What makes news? — The prospects of being informed

“RTL 2 is airing real news!” — exclaimed a Standards staff member, providing a vivid illustration of the state of public affairs reporting in Hungary today. News on television is either irrelevant to public affairs or, when it is not, it is little more than sheer government propaganda. If a commercial station wants to buck the trend by offering news other than the tabloid type, it will do so via a channel operated from outside Hungary.

 

Although we at Standards obviously have a gut feeling about how media content has been affected by changes in media policy and regulation, we wanted to corroborate our assumptions by objective, quantifiable observations. To realize this goal, we designed and completed a research project, performed in collaboration with the Publicus Institute, using a set of predetermined criteria to compare a slice of public affairs content presented on television, radio, and the Internet before and after the current government assumed power in what has been termed a “polling booth revolution.” Looking at the results, let us first see to what extent the content offered by nationwide commercial television stations and public service media served the needs of citizens wishing to be informed about public affairs. A previous survey performed by Standards has revealed that 65% of the public does not access news from sources other than these media, except perhaps papers of county-wide circulation.

 

The country’s Fundamental Law, media laws, and messages from the government, including the Media Council, stress the point that the adequate information of the public is one of the foremost objectives of the current media regulation. The Fundamental Law pledges that the state “shall ensure the conditions for free dissemination of information necessary for the formation of democratic public opinion.” The media laws offer sonorous declarations: “All media content providers shall provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on local, national and EU affairs and on any event that bears relevance to the citizens of the Republic of Hungary and members of the Hungarian nation.” “The right to providing and receiving information of those living within the territory of the Republic of Hungary and the members of the Hungarian Nation and in connection with this, the development and strengthening of publicity in a democratic society are significant constitutional interests.” What is more, Hungary has in force what is probably the only media legislation in the world that assigns a specific limit to the ratio of criminal reporting in the total news coverage offered by newscasts with the highest ratings.

 

By contrast, the shrinking and displacement of public affairs content is positively striking. Of course, everyone who watches television will be aware of this process to some extent, but the deeper analysis demonstrates it with astonishing clarity. We studied a two-week period each in October 2008 and November 2011, when the forint — the Hungarian currency — weakened considerably. Analyzing the portrayal of the weakening forint in the media served as a very useful starting point for examining government and opposition communications through the media, and was instrumental for us in keeping track of changes in the presentation of public affairs content in general. The weakening of the forint meant a major economic, political, and social process in both periods we looked at, which continued to define public affairs content for weeks at a time. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, in our study we basically focused on the ratio of public affairs content in the total programming, the presentation of government messages, respective appearances by the government and the opposition, differences in news themes in radio, television, and online, as well as the varying role accorded to the central news agency.  The programs we monitored for purposes of the study included the newscasts of the nationwide commercial television stations, the news on the public service station M1, the evening news hour Este, the noontime news hour Déli Krónika on Kossuth Radio, as well as the Home and Economy columns of the internet news portals Index and Origo. (The online news services will be discussed in a future blog entry.)

 

During the period under review, the length of news programs increased except for Déli Krónika, but the quantity and ratio of public affairs content decreased everywhere. The trend was noticeable even with the evening news on M1, but really proved dramatic with TV2 and RTL Klub, both commercial stations roughly cutting public affairs news time in half from around 11 minutes in 2008 to about five minutes in 2011. The evening news on M1 reduced public affairs content less radically but still measurably, from 15 minutes to 12 minutes.

 

In the case of the two commercial television stations, the proportion of tabloid-type news, mostly devoted to celebrities and crime, grew from 52-53% to 77%, while the ratio of public affairs stories plummeted to 15% and 12% with RTL and TV2, respectively. (The rest of the news time is filled with news that will not fit either category.) In 2011, viewers of the two commercial stations could watch five news items without being certain there would be one dealing with public affairs among them. What is more surprising, however, is that the ratio of tabloid stories rose from 36% to 50% in the evening news on M1, while public affairs content dropped from 64% to 42%.

 

The Este now features a higher proportion of tabloid news as well, with public affairs content down from 84% to 75%. Essentially, this means that, in 2011, the Este devoted one segment on average to tabloid stories. Among the five news programs under review, Déli Krónika has retained the most of its public affairs profile. While a measure of decline is noted here as well, with public affairs content down to 58% from 70% in 2008, Déli Krónika still devotes the majority of its program time to public affairs, and “only” one out three segments to tabloid topics.

