope that words of half the magnitude can be spoken about me one day. Many of the ten observations advanced in this lecture have to do with setting high standards. High standards for theory-driven questions and compelling research designs. Otherwise why really bother? If we meet the standards, it is not a disgrace, but a pride of the social sciences. The observations serve to remind us where we are coming from, but also to give us some direction as to where we are going: There is still much work to do and I look forward to it. Towards the end of this inaugural lecture I shall do justice to my background – A Dane in Amsterdam – and thank a number of persons from Denmark, the Netherlands and beyond. Persons, without whom this moment would not have been possible, and persons without whom I would not want to be here. Those who know me well, know I am not a great fan of acknowledgements, but you are rarely given a better moment to deliver them than this, so here they come, ten in total. I. Mijnheer de Rector Magnificus, Leden van het College van Bestuur, mevrouw de Decaan, Appointing a 31-year old as full professor takes courage. Though the topic has been around long, the institutionalized history of the field of political communication is about as long as my life. I thank you for the confidence and support you have shown in me. I am glad that you have invested in one of the key areas of our discipline and I look forward to contributing to the future of the field from the Universiteit van Amsterdam.
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II. Beste CW-collega’s, ASCoR- en NESCoR leden, Since the fall 2005 I have the pleasure of being Scientific Director of ASCoR. I am enjoying the work in the infamous ‘driehoek’ with Liesbet, and Jan. I look forward to working with ASCoR faculty to continue ASCoR’s success. With the domain leaders Professor Schönbach, Valkenburg and Van Zoonen, Klaus, Patti, and Liesbet we form a strong team. It’s a privilege to work with you. We have ambitions, energy and a wonderful faculty to be the Biggest and the Best. On a daily basis I am delighted to work with competent and flexible individuals such as Willemijn and Margriet, and – irreplaceable – Sandra Zwier. With them I shall also work as Scientific Director of NESCoR, the Netherlands School of Communications Research for the continued success of the KNAW recognized national research school in Communication science. III. Zeergeleerde Peter, beste Jochen Years of working together with you on themes of Europe and political communication have made my admiration of your work and approach to scientific research profound. It was hard work but incredibly rewarding. I am delighted that you are still with us here in Amsterdam and I hope that the future will provide us with an opportunity to work together again. IV. Zeergeleerde Buijzen, beste Moniek Without you I honestly doubt if I would have stayed in the Academy. We started in ASCoR on the same day, we defended our PhD dissertations on the same day, and we have shared offices for more than seven years. With you, and Martin, Marjolein, Roderick, Kim, Angela, and Hetty, I can truly say that work can be a whole lot of fun. V. Esteemed Professor Albæk, kære Erik As former Head of the Danish Social Science Research Council your decisions have been very important to me: a post-doc grant, support for my visit to the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and the nomination for the Nils Klim
Claes H. de Vreese
Prize, which I was honored to receive. I am very pleased that we will have the opportunity to work together as colleagues at the University of Southern Denmark where I am Adjunct Professor of Political Science and Journalism. With our recent research grants, success is possible. Thank you – also for being here today. VI. Hooggeleerde Brants, beste Kees, I am honored to join you as a colleague. My Chair in Political Communication is the second in the Netherlands. The first was taken by you at Leiden University in 2000. It is a distinct pleasure to share a field with such a prolific scholar and inspiring person. VII. Hooggeleerde Neijens, beste Peter, Your support for my appointment has been incredible. During the long year 2005 when the future was uncertain, you were extremely supportive and encouraging. Thank you for showing such trust in me. Your directorship of ASCoR was so successful that you have given me a hard task to further develop ASCoR after almost a decade of success. Thank you for being so responsive whenever I have questions or look for advice. VIII. Esteemed Professor Semetko, dear Holli, Unfortunately you could not make it here today, but you are with me in spirit. We met in 1996 here in Amsterdam. You inspired me to enter the Doctorate program and you introduced me to the wonderful world of communication research. Working with you, Klaus Schönbach, and Cees van der Eijk on the NWO Aandachtsgebied was a privileged introduction to science. The international, comparative perspective and the focus on journalism, media content, and public opinion in your research remain an inspiration. Communication Science in Amsterdam would not have been such an international success without you. It is an honor to start filling the gap you left. If I can fill half of it, I can be satisfied.
T e n O b s e rva t i o n s
IX. Dearest family, Lieve Ada: mother of Judith and the most caring person I have come across. Thanking you and Dick for all the things you help me and my family with is virtually impossible. Your love and care for our children Jorrit and Fiene is unlimited. You are a beautiful and strong person. Kære mor og far; most people are not so fortunate to have their parents present at their inaugural lecture. And then even on my grandmother’s birthday. I am so happy that you are here. Your love and support have always been unconditional and present. Thank you for stimulating my curiosity, thank you for always having been enthusiastic about my career ambitions, even though they have ranged from wanting to be a bus driver, a pilot and a journalist. X. Judith, In Asia in 1994 your future was predicted: ‘You must travel a great distance to discover true love.’ Some months later we met in Australia. And true love it was. I am blessed to share my life with such a sharp and witty person, strong, but sensitive and empathetic, a great mother, and ‘one of the best story-tellers I have ever met’. First my family and friends knew you as ‘the Dutch girl’. Later they learned more of your names: Julia, Juud, Judge Judy, Jude, Toettie. Today they all have to learn something new: As of 10.15 this morning you will also be known as Judith de Vreese, my wife. Thank you for being you. Ik heb gezegd.
