Will BSP fight Bypolls alone

Media freedom

Ralf Hohlfeld

To person

Dr. phil. habil, born in 1966; Since 2006 he has represented the Chair of Journalism II at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Ostenstrasse 25 - 27, 85072 Eichstätt.
Email: [email protected]

During the Bundestag election campaign in 2005, the quality of the media and political reality was so far unparalleled. The media only referred to the stereotypical image of political reality that they had created.


Political journalism in Germany is in crisis. The ranks of political commentators condemn each other to an unprecedented degree. Seldom before have there been such angry tirades of self-accusation, almost in unison it is said that "political journalism no longer works" [1]. How could that happen? The more liberal journalism asks why they could be so wrong with their assessments before the federal elections in 2005. Conservative journalism ponders why the electorate refused to form an opinion that was clearly consonant in advance, even if it has been observed over the years that the voter has become an insecure cantonist.

For months it had become apparent that the red-green government in Germany would be replaced. The mediaor was unanimous: The opposition parties CDU / CSU and FDP will win the election and together will form the new government. The only open question seemed to be the amount of the election victory. Political journalism and electoral research were d'accord on this question. Why were the political journalists so wrong in their assessments that they had to concede "that in truth the media would have lost the election" [2]? Is it true that the media understood themselves as "doers instead of mediators" [3] more than ever before? [4] Or, as Claus Leggewie wrote, that they have finally "moved from those involved in power observation to those involved in the power struggle" [ 5] have become?

Since a television election campaign was again waged, the central thesis is: Political television journalism has largely failed. He has moved far away from the reality of party democracy, which also includes the citizen as a media user. TV journalism is increasingly constructing a sui generis reality. This second reality, which in the face of serious political control problems propagated a collective desire for a political change in the past year, can be traced back to a self-referential self-conditioning of the television media. The media increasingly only referred to the image they created of political reality and to stereotypes of reporting, instead of reporting on current political developments and being inspired by political programs.

There are three main indicators for the thesis that self-thematization and self-referential reporting are responsible for the failure of political journalism:

Political reporting is becoming more and more apolitical. Even genuine election campaign reporting is becoming depoliticized. The subject areas of policy, political issues, are becoming more and more marginalized. In contrast, political process issues (politics) dominate the reporting. In the meantime, in almost all media-dominated democracies in the run-up to political elections, it is about the fight, about the race, about the competitive situation. For this, the Americans coined the term horse race journalism. Election campaigns, election advertising or the course of the election campaign with its changes of mood and the dialectical rhythm of attack, defense and counterattack have high news value in the journalistic selection process. These process topics are a sequence of routine unforeseen events; That is why they can be "framed" so well in the style of sports reporting, i.e. the starting point is uncertain from the rules of the competition. As a self-referential topic, the political competition between the parties is so dominant in comparison to political content because ongoing reporting on election campaign activities, surveys, new election campaign activities and attempts to address them provides the political journalist in the campaign crowd with new news quickly, cheaply and without a great deal of research.

Almost three quarters of the reports on the 2005 Bundestag election campaign consisted of such politics issues (see Figure 1), i.e. topics such as intra-party conflicts, campaigns, election campaign strategies, election polls, forecasts, efforts to depreciate political opponents and candidate profiles. [6] SAT.1's news programs and magazines about the federal election campaign even contained 84 percent politics. These process topics dominated not only the scope of the election reporting, but also the presentation. Three out of four of the metapolitical topics were highlighted, so either served as the lead story of the program or parts of the program, or were teased separately in the form of headlines and treadmills. In contrast, only 42 percent of the factual topics presented were highlighted. Overall, every second election campaign report (51 percent) was exposed in the news items examined. The high proportion of political process issues has been observed for a number of years and continues to grow at a high level. Udo Krüger measured a share of 63 percent for the 2002 Bundestag election, in 2005 the figure rose to 66 percent. [7]

Within these metapolitical topics, meanwhile, self-thematizing contributions are steadily increasing, in which the television news not only depicts the political election campaign, but also addresses the role of the media and their influence on the election, such as the presumed effects of a TV duel or political talk shows on the Citizens' voting decision. So-called metacommunication is about how the news media interpret and evaluate their role in claiming political PR by spin doctors. This meta coverage is referred to as the third level of political journalism because the focus of reporting is no longer on political topics and strategies, but on the extent to which journalists are instrumentalized as actors in the campaigns. [8] "The story of the campaign is the story of the media in the campaign." [9] But even the indication that a campaign-related statement was made in front of media representatives is enough for a TV report to be classified as meta-communicative.