 

The picture becomes more differentiated — and not in a positive direction at that — if we look at the position of public affairs news within the run time of newscasts. In this respect, public service news programs did not change significantly over the three years, reserving the first third of the air time for public affairs content. On the other hand, the commercial stations overhauled their news editing practices. Back in 2008, both stations featured public affairs as headline news in the first half of their newscasts. By 2011, what little remained of public affairs content had been relegated to the second half of the programs. These days, RTL and TV2 go through 10 and 12 news segments, respectively, before really turning to public affairs.

 

As part of our study, we performed a qualitative analysis of content discussing the weakening of the forint. In the newscasts of the commercial stations, the scaling back of time devoted to public affairs clearly goes hand in hand with increasingly shallow presentation. While the news program Tények in 2008 offered essentially balanced coverage making an effort to present information in relevant context, and even had its moments of reporting excellence, by 2011 its reporting on the weakening forint had become more closely aligned with the approach of the ruling political parties and contextualization had disappeared from the agenda, to the effect that political messages are now presented without critical reflection in this program. Reporting on the weakening forint underwent an even more dramatic transformation in RTL Klub. What in 2008 had been a basically correct and informative news program on this station turned into a newscast that follows up on tabloid information more thoroughly than on public affairs. RTL’s news program is admittedly somewhat more critical of the government, but tends to present public affairs almost exclusively in the light of sharp conflict. Although the news program on M1 had in 2008 been prejudiced in favor of the then ruling party, it had remained more or less fit to provide viewers with information embedded in proper context. In 2011, M1 was still more informative and had retained a better focus on public affairs than the commercial stations, although it had become much more heavily biased and propagandistic, sometimes to the point of being manipulative. In this respect, M1 is only second to the radio news program Déli Krónika, which had been massively partial to the then governing parties in 2008, and maintained this tendency in 2011, on the evidence of news reports we analyzed for the purposes of this study.

 

Another aspect of reporting practices we have examined has to do with the ability of media to put various issues on the public agenda — in other words, to what extent various editorial practices conform to the gate-keeper function. Specifically, we looked at the “newsmakers” behind each news item, who were responsible for thematizing the given issue in the arena of public affairs. As an important shift in both television and radio, the far fewer news segments on public affairs had by 2011 become more closely linked to the political stage, with a higher proportion of newsmakers being active politicians than was the case three years before. In 2008, the government and the MSZP, the ruling party, generated 27% of public affairs news, with a slight 2% contribution by the SZDSZ, the liberal party that had by then stepped out of the coalition but continued to support the socialists. The Fidesz, as the largest opposition party at the time, was only responsible for 3% of the news. In 2011, the current government generated a larger share — some 35% — of the news alone than the government and the then ruling party together in 2008. Concurrently, each party in the opposition stepped up its newsmaking activities, with the MSZP contributing 5.9%, the LMP 4.9%, the Jobbik 3%, and the DK (Democratic Coalition) 3.8% to the total of public affairs news reported on by the examined media.

 

In 2008, the proportions described above were pretty much the same in every news program. By 2011, however, significant differences had emerged among the various newscasts in this regard. The government and the ruling parties increased their news initiative from 27% to 35.5% in the evening news on M1, from 27.5% to 48% in the Este, and from 21% to 28% in Déli Krónika. By 2011, the opposition parties had also managed to claim a larger share of news in public service programs. TV2 had undergone a change comparable to public television news, with the newsmaking activity of the government/ruling parties intensifying from 27% to 35%, while the largest opposition party claimed a smaller role as newsmakers, down from 8% in 2008 to 4% in 2011.

 

In light of these changes, one thing is certain: In the drive to upstage public affairs content, news programs in Hungary have increasingly become tools of communication in the hands of political parties. If we add the conclusion of our qualitative analysis that hardly any newscasts remain that would make an honest effort to subject the information delivered to them to reflection and critical scrutiny, or that would take the trouble to shed light on the larger picture, we will find it difficult to be overly gloomy about the prospects of audiences relying on commercial television stations and public service media as their main sources of information on public affairs. It is as if the world is run by political parties; as if public affairs are about nothing but the debate between those parties; and as if the events of the moment have no prehistory nor consequences for the future.  — This is the larger picture that emerges about public affairs reporting in Hungary today.

 

It has been known for quite some time now that, in fashioning its media policy, one of the ultimate goals of the Fidesz has been to take over and domesticate those channels of mass communication that reach the largest audiences in Hungary. This motive is manifest in the way the ruling party takes up positions in the media market (and specifically in the market of printed papers), bargains deals with the nationwide television stations, and walks all over public service. If it did nothing else, this would be enough to emasculate the high-minded declarations of the Fundamental Law and the Media Acts on the importance of comprehensive information for the public.

