Public affairs in the media – Impact of the media policy

The research project aims at bringing empirical methods to examine how a variety of media outlets with the largest audiences have presented public affairs content in two specific periods during the second Gyurcsány cabinet and the second Orbán cabinet. To accomplish this goal, we have chosen to follow the guidance of Mertek Media Monitor in focusing on differences between the two government cycles in terms of the ratio of public affairs content, the communication of government messages, the representation of the ruling parties and the opposition, the topics prioritized by television, radio and online news services, and the role of the central news agency, among other factors.

Beyond the general scrutiny of public affairs content, we carefully selected one topic, the weakening Hungarian currency and related processes in society and the economy. We use this single topic to illustrate specific differences in how communication by the government and the opposition are represented in the media. The research was carried out by the Publicus Institute.

Major findings

1. Broadcast media

  • Public affairs content has shrunk in the broadcast media. This is particularly true for the commercial television stations, where the number of programs of this type has been reduced by half.
  • Due in part to the shrinking number of this type of news programs and in part to longer broadcasting times, the ratio of public affairs content in the total airtime has dropped significantly, to below 20 percent in the two main commercial stations.
  • Tabloid news increasingly feature crime and accident coverage.
  • The two commercial stations relegate public affairs to the second half of their news programs.
  • All radio and television stations except M1 have seen their ratings decrease over a period of three years.
  • As in previous years, in 2011 RTL KLUB News remained the most popular news program nationwide, with over one million viewers on daily average during the period under review. 
  • With the exception of Déli Krónika on MR1, all news programs became longer. 
  • The number of news items per program decreased in Az Este, stagnated on RTL, and grew in the other news programs.
  • The average length of news programs also grew, with the only exception being Krónika, where it decreased.
  • The current government and the ruling party claim a larger role as newsmakers in the broadcast media than did the then government and ruling party in 2008.
  • One general tendency that emerges from the way public affairs topics are handled is that of depersonalization, meaning that fewer actual figures appear in news programs.
  • While the government in power in 2008 undertook and was given a prominent role in public affairs news, in 2011 this role is more evenly divided by the second Orbán cabinet and the FIDESZ party.
  • As an opposition party, the FIDESZ maintained a more visible media presence than the MSZP did in 2011.
  • The current opposition parties are heavily underrepresented in the media; back in 2008, even the MDF and the SZDSZ were given more air time in each media outlet.
  • During the period in 2008 under review, media appearances were dominated by Ferenc Gyurcsány and János Veres; in 2011, various government officials and FIDESZ party members claimed a more equal share of media visibility.
  • In 2011, prominent members of the MSZP received hardly any exposure.
  • Along with public affairs content, news clips devoted to the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint claim a decreasing share of coverage in various media.
  • Public affairs content is almost completely displaced from the headlines.
  • The headlines of commercial stations feature negligible amounts of public affairs content, while most of these consist of news devoted to the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint.
  • Like public affairs content, news clips devoted to the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint are relegated to the second half of news programs.
  • The average length of content dealing with this topic was drastically reduced over the three-year period.
  • Less than 3 percent of news programming is devoted to the exchange rate of the forint; in 2008, the share of the topic was over 7 percent.
  • By 2011, political actors as newsmakers all but disappeared from coverage on the exchange rate of the forint, to the effect that most news programs present and construe fluctuations of the exchange rate as a process independent of all circumstances, or as an event that cannot be linked to any particular individual.
  • In public service stations, a slight rise can be noted in the ratio of news overlapping with exchange-rate related content. 
  • The various media are unable, and often unwilling, to resist the conceptual frameworks provided by the government, frequently relaying those frameworks without subjecting them to any criticism. 
  • It is generally true for both periods that in news programs there is scarcity of supplementary background information that could help interpret the news. There are few regional and chronological comparisons to provide a point of reference for viewers in forming an opinion on daily changes. 
  • At best, news programs typically content themselves with passing on the opinion of political parties. News blocks reflecting on these opinions or presenting the topic from multiple angles are few and far between. 
  • By and large, commercial newscasts bring the same apparatus and arsenal to tabloid events as they formerly employed in processing public affairs news.
  • News programs dealing with the weakening forint do not feature live discussion in the studio or any interviews that would have enabled debate or an in-depth elaboration of opinion in the first place. People on camera are normally shown speaking a few sentences only that are presented out of context; their opinion is summarized for the audience by the news anchor.
  • There has been a change in the bias of the two commercial stations as well. While TV2 was more critical than RTL of the former government, this turned around when the Orbán cabinet assumed office, so that in 2011 RTL became more critical of the government — although the significance of this change is mitigated by the shrinking air time devoted to public affairs. Concurrently, TV2 developed an intense bias toward the government, which is most readily apparent in the preponderance and unquestioning broadcasting of pro-government opinion.
  • Public media have also increasingly come under tabloid influence in terms of thematic, and particularly in the way they handle public affairs topics. News items — especially economic/business news — are less elaborated in their presentation.
  • The pro-government bias of public service media already noted in 2008 was replaced by an all-out propagandistic flavor in 2011.
  • In 2011, Déli Krónika frequently, and the M1 Evening News occasionally manipulated the news by ploys ranging from the mild to the gross . In 2008, resorting to such tricks was not characteristic of either news program. 
  • In both periods, Déli Krónika supported government communication. In 2011, the news programs assumed more of the characteristics of government propaganda, with frequently manipulated content aimed at damaging the opposition and other actors cast in the role of the enemy by government communication. The Krónika subserviently adopted turns of phrase and approaches favored by government propaganda, uncritically embedding such language in its own content.  
  • It is indicative of the competence of Hungarian journalists across the board that even reporters asking questions with reflective intent tend to present their interview subjects not with hard facts and data but with opinions and judgments,which are easily fended off by any sufficiently seasoned politician.
  • Public affairs are presented more along the lines of a reality show, meaning that the program becomes interesting not because the viewers’ existence or future well-being might be at stake in one political decision or another, but because of their ability to emotionally identify with one of two sides in a sharply divisive political culture that characterizes Hungarian public affairs today.


2. Online content

  • In 2011, the online media reviewed for this study accorded the FIDESZ as the ruling party a more prominent role than to the MSZP three years previously. 
  • Even as an opposition party, the FIDESZ had a more assertive presence on the web sites reviewed than did the MSZP later when it had retreated into the opposition.
  • In 2011, the opposition parties had practically zero leverage online (i.e., they do not make any appearance on the web sites reviewed).
  • In 2011, the economic pages of the news portals Index and Origo almost exclusively featured government and FIDESZ party representatives among the political actors in the domestic arena.
  • In the context of the weakening forint,  Origo paid more attention than Index to the other countries in the region.
  • On the whole, the ratio of public affairs content presented online was up in 2011, although this conceals an actual decrease of that ratio at Index, and an actual growth in the case of Origo.
  • Differences between the two major news portals tend to be stylistic in nature rather than anything else. Whichever one read habitually, one was basically exposed to the same information and political messages.
  • Not only did both portals essentially report on the same news and events in connection with the weakening forint, but more often than not they relied on the same sources as well.
  • While the number of online news blocks dealing with the weakening forint diminished on both portals, these news items  grew in length on the average.
  • By 2011, the government and the ruling party had beefed up their online contributions as newsmakers.
  • The economy/business  sites devote significant space to foreign politicians. 
  • In 2008, editorial-type features dealt with the FIDESZ more prominently than with the MSZP in 2011.