Almost a quarter of the policy topics in the news broadcasts on the federal election campaign in 2005 were based on this form of meta-communication, i.e. it portrays the political election campaign primarily as a media campaign or as mediated politics. Duel was commissioned, which in turn gave rise to detailed reporting on the influence of political television communication on the voting intentions of the (television) population. Even if this phenomenon is not as widespread in Europe as it is in the United States, this characteristic is generally part of the Americanization of the election campaign. [10]

The second indicator of media self-conditioning in the process of election campaign reporting concerns the fact that prominent journalists appear as actors. Journalists ask journalists - this trend is not new, but journalists from all media sectors played an increasingly important role as interpreters of the 2005 election campaign in Germany on television. This additional dimension of the mediatized election campaign, which did not exist in earlier election campaigns in this intensity and extent, "can be seen as an independent element in the overall dramaturgy of the election theme" [11]. Over the entire period from May 24 (announcement of new elections) to election day on September 19, 2005, journalists appeared 95 times in guest roles as experts in election campaign coverage. They were invited as experts in election programs, especially in political talk shows, but many used these forums to make politics and to make specific election recommendations: This phenomenon culminated strongly in the person of Hans-Ulrich Jörges ("Stern"), the had six appearances in political election programs - three of them immediately before the election - and vehemently opposed Gerhard Schröder as chancellor and Rotgrün as government. There was talk of a "frenzied convict" [12] and that "journalists who act in this way become influential opinion leaders" [13]. To put it casually: the actual "elephant rounds" meanwhile take place on the political talk shows - their protagonists are often heavyweight publicists. It is undisputed that the anti-government camp had a clear preponderance in journalistic campaign support and commentary. [14] But it was not just the special political programs and talk shows that offered politicizing journalists a platform. The articles in the news programs and magazines of ARD, ZDF, RTL and SAT.1 also contained an astonishingly high number of journalists' statements. Of the 1,008 quotes in TV reports in the last four weeks before the 2005 Bundestag elections, 60 came from journalists. These were not correspondents and authors of the contributions who were in the picture in the form of a recaster, but journalists who expressed themselves in the role of political experts. In addition to the largely ambivalent assessments of the political situation, the opposition was rated positively six times, the government coalition under Gerhard Schröder three times. Five journalistic statements were critical of the government, not a single one rated the opposition negatively. The result shows a self-referentiality also at the actor level.

Probably the most relevant indicator of journalistic self-conditioning, through which a second reality is constructed that is decoupled from political reality, concerns the trend towards poll journalism. In recent years, opinion polls have become a central element of political communication thanks to their media-friendly processing. [15] To the extent that there is talk of a demoscopic democracy or "demoscopic democracy" (Richard von Weizsäcker), there is also a demoscopic journalism. [16]

Election polls are considered to be particularly worth reporting - not only because they easily meet the media's topicality requirements, but also because they can also combine essential news factors. [17] They meet the criterion of significance, can be related to people with high status and even offer surprises: "Polls are newsworthy: they are topical, relate directly to issues in the news, are up-to-the-moment." [18] The ever closer interaction between the media and electoral research means that the polled voting intentions become actual politics. Political reporting reduces itself to election poll journalism. This is why critics of demoscopic journalism speak of horse-race reporting; [19] Frank Brettschneider noted that these polls were rarely used in the past to show background reports on the changing climate of opinion or the motives of voters. For the recipient, therefore, the image was more of a "catch-up race". Factual issues were neglected and led to "amazement at the government's plans" [20] although journalists could have informed voters about the plans before the election.

Not only has Germany become a republic that believes in numbers, television is also increasingly relying on the forecasts of election researchers; a "poll membership" of the political journalists is diagnosed. [21] The result: number-induced ghost debates and sham discourses arise in political communication. On television in particular, a lot of airtime is filled with the results of opinion polls instead of political discourses and political debates. The excessive use of polls can be described as a cycle of poll-based media and media-based polls, whereby mutual influences and reinforcing effects can be assumed.

In 136 out of 658 articles (21.3 percent) of the analyzed news articles on the 2005 election campaign, such election poll results were discussed (see Figure 2). The front runner when it comes to addressing polls based on the number of absolute cases is RTL with 48, followed by SAT.1 (34), ARD (28) and ZDF (26). Since SAT.1 only accounts for a comparatively small proportion of total election campaign coverage (101 contributions = 15.3 percent), this broadcaster recorded the highest relative value in election polls of 35.1 percent from RTL (196 election campaign contributions = 29.8 percent) 24.5 percent survey thematicization. The public broadcasters ARD (198 campaign contributions = 30.1 percent) and ZDF (163 contributions = 24.8 percent) have the lowest relative proportions of demoscopically oriented reporting with 14.5 percent and 17.1 percent respectively. If one looks at the entire election campaign coverage in the month before the election, the proportion of poll-based coverage rose continuously from 11.9 percent to 32.1 percent between the fourth week and the last week before the election.

As far as the presence of parties and politicians in election campaign coverage is concerned, the rule of thumb has been that for many years political actors are asked about the prevailing proportional representation and, accordingly, have their say according to parliamentary weight. A formal balance is created, as a political position of the ruling party is usually automatically contrasted with the opposing position of an opposition party. This leads to neutralization effects in rival democracies, but in detail the advantage of the distribution of seats in parliament is reflected in the media representation of political television journalism. Many studies have been able to empirically prove this under the heading "Chancellor bonus". [22]

It is logically imperative that when in-house polls are increasingly commissioned by television stations and, the closer the election approaches, they are published with ever increasing frequency, journalism increasingly relies on these demoscopic artifacts. The demoscopic findings are editorially internalized and, with regard to the television presence of the parties, provide the rough framework for the following reporting. It is therefore advisable to observe the distribution of the parties' television presence in more detail: It turns out that the surveys commissioned by the television stations have become journalistic sensors that reflect the short-term political mood in the reporting of the pre-election time.

If one subtracts the statements of experts, journalists and citizens from the 1,008 original statements published in the four weeks before the 2005 election (see Figure 3) and concentrates on the remaining 624 original statements from later party representatives represented in the Bundestag, then the proportional representation of the statements of the parties coincides almost exactly with the last publicly published polls before the election: around eight percentage points for the CDU / CSU over the SPD, instead of an orientation towards the parliamentary proportional representation, which indicates a chancellor bonus. And, far more serious: Both the polls of all the large institutes, which were later heavily criticized, as well as the party presence in the television election campaign coverage deviate significantly from the surprising official final result in 2005, and indeed - with the exception of the Left Party, which is strongly underrepresented in the reporting - to the same extent. [ 23] Based on the data, it cannot be completely ruled out that this is a statistical coincidence; however, the data suggest that political editors arrange television programs according to a rationality that is heavily influenced by current opinion polls. Since these are commissioned by the broadcasters themselves, a cycle of journalistic self-conditioning is created.

In the practice of election campaign reporting, there is initially a topic generated within the framework of the agenda-setting and agenda-building processes. Regardless of the question of whether the topic is relevant for all parties at the factual level, all party representatives are asked in turn on this one topic in accordance with the balance and proportionality logic of the media. Schematic o-tone chains emerge, which the political journalist Marcus Jauer pointedly described on the occasion of the coalition question "Jamaica Coalition" or "Israel Solution": "What do you say about it? So it goes back and forth. With a question comes up Every utterance forces another one, there is always a topic, it is always someone's turn. "[24] The results of the compulsive series questioning are ritualized and content-free sound bits of around ten seconds in length, which according to the KISS -Logic (KEEP IT SHORT and SIMPLE) separated from politicians and cut into the posts. The resulting original sound arrangements are then made up according to the respective "Line of the Day". The circle closes again by the fact that in the election campaign headquarters riskier proposals of uncertain popularity by politicians from the second row are launched on a trial basis with the help of short quotes and are subjected to a kind of market research by waiting for poll effects. If the advances reach the electorate, the political elite will follow suit. In Anglo-Saxon countries, this form of political action is called policy by polls.