Notes Klaus Schönbach, Peter Neijens, Jochen Peter and Judith de Vreese-Rood are all thanked for their comments on this lecture. Their input improved the lecture, all errors, however, remain my full responsibility. 1.
2. 3. 4. 5.
6. 7. 8.
See for example John Zaller (1996, p. 17). Larry Bartels’ comments are also illuminating: ‘The state of research on media effects is one of the most notable embarrassments of modern social science’ (Bartels, 1993, p. 267). Personal communication with Dhavan Shah, November 2005. See also Rogers (2004, p. 4). The ‘minimal effects perspective’ was particularly advanced in Klapper’s (1960) The Effects of mass Communication. In addition to the real world developments one of the most important instruments also lay in another area: A significant improvement in research methods. In the words of one of our intellectual lights, Professor Doris Graber: ‘We came back to a number of old questions with a much better toolkit’ (Personal communication with Doris Gaber, April 2006). See Schönbach (2000). Knegtmans (1998). As several debates in the literature between, for example, my colleague Kees Brants and Jay Blumler about infotainment and between Markus Prior and Matt Baum about ‘soft news’ bear witness to, the relationship is less simple than this account (See Baum (2003); Blumler (1999); Brants (1998); Prior (2003)). When trying to understand the role of communication in the political process a key prerequisite is to know who was exposed and paid attention to what. In other words who was reading and watching what content? This is a crucial aspect of our research, yet it is an area in which we still lack a shared understanding of the issue at stake and where we do not have a common conceptualization or measures. Some have concluded that self-reported exposure measures are so flawed that we need to rely on proxies. Political scientist John Zaller has advanced the idea that general political knowledge is a good indicator of an individual’s news media use. His advice is disturbing. First because news learning and gaining knowledge from the media is one of the key areas of research in communication and it is therefore of little use to take knowledge as predictor of knowledge. Second, because we, as (political) communication researchers, are concerned with how differences in the content of the media that we are exposed to affects us. Third, because politics is making its way into popular genres (ranging from talk shows to Hollywood movies) and entertainment and infotainment contribute to sensemaking of politics that are hardly captured in standard political knowledge questions. A
10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26.
general measure of political awareness seems awkward at best but more like crude and flawed to capture these dimensions. Here political communication scholars must step up and argue that we cannot simply give up on the account of possible error in our measurements. What we need are better and more detailed media use measures (see Chaffee & Schleuder, (1986)). Aarts and Semetko (2003) make a similar plea with respect to media exposure measures. Equally important, we need media content analyses to be able to say what it is in the content that is producing (or not producing) certain effects (see also Slater, 2004). Chaffee (1975). E.g., Lazersfeld et al. (1944). Dahl (1989). van Zoonen (2004); Brants (1998). Lin (2004, p. 71). Brants (2000). Graber (2005). E.g., Eulau et al. (1956). In particular this was emphasized in personal communication with Lynda Lee Kaid, April 2006. While political communication started as an interest group in the early 1970s, today, the political communication divisions of the International Communication Association (ICA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), the National Communication Association (NCA), and the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) count more than 1,700 members world wide. Institutional acknowledgement takes time. Only a couple of months ago, in spring 2006, the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) finalized an inventory of the social sciences in the Netherlands. They reached the conclusion that Communication Science today is an established and institutionalized discipline with an independent body of knowledge and its own publication system. (Thanks to Professor Bram de Swaan for our conversation about the KNAW inventory, April 2006). The institutionalization of political communication research and the acknowledgement of communication science as a discipline go hand in hand. Taking the 1974 launch of the predecessor to our journal Political Communication as the point of reference it seems that with this Chair in Political Communication, the institutionalization is consolidated and the soil fertile. Schattschneider (1960, p. 138). Cappella & Jamieson (1997). Fallows (1996). E.g., Sartori (1987). E.g., Galtung & Ruge (1965); McManus (1994); Neuman, Just & Crigler (1992); Peter & de Vreese (2004). Mutz (2006).