“RTL 2 is airing real news!” — exclaimed a Standards staff member, providing a vivid illustration of the state of public affairs reporting in Hungary today. News on television is either irrelevant to public affairs or, when it is not, it is little more than sheer government propaganda. If a commercial station wants to buck the trend by offering news other than the tabloid type, it will do so via a channel operated from outside Hungary.

 

Although we at Standards obviously have a gut feeling about how media content has been affected by changes in media policy and regulation, we wanted to corroborate our assumptions by objective, quantifiable observations. To realize this goal, we designed and completed a research project, performed in collaboration with the Publicus Institute, using a set of predetermined criteria to compare a slice of public affairs content presented on television, radio, and the Internet before and after the current government assumed power in what has been termed a “polling booth revolution.” Looking at the results, let us first see to what extent the content offered by nationwide commercial television stations and public service media served the needs of citizens wishing to be informed about public affairs. A previous survey performed by Standards has revealed that 65% of the public does not access news from sources other than these media, except perhaps papers of county-wide circulation.

 

The country’s Fundamental Law, media laws, and messages from the government, including the Media Council, stress the point that the adequate information of the public is one of the foremost objectives of the current media regulation. The Fundamental Law pledges that the state “shall ensure the conditions for free dissemination of information necessary for the formation of democratic public opinion.” The media laws offer sonorous declarations: “All media content providers shall provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on local, national and EU affairs and on any event that bears relevance to the citizens of the Republic of Hungary and members of the Hungarian nation.” “The right to providing and receiving information of those living within the territory of the Republic of Hungary and the members of the Hungarian Nation and in connection with this, the development and strengthening of publicity in a democratic society are significant constitutional interests.” What is more, Hungary has in force what is probably the only media legislation in the world that assigns a specific limit to the ratio of criminal reporting in the total news coverage offered by newscasts with the highest ratings.

 

By contrast, the shrinking and displacement of public affairs content is positively striking. Of course, everyone who watches television will be aware of this process to some extent, but the deeper analysis demonstrates it with astonishing clarity. We studied a two-week period each in October 2008 and November 2011, when the forint — the Hungarian currency — weakened considerably. Analyzing the portrayal of the weakening forint in the media served as a very useful starting point for examining government and opposition communications through the media, and was instrumental for us in keeping track of changes in the presentation of public affairs content in general. The weakening of the forint meant a major economic, political, and social process in both periods we looked at, which continued to define public affairs content for weeks at a time. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, in our study we basically focused on the ratio of public affairs content in the total programming, the presentation of government messages, respective appearances by the government and the opposition, differences in news themes in radio, television, and online, as well as the varying role accorded to the central news agency.  The programs we monitored for purposes of the study included the newscasts of the nationwide commercial television stations, the news on the public service station M1, the evening news hour Este, the noontime news hour Déli Krónika on Kossuth Radio, as well as the Home and Economy columns of the internet news portals Index and Origo. (The online news services will be discussed in a future blog entry.)

 

During the period under review, the length of news programs increased except for Déli Krónika, but the quantity and ratio of public affairs content decreased everywhere. The trend was noticeable even with the evening news on M1, but really proved dramatic with TV2 and RTL Klub, both commercial stations roughly cutting public affairs news time in half from around 11 minutes in 2008 to about five minutes in 2011. The evening news on M1 reduced public affairs content less radically but still measurably, from 15 minutes to 12 minutes.

 

In the case of the two commercial television stations, the proportion of tabloid-type news, mostly devoted to celebrities and crime, grew from 52-53% to 77%, while the ratio of public affairs stories plummeted to 15% and 12% with RTL and TV2, respectively. (The rest of the news time is filled with news that will not fit either category.) In 2011, viewers of the two commercial stations could watch five news items without being certain there would be one dealing with public affairs among them. What is more surprising, however, is that the ratio of tabloid stories rose from 36% to 50% in the evening news on M1, while public affairs content dropped from 64% to 42%.

 

The Este now features a higher proportion of tabloid news as well, with public affairs content down from 84% to 75%. Essentially, this means that, in 2011, the Este devoted one segment on average to tabloid stories. Among the five news programs under review, Déli Krónika has retained the most of its public affairs profile. While a measure of decline is noted here as well, with public affairs content down to 58% from 70% in 2008, Déli Krónika still devotes the majority of its program time to public affairs, and “only” one out three segments to tabloid topics.

 

The picture becomes more differentiated — and not in a positive direction at that — if we look at the position of public affairs news within the run time of newscasts. In this respect, public service news programs did not change significantly over the three years, reserving the first third of the air time for public affairs content. On the other hand, the commercial stations overhauled their news editing practices. Back in 2008, both stations featured public affairs as headline news in the first half of their newscasts. By 2011, what little remained of public affairs content had been relegated to the second half of the programs. These days, RTL and TV2 go through 10 and 12 news segments, respectively, before really turning to public affairs.

 

As part of our study, we performed a qualitative analysis of content discussing the weakening of the forint. In the newscasts of the commercial stations, the scaling back of time devoted to public affairs clearly goes hand in hand with increasingly shallow presentation. While the news program Tények in 2008 offered essentially balanced coverage making an effort to present information in relevant context, and even had its moments of reporting excellence, by 2011 its reporting on the weakening forint had become more closely aligned with the approach of the ruling political parties and contextualization had disappeared from the agenda, to the effect that political messages are now presented without critical reflection in this program. Reporting on the weakening forint underwent an even more dramatic transformation in RTL Klub. What in 2008 had been a basically correct and informative news program on this station turned into a newscast that follows up on tabloid information more thoroughly than on public affairs. RTL’s news program is admittedly somewhat more critical of the government, but tends to present public affairs almost exclusively in the light of sharp conflict. Although the news program on M1 had in 2008 been prejudiced in favor of the then ruling party, it had remained more or less fit to provide viewers with information embedded in proper context. In 2011, M1 was still more informative and had retained a better focus on public affairs than the commercial stations, although it had become much more heavily biased and propagandistic, sometimes to the point of being manipulative. In this respect, M1 is only second to the radio news program Déli Krónika, which had been massively partial to the then governing parties in 2008, and maintained this tendency in 2011, on the evidence of news reports we analyzed for the purposes of this study.

 

Another aspect of reporting practices we have examined has to do with the ability of media to put various issues on the public agenda — in other words, to what extent various editorial practices conform to the gate-keeper function. Specifically, we looked at the “newsmakers” behind each news item, who were responsible for thematizing the given issue in the arena of public affairs. As an important shift in both television and radio, the far fewer news segments on public affairs had by 2011 become more closely linked to the political stage, with a higher proportion of newsmakers being active politicians than was the case three years before. In 2008, the government and the MSZP, the ruling party, generated 27% of public affairs news, with a slight 2% contribution by the SZDSZ, the liberal party that had by then stepped out of the coalition but continued to support the socialists. The Fidesz, as the largest opposition party at the time, was only responsible for 3% of the news. In 2011, the current government generated a larger share — some 35% — of the news alone than the government and the then ruling party together in 2008. Concurrently, each party in the opposition stepped up its newsmaking activities, with the MSZP contributing 5.9%, the LMP 4.9%, the Jobbik 3%, and the DK (Democratic Coalition) 3.8% to the total of public affairs news reported on by the examined media.

 

In 2008, the proportions described above were pretty much the same in every news program. By 2011, however, significant differences had emerged among the various newscasts in this regard. The government and the ruling parties increased their news initiative from 27% to 35.5% in the evening news on M1, from 27.5% to 48% in the Este, and from 21% to 28% in Déli Krónika. By 2011, the opposition parties had also managed to claim a larger share of news in public service programs. TV2 had undergone a change comparable to public television news, with the newsmaking activity of the government/ruling parties intensifying from 27% to 35%, while the largest opposition party claimed a smaller role as newsmakers, down from 8% in 2008 to 4% in 2011.

 

In light of these changes, one thing is certain: In the drive to upstage public affairs content, news programs in Hungary have increasingly become tools of communication in the hands of political parties. If we add the conclusion of our qualitative analysis that hardly any newscasts remain that would make an honest effort to subject the information delivered to them to reflection and critical scrutiny, or that would take the trouble to shed light on the larger picture, we will find it difficult to be overly gloomy about the prospects of audiences relying on commercial television stations and public service media as their main sources of information on public affairs. It is as if the world is run by political parties; as if public affairs are about nothing but the debate between those parties; and as if the events of the moment have no prehistory nor consequences for the future.  — This is the larger picture that emerges about public affairs reporting in Hungary today.

 

It has been known for quite some time now that, in fashioning its media policy, one of the ultimate goals of the Fidesz has been to take over and domesticate those channels of mass communication that reach the largest audiences in Hungary. This motive is manifest in the way the ruling party takes up positions in the media market (and specifically in the market of printed papers), bargains deals with the nationwide television stations, and walks all over public service. If it did nothing else, this would be enough to emasculate the high-minded declarations of the Fundamental Law and the Media Acts on the importance of comprehensive information for the public.