Election lessons the Murdoch media should learn
16 August 2013
In the opening week of the 2013 election, the Murdoch print media elected to engage in one of the most focused partisan propaganda campaigns in recent Australian political history.
Successive covers of the Daily Telegraph have lampooned the incumbent government and called for their electoral defeat, and the Courier-Mail responded to the entry of Peter Beattie into the campaign with a "send in the clowns" cover that pushed my mother, a 40-year subscriber and staunch defender of the quality of that paper, to the point of unsubscribing: a hard thing to do in a one-paper town for a generation that always started the day with the paper over breakfast.
In response to this very assertive political strategy by News Limited, the Prime Minister has accused Murdoch of corporate self-interest: that the media baron sees the National Broadband Network as a threat to his cable infrastructure and Foxtel's business model and is attempting to knock it off through supporting the Opposition. While the Opposition's fibre-to-the-node policy will certainly throttle bandwidth speeds to the home, other reasons could be alluded to in Murdoch's decision to strongly oppose the incumbent, the most obvious being payback for the Finkelstein inquiry into the news media and the greater ideological alignment between the aging patriarch and Tony Abbott.
In retrospect, while Labor certainly rue their decision to support an inquiry into the "hate media" - as Bob Brown described the Murdoch press - this no-holds-barred campaigning by the tabloids basically proves his whole point. Overall, while Labor strategists will be concerned that 70 per cent of the metro daily readership is getting this type of material, they'll also be using this to build their "underdog" image and paint the Coalition as having a bigger electoral margin than they currently do. This will assist them in pulling back wavering voters, such as those stung from the Gillard departure.
While election campaign politics is commonly a room-by-room rattenkrieg battle, fighting for every reference and quote, the fear that this blatant propaganda will automatically swing the election is considerably overdrawn. Research into the impact of political communication helps us put the effect of this reporting into perspective, because it shows that media audiences are not as susceptible to this type of campaign as they are commonly assumed to be.
The first observation the research gives us is that getting something on the agenda is different from changing people's opinions. Murdoch is uniquely able to dictate the content and thrust of his media arm in Australia, but this is quite different from directly controlling what the public see as important to their political decision-making.
Max McCombs and Donald Shaw's 1968 Chapel Hill study of a US presidential election was the first study to demonstrate the empirical impact of media agendas on public consciousness empirically. Subsequent studies of this effect over many years (of which there have been about 400 published) have shown there is a considerable time lag between strong editorial positions appearing consistently in the media and this filtering through into the public consciousness. It can be over a month before people start to spontaneously recall consistent media messages as being an important issue, though this is highly situational and tends to be based on the capacity of the audience to assess the issue independently of the media's messaging.
The second lesson is that controlling the agenda is not the same as shaping how people feel about what's on it. While the election gives enough time for a concerted media campaign to go from "media chatter" to a topic of public interest and discussion, this priming effect is not the same as shaping how people feel about the issues discussed. The shaping of public dispositions towards people and issues develops over quite long time-frames, and while media coverage is important in informing the community, media perspectives are often moderated by social relationships, audience background, and levels of political knowledge and interest. Negative campaigns can alert voters to issues and the characteristics of individuals, but it takes considerably longer to shift attitudes in the minds of the community than a five-week election campaign. In the Chapel Hill study, it was the comparatively uninformed voters which were most affected by consistent media attention on some issues and candidate characteristics. But rather than change opinions, this media focus was more likely to orient them towards attention to these factors as important things to be aware of.
For a real "hate campaign" to take effect in the short term, there has to exist the germ of dislike in the minds of the public. This is why people burn down the houses of paedophiles, but seldom rise up against dodgy builders featured on Today Tonight. In the electoral context, the Murdoch press needs to build upon and activate existing concerns in the minds of their readers about the ALP and Rudd: Such as questions of the stability of the government and its economic credentials. These are issues that have some traction with the public as they have been established by years of reporting about internal party politics and government waste. But we can see that even some areas of consistent reporting won't shift public attitudes. Attacking Rudd personally, for example, appears to be a singularly ineffective tactic because, irrespective of years of reporting about his personality and management style as leader, his enduring popularity shows these messages just are not accepted by the public. While Rudd's a distant figure to most people, his "daggy dad" persona activates attitudes in the public that are resistant to real hated.
The final lesson is that biased coverage doesn't affect who you think it does. While there's an assumption that "swinging" voters will be strongly influenced by a negative media campaign, this is not always the case. The least-informed voters are oddly like the most-informed in the way that media coverage does not really affect their political opinions. The latter is due to their well-developed positions being strongly resistant to challenging media narratives, while the former because they tend to consume less political media: thus it is harder to use the media to cultivate their positions and views. This is why political parties use advertising: to capture people who just won't read the front part of a newspaper. As swinging voters are the key to electoral success in the Australian political context because of compulsory voting, this further undermines the power of consistent electoral media campaigns.
Overall, events can be more important than "spin". The return of Kevin Rudd to the leadership of the ALP resulted in a instant bump of about 5 percentage points to the party. This is a far greater effect than weeks of consistent negative campaigning by the News Limited media will produce in this election campaign. Certainly we should be concerned with persistent patterns of media bias, but it won't be "the Tele that won it" if Tony Abbott becomes PM on September 7.
Dr Peter Chen will be writing regularly for The Drum throughout the election campaign. He is a politics lecturer in at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. First published in ABC's The Drum Online: Read the original article.
Contact: Emily Jones
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