27. Political Communication 2001. 28. In that respect we can learn from the scholars such as Jack McLeod and later Dhavan Shah at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 29. See Eveland (1997) for an excellent discussion of interactions and non-linearity in mass communication. 30. E.g., Eichenberg & Dalton (1993). 31. E.g., Meyer (1999); Anderson & McLeod (2004). 32. Scharpf (1999); Schlesinger (1999). From this perspective, the development of European democracy depends on the existence of a European public sphere which entails a common public debate carried out through a common European news agenda (Schlesinger (1999)), ideally in a European media system (Grimm, 2004). 33. See for example Risse & van de Steeg (2003). 34. de Vreese et al. (2001); Norris (2000). 35. See de Vreese (2002). One might find that problematic as the presence of political personalities and actors at the EU level in the news is a necessary condition for the functioning of political representation in a democracy. 36. de Vreese et al. (2006a). 37. de Vreese et al. (2006a). 38. Three examples: Using two-wave panel surveys and media content analyses of television news and national newspapers we demonstrated how the news media changed public support for the enlargement of the EU. This change, however, was conditional upon the visibility and consistency in tone of the news (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2006). In another study we showed how a referendum campaign on an issue of European integration, in this case the introduction of the euro, served to crystallize opinions and how the media coverage contributed to a Yes vote (de Vreese & Semetko, 2004). And in a recent study, we demonstrated that if the news media report about the contentious issue of potential membership of Turkey in the EU while focusing on both negative and positive aspects, then those citizens who only watch or read a modest amount of news show a negative change in their support. This suggests something of a ‘negativity bias’ so that when processing information, which in fact is both positive and negative, negative information takes precedence (de Vreese et al., 2006b). 39. Regardless, communication has officially (and rightfully and finally) entered the debate about the future of Europe and a European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication has been appointed: Margot Wallström (appointed in 2004). The legitimacy of integration can no longer viably rely on elite support only. 40. See Patterson (2002). The bleak picture is supported by, for example, Fallows (1996), Lichter and Noyes (1996), and recently Farnsworth and Lichter (2003) who demonstrate that news in political reporting emphasize horse race at the expense of policy issue stories and they argue that this in turn has significant negative effects on attitudes towards politics and voter turnout.
41. 42. 43. 44.
50. 51. 52. 53. 54.
55. 56. 57.
Cappella & Jamieson (1997); Hibbing & Theiss-Moore (1998). Jamieson (1992). This formulation was coined in an earlier article, see de Vreese & Semetko (2002). Perloff (2003, p. 730). The last word is obviously not said yet and new developments in journalism, including the increasing attention for journalists themselves and the media becoming part of the political story – which has been coined meta-coverage (Esser et al., 2001) – repose questions about news media’s impact on political attitudes. And here is also why we need comparative political communication research. By highlighting differences in context or content, comparative research provides nuances to general statements and perhaps refutes some of the original claims. Even carefully conceived studies – if isolated – only tell us that much. The tool for better insights is comparative research. Not all questions need to be addressed comparatively, but many do. As Prezeworski and Teune remind us, comparing is about explaining. And comparative research is an ‘effective antidote to unwitting parochialism’ (Gurevitch & Blumler, 1990, p. 309). McLeod, Kosicki & McLeod (2002). Previous research has discussed the presence and effects of a variety of news frames. The research tradition is rooted in sociology and Gamson’s work on the one hand and on the other hand in psychology and prospect theory in which the effects of reversing identical information have been established (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984). Zaller (1992). Such frames go beyond strict equivalence framing (in the Kahneman and Tversky  tradition). Most research has investigated the effects of ‘emphasis frames’ rather than ‘equivalence frames’ (Druckman, 2001). de Vreese (2006). Bennett (1996); de Vreese, Peter & Semetko (2001); Neuman, Just & Crigler (1992); Patterson (1993); Semetko & Valkenburg (2000). de Vreese (2002, p. 173). The project title is inspired by Gamson’s (1992) Talking Politics. The framing process will be investigated using different techniques including reaction time, response tasks, thought-listing, and consideration rating. This will enable to know more about how frames work. Schönbach (2000). Shah et al. (2005). We hope that our University and the Science Foundations, national and international, will be as receptive to our work as they have been in the past years.
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de Vreese, C.H. (2006). Journalistic news frames and their effects. Manuscript under review de Vreese, C.H. & Boomgaarden, H.G. (2006). Media effects on public opinion about the enlargement of the European Union, Journal of Common Market Studies 44 (2): 419-436 de Vreese, C.H. & Semetko, H.A. (2002). Cynical and engaged: strategic campaign coverage, public opinion and mobilization in a referendum, Communication Research, 29 (6): 615-641 de Vreese, C.H. & Semetko, H.A. (2004). News Matters: Influences on the Vote in the Danish 2000 euro referendum campaign, European Journal of Political Research 43 (5): 699-722 de Vreese, C.H., Banducci, S., Semetko, H.A. & Boomgaarden, H.G. (2006a). The news coverage of the 2004 European Parliamentary election campaign in 25 countries, European Union Politics, 7 (4), forthcoming de Vreese, C.H., Boomgaarden, H.G. & Semetko, H.A. (2006b). Hard and Soft: News and the Antecedents of Support for Turkey in the European Union. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association meetings, Chicago, Il, March 2006 de Vreese, C. H., Peter, J., & Semetko, H.A. (2001). Framing politics at the launch of the euro: A cross-national comparative study of frames in the news, Political Communication, 18 (2) : 107-122 Zaller, J. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press Zaller, J.R. (1996). The myth of massive media impact revived: New support for a discredited idea, in: D.C. Mutz, P.M. Sniderman, & R.A. Brody (Eds), Political persuasion and attitude change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press van Zoonen, L. (2004). Entertaining the citizen. When politics and popular culture converge. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield