Brexit has left many spectators bewildered about the role of news media in the outcome of the vote. In a recent blog post, Timea Klebercz suggests that several factors in a malfunctioning communication setting have helped the ‘Leave’-side win the referendum. In this blog post, I provide alternative explanations and solutions for the existing problems, which Timea has already introduced. In the face of several upcoming elections in Europe, it seems also well-timed to advise political PR professionals on how they can take along this knowledge to their own contexts.
Partisan news media – how bad are they really?
Timea criticizes the role of partisan news media by questioning their selective reporting during the Brexit referendum. Critics might argue against her claim, that opinionated news should usually foster the quality of public debates, especially because the UK has a diverse range of dissenting partisan media. Hence, people should be able to consider a lot of different opinions.
Nevertheless, I share Timea’s opinion that partisan media were detrimental to the matters of Brexit, yet for different reasons. In my view, there was another level that helped to hinder the establishment of a fruitful public discourse. Partisan media have created civic echo chambers of likeminded opinions through reporting ideologically and highly selective. Thus, being surrounded by similar opinions has made it less likely for readers to exchange their political views with different-minded people. This is supported by behavioural research, showing that people, who are solely relying on partisan media, strongly reinforce their negative emotions towards people with opposing opinions.
Thus, in my opinion, political PR professionals need to see partisan media differentiated. For one thing, like-minded partisan newspapers can be considered easy targets for earned media coverage by professionals. Yet in the end, politicians need to find political consensus amongst different opinions. Because political PR professionals also promote this democratic process, they should avoid jeopardizing it. Hence, they must carefully find their balance between campaigning their interests to potential voters and fostering public debates across society.
How simple is too simple?
But what does having partisan media on both extremes of the political spectrum imply for the coverage of issues? Timea points out that partisan news media have distorted complex EU issues into oversimplified populisms. News media have battled, armed with polarizing frames, for their sovereignty in interpreting the political reality. While this is factually correct in the Brexit case, it also needs to be delved into why that was and how it could be solved.
— The Guardian (@guardian) June 23, 2016
According to the 2015 Eurobarometer, Brits were less interested in EU issues than any other member state. In my opinion, complex political issues should be communicated in ways that try to also engage politically apathetic people in politics. For example, a study by Matthew Baum showed that the personalized writing style in tabloids can help increasing political attention amongst politically uninterested readers. Yet, I agree with Timea that simple messages can be dangerous when they are framed the way she explains. Some researchers assert that people try to collectively make sense of political issues by aligning their existing frames to some degree. However, this process is not possible when opposing frames are characterized as non-negotiable with other people’s opinions.
Therefore, political PR professionals should communicate their issues simply but constructively. A major share of citizens with lesser political knowledge may sometimes need explanations that are accessible to broader audiences. However, these explanations should be open to factual criticism and negotiable with other opinions.
About the author:
Thilo Schröder is a Political Communication (MSc.) student at the University of Amsterdam. Interested in how societies deal with crisis situations, he is writing about them in his blog entries. Thilo likes to travel and he is furthermore deeply interested in global football cultures. You can follow Thilo on Twitter.