German television news programs not only publish opinion polls, but also begin to oracle themselves with this comparatively stable editorial tool. Election polls are not only published in fixed broadcast components such as the "ZDF Politbarometer", the "ARD-Deutschlandtrend" or "RTL-Wahltrend", there is also free speculation about the influence of forecasts in moderations and contributions. In the course of the publication of survey data, there is a specific form of election forecast. In 106 election campaign contributions and moderations (16.2 percent of the total election campaign reporting) journalists formulated such an autonomous election forecast and speculated about increasing and decreasing opportunities for the governing coalition and the opposition (see Figure 4). The share was highest on RTL at 27 percent, and lowest on ZDF at 8.7 percent. Journalistic forecasts are also affected by the unprecedented intensification of opinion polls in the last two weeks before the election, when the large lead of the opposition over the red-green government in the polls gradually narrowed. Overall, there were more issues of increasing chances for the governing coalition than more favorable prospects for the opposition. Conversely, the negative assessments of the opposition's chances outweigh those of the Schröder government - but not to an extent that could even come close to explaining the surprising election result.

However, if you look at the individual broadcasters, a very mixed picture of the speculations and prognoses is revealed. In almost every second relevant contribution, ARD announced increasing opportunities for the opposition, while RTL addressed decreasing opportunities for the opposition in every third prognostic contribution. The most astonishing are the journalistic prognoses for the election outcome on SAT.1: The broadcaster, which is not considered to be closely related to the SPD, referred to better prospects for the red-green government in 45 percent of the prognostic reports.

Overall, the prognoses conveyed en passively in reports and moderations are journalistically shaped interpretations of statistical surveys through which additional media influences are mixed into the reporting. This binds "polls" and "media" even more closely together and influences political journalism in a way that is questionable in terms of normative democracy theory. In short: the primacy and logic of the data are permanently internalized by the news journalistic staff. The result: It is published or thematized in a logic that is based on the result and the assumed effect of the publication - namely the survey results. This closes the self-referential circle.

In summary, based on the analysis of the news broadcasts on the federal election campaign, it was possible to provide some important information about the self-referential functioning of meta-communication in political television journalism. The media observe how acceptance and voting intentions change under their influence, namely mediated reporting, and they continue their observations with them. The result is, on the one hand, a simplistic horse race reporting, and on the other hand, a remarkable congruence between the voting preferences determined by in-house demoscopy and the media selection of the subjects relevant to the reporting. Concentrating on the notorious Sunday question, however, paralyzes the judgment of political journalists. It is clearly easier to deal with numbers than to discuss the competing models of social security systems. The factual and departmental policy has become too complicated. How can the competing models of tax reform and health reform be conveyed - if you barely understand them yourself and do not have the time to familiarize yourself in such a way that you can convey these issues to citizens and voters in a television report in such a way that knowledge " Ah "does.

In this respect, "Bet & win" reporting and horse race journalism are to be understood as a contemporary strategy against the tyranny of complicated decision-making constraints. Viewed soberly, a simple evolutionary moment can be seen in it. A primacy of attention-economic logic: the media are forced to convert the incomprehensible complexity of social regulatory processes into an attractive format that maintains the illusion that everyone can understand everything. This is based on the one hand on the visibility of people and on the other hand through bare numbers. And even if economic forecasts and business climate indices, tax estimate forecasts and labor market figures are not always clear and are often doubted by interested parties: Election surveys leave no room for doubt - or better: the mass media leave no doubt that these figures could be manipulated, incorrect or simply meaningless.