Strategic news, politics and democracy: putting citizens first.

This source preferred by Dan Jackson

Authors: Jackson, D.

Start date: 24 October 2012

The increasing tendency of political news to focus on the ‘strategies’ of campaigning and presentation rather than the ‘substance’ or ‘issues’ of politics has been well documented. Furthermore, serious questions about the health of democracy are raised by ‘strategic’ news, as it has been found to contribute to political cynicism akin to a ‘spiral of cynicism’ (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997).

This paper will critically reflect on the state of knowledge on strategic news, and its implications for democracy. I will argue that the ‘problem’ of strategic news is not clear-cut. This is based on four areas of tension in the literature that I will explore: 1. Developments in the postmodern political culture and the importance of professionalised political communications mean that it is becoming harder to sustain the normative distinction between ‘issues’ and ‘strategy’. 2. The problematic role of politicians in strategic news. Whilst they have often been the first to castigate the media for their obsession with strategy over issues, they have often been complicit in its rise to prominence. Strategic news feeds off the adversarial, points scoring political culture prominent in such countries as the UK and USA. 3. The ‘negative’ effects of strategic news can be questioned. Recent research has shown that the effects of strategic news are often contingent on a number of factors, and compelling evidence linking strategic news to widespread political alienation is lacking, especially in comparison to studies supporting the mobilisation thesis (e.g. Norris, 2000).

4. Perhaps citizens prefer strategic news to ‘issue-based’ news. Calls for more ‘substantive’ reporting of politics contain the implicit assumption that the public would be happier if campaigns provided more and ‘better’ information (with a greater commitment to explaining issues as opposed to dramatising them). On the other hand, strategic news is partly a result of market pressures, which demand that news be presented in a format that has significant entertainment and interest value, even at the expense of civic or educational value (Hahn et al., 2002). There is contradictory evidence around this question, but it does not support a demand for the amount of strategic news that we regularly see, especially in recent elections.

My central conclusion is that whilst many critiques of strategic news underestimate its value in demystifying aspects of political reality that were once invisible, we should be concerned about the amount of strategic news and its effects on political engagement. In the final part of the paper I explore the dynamics of the relationship between political communicators and journalists, and suggest what practical steps could be made to rectify some of the problems associated with strategic news, in order to create an environment in which citizenship might thrive.

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