Campaign: Uneven media playing field tilts to the right

The 15 of February 2014 marked the official launch of the election campaign. In seeking to assess how often government and opposition politicians appear, respectively, in the media, as well as the nature of public affairs contents in general, we relied once again on research jointly performed by Mérték and Ténytár.

During the first three weeks of the campaign (15 February to 7 March) we monitored the domestic policy news of the most popular online news portals, Index.hu and Origo.hu. Some 1,500 news items were published on these portals in that period, 54% of which qualify as public affairs news.

The second part of the analysis covers broadcast news, where Mérték has based its observations on tracking m1’s evening news (Híradó at 19.30 hours), TV2’s Facts (Tények), RTL Klub’s evening news and Kossuth Rádió’s Noon Chronicle (Déli Krónika). Forty-nine percent of the 1,600 items in the news streams qualified as public affairs news. Thus roughly half the total airtime dealing with news on the most important domestic online and broadcast sources was devoted to tabloid items or (political) propaganda.

An imbalance favouring the government was most palpable in broadcast news. The imbalance was apparent not only in the quantity of news items involving government politicians, however, but also in their quality: In broadcast news government politicians appeared far less frequently than opposition politicians in items that portrayed their subjects in a negative light. Hence in the first stage of the campaign the representation of politics in the media tilts mostly to the right.

The “newsmakers” of the public affairs news in the online press

In an overwhelming majority (42%) of public affairs news the governing side is the “newsmaker”. What we mean by that is that the issue involved, the source of the news item, as well as their placement on the agenda, are associated with governing party politicians. The relative impact of the smaller governing party is apparent in the fact that as a newsmaker in only accounted for 1% as compared to the governing parties’ total 42%.

Twenty-two percent of public affairs news is associated with the opposition. In 8% of the cases the newsmaker was not an individual party but the joint list of left-wing parties known as the “Change of Government” alliance. Individually, MSZP is a source of news items in 5% of the cases, while DK and Jobbik “score” 3% each. LMP makes news in 2% of all instances, while Együtt-PM in only 1% of cases. If we consider that in reality only half of all news items labelled as public affairs news really qualify as such, then it follows that in fact there are only half as many instances in which these parties really appear in the news channels as initiators of news tems.

Based on the above, it is apparent that news affiliated with the government are twice as frequent as items involving the opposition, which marks a vast imbalance in the news market.

In 17% of public affairs news the items originate with the media outlet itself. These primarily involve analytic or investigative pieces. Many news items are associated with the civil sphere: various professional organisations=6%, unions = 3%, movements=2%, other organisations =3%.

Finally, in 4% of all public affairs news foreign organisations gave rise to the given items, while in 1% of cases the news piece could not be attributed to any source (for example obituaries).

News in the online press are slightly more balanced.

Politicians appear in 31% of all news. If we only look at public affairs news, however, the ratio climbs to 57%. Half of all the politicians who appear in news items are affiliated with the governing parties; 34% are members of the cabinet and another 16% are politicians in the governing parties (Fidesz = 15%, KDNP=1%).

Forty-six percent of politicians who appear in online news belong to the opposition broadly understood, and 4% are foreign politicians. In this respect the two most-visited online news portals are balanced. On the whole, this question is more complicated, however, as in a substantial portion of items opposition politicians appear in a negative light (thus Gábor Simon, MSZP’s disgraced former deputy chair who is facing criminal charges on account of a vast income whose origins he can’t explain, has appeared often in the media, as has controversial former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány), even as politicians in the governing parties are rarely the subject of news items that seek to cast them in a negative light.

When we look at the party breakdown of politicians who represent the opposition in the media’s coverage, we observe that 16% of all politicians are MSZP members, 6% are active in Együtt 2014-PM and 7% belong to DK. A further 6% represent Jobbik and 5% LMP. Finally, extra-parliamentary parties are also represented with 5%, while 1% are independent politicians unaffiliated with any party. As one would expect, members of small parties and independent politicians most often appear in the news in connection with the official ballot access process, which has sparked significant controversy due to allegations of fraudulent signature collection.

Thirty-seven percent of all politicians who appear in the media hold public office (and thus represent the governing party). Exactly one-fifth of all actors are party leaders, 26% are MPs or candidates for Parliament. Eight percent of politicians are spokespersons (in a party or the government), 9% hold other political offices. Typically, they are members of municipal assemblies or mayors, in some cases campaign officials.

Broadcast news: huge dispersion

Our impressions on broadcast news stemmed from monitoring m1’s evening news, Híradó (19:30), TV2’s Tények (18:30), RTL Klub’s evening news and Kossuth Rádió’s Déli Krónika. Forty-nine percent of the 1,600 segments on the news streams were public affairs news items. This is of course only a rough overall figure, the values of individual channels varied starkly: in Déli Krónika this ratio was 82%, in m1’s news it was 74%, in RTL Klub’s Híradó it was 38% while in TV2’s Tények public affairs items only made up 24% of the total airtime. A crucial common feature of all four shows is that they produce most of their public affairs news by relying on items produced by the national news agency MTI. As a result, most basic news items appear in some form on all four news shows, though they are naturally adapted to reflect the style of the individual channel. All considered, we can assert that on the whole the ratio of public affairs news is not lower on broadcast news than on the two most important online news portals, and that the most important public affairs news items appear on all channels.

The channels differ not only in terms of the share of public affairs news they air, however, but also with respect to the nature of news items they broadcast. TV2’s Tények broadcasts the highest ratio of international news items that have no direct bearing on Hungarian politics, and it features the lowest share of party political news. The Déli Krónika reports more often than other channels on public policy type of news items, while party political issues are most often reported on m1’s Híradó.

Government news-making

News items initiated by the media itself tend to be far less frequent in broadcast news than on online news portals. What we can nevertheless assert is that the government is often the “news maker” when it comes to items that are broadcast into the ether, more often than in the case of online news. The Déli Krónika qualifies as the news show with the highest share of government news (or, depending on one’s perspective, with the highest level of government propaganda production). The government was the newsmaker in 68% of the public affairs news items disseminated there, which marks a vast edge for the governing parties. This ratio is 55% on m1’s Híradó and 49% on TV2’s Tények, while it is only 44% on RTK Klub’s Híradó.

Sixty-four percent of public affairs news items feature at least one politician. As a ratio of the entire news stream, however, only a third of news items involve politicians (or politicians as well). Thirty-one percent of politicians that appear in the media are cabinet members and 18% are other representatives of the governing parties. Forty-one percent of politicians belong to the opposition: 17% are affiliated with MSZP, 7% with DK, 4% each with Jobbik, Együtt 2014-PM and LMP, and 5% with the smaller parties. Hence governing party politicians are once again more heavily represented, their rate of appearance is 8% higher than that of the opposition.

It follows from the above that an imbalance favouring the government in terms of how often politicians affiliated with a given side appear on the news is more pronounced in broadcast news, but there are significant differences even among individual broadcast news shows. Qualitative differences are also crucial: In broadcast news governing party politicians are far less likely than opposition politicians to appear in news items that cast them in a negative light. In the beginning of the campaign, therefore, the playing field is heavily tilted towards the right in terms of politicians’ media appearances as well.