Framing democratic politics: An investigation into the presence and effects of 'strategy' news frames in the UK

Authors: Jackson, D.

Conference: Bournemouth University; Media School


There is growing concern amongst observers of the media that news coverage of politics has moved away from a focus on issues, and instead towards political strategy. This emphasises the tactics employed by politicians in pursuing policy goals, as well as their performance, styles of campaigning, and personal battles in the political arena, whether it be in office, opposition, or during elections (de Vreese & Elenbaas, 2008). Strategically framed news is problematic because it portrays politicians as manipulative, power hungry and Machiavellian, and therefore invites audiences to attribute cynical motives to their actions. As a result, this type of news has been found accountable for increasing levels of political cynicism in the US electorate, which erodes civic engagement and depresses electoral participation - a process described as a media-induced 'spiral of cynicism' (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997).

This dissertation examines this type of news. Despite much concern that – driven by a number of changes to the working practices of journalists – political issues are increasingly being undermined by a narrative of strategy, there is little evidence of either the presence or effects of strategy news in the UK, especially outside of elections. This study fills some of this gap by conducting a content analysis of a non-election issue in the news media (press and TV news) over a 3 month period, whereby strategy news as a frame was examined. The issue chosen for case study was the ‘euro debate’ of May-June 2003. The second part of the study is a framing experiment, where a sample of young people were randomly exposed to either a ‘strategy’ or ‘issue’ framed account of the euro debate, and then asked about their political attitudes.

Content analysis findings showed the euro debate to fulfil many typical characteristics of EU reporting in the British media, with coverage cyclical and driven by events. Although there was a roughly equal balance of issue and strategy framed stories in the press, the strategy frame was more prominent in the news agenda and was more consistently spread throughout the time period. When broadcast news did cover the euro, it was usually to cover a development in the manoeuvring of political elites. Although some qualifications emerged, much of the content analysis findings confirmed the worries of media critics. Experiment findings found evidence of a ‘spiral of cynicism’ but only for those who were less politically engaged, and their cynicism was confined to the motivations of politicians, not of the political system writ large. For the less engaged, the presentation of the euro debate through the strategy frame also suppressed their support for the euro compared to the issue version. Although some of the experiment findings should concern observers of news media performance, the evidence of this study does not support a full-blown ‘spiral of cynicism’ in the UK.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Dan Jackson