Parties in the Media Age

Holli A Semetko. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The transformation of political parties over the course of the 20th century has coincided with the growth of the media in countries around the world. The media provide an ever-changing context in which political parties operate and an array of opportunities for parties, candidates, and elected politicians to connect with, or disconnect from, citizens. The Internet also provides unique opportunities for new (and old) political personalities and social movements to gain attention and garner support. And rapid developments in telecommunications technology and their uses suggest that cell phones and handheld devices are being used by younger citizens in political ways, unimaginable to older generations who rely on the press and television for news and information. The evolving media landscape presents both opportunities and threats to political parties, at a time when parties in general can be said to suffer from a serious image problem.

The Image Problem for Political Parties

At a time when political parties appear to be the least trusted of institutions, the media and new communications technologies provide an opportunity to enhance the image and reputations of political parties. This opportunity exists in part because media are among the most highly trusted institutions in many countries around the world. One of the most striking comparisons that holds across the 25 member states of the European Union, as well as Latin America, is that the proportion of publics who express trust in media institutions is considerably higher than those who express trust in government or parliament. And political parties even fall behind government and parliament on the trust measures.

Figure 44.1 shows the percentage of publics in Europe who responded positively to the question ‘I would like to ask you a question about how much trust you have in certain institutions. For each of the following institutions, please tell me if you tend to trust it or tend not to trust it?’ And Figure 44.1 displays the corresponding percentages of Latin Americans who responded ‘a lot of confidence’ and ‘confidence’ to the question ‘How much confidence do you have in each of the following groups, institutions or persons mentioned on the list?.’ The mean for confidence in political parties in Latin America is 11% in 2003, down from 28% in 1997, and the mean for Europe using the forced choice trust or not trust form of the question, compares at 20% in the EU-15 and 13% in the new EU-10 member states in 2003. In Europe and Latin America, political parties appear at the bottom of the trusted list, while media such as radio, television and the press appear at the top.

The lack of trust or confidence in political parties, coupled with the fact that in most modern societies television and even the printed press nowadays have become more personalized and celebrity or personality-driven, means a serious image problem for political parties. As organizations or institutions, political parties remain distant unless presented by a familiar or friendly face. The average party spokesperson probably would not be a good choice to put forward as a communicator unless s/he was already a known quantity or had some celebrity status. An important finding from the 1970s and 1980s in the USA was that local media are ‘softer’ on local members of Congress and ‘harder’ on Congress as an institution, a reference to the fact that individual members of Congress tended to receive favorable coverage in their own districts while Congress itself tended to be reported in more negative terms as a faceless institution (Robinson, 1983). Political parties are like Congress unless personalized by the personalities, positions, and records of their leaders and top candidates. And even the softer (more docile) side of the local press has changed as the appetite for scandals, personalities, and conflict has become greater in all outlets over the past few decades (Tumber and Waisbord, 2004).

As the Internet, local cable TV, and talk-radio have expanded opportunities for individuals interested in politics to tune in and get involved, political parties have gained ground by being able to utilize these channels, assuming they can do so effectively (Esser et al., 2001). They have also lost ground, however, in no longer being able to control the campaigning activities of their candidates who might call in directly or place themselves on the screen to further their own candidacies, at times to the dismay of party strategists. This is particularly relevant to and annoying for political parties in multi-party parliamentary systems with electoral lists, whose candidates are attributed importance by their numeric position on the list; for most parties those positions have been largely decided by the leader of the party. Some of the most liberal of European political parties have become Stalinist in their attempts to control their candidates’ web-pages, to ensure that each individual’s web-page would be equally dull or that none would be unusually interesting, aiming to guarantee that the leader and the few at the top of the list maintain the highest media profiles. But candidates often exercise their own consciences, and the Internet provides each with an opportunity to host his or her own webpage and weblog under different names to get around party rules. And when political parties in list systems attempt to introduce internal democracy in the selection of candidates, by opening up the list-making process so that party members may vote for party candidates and thus influence the numeric position of candidates on the party’s electoral list, an internal party election can quickly become externally driven by candidates vying for publicity in the national news media and shaping their own publicity with their own direct (e)mail and weblogs. In general terms, then, in the context of political parties and the media in multiparty list systems, the new media provide opportunities to enhance the authority of individuals and candidates, and one consequence may be to diminish the authority of the party or its leaders (Newell, 2001).

Against this backdrop of opportunities for and threats to political parties, in this chapter I discuss the communications contexts in which political parties operate, with examples from different national and international contexts. I argue that political parties, and for that matter political scientists and political communications researchers, face three major challenges. The first challenge is simply keeping up with the changes in the media industry and the ongoing developments in the national communications landscapes, and the implications of these changes for making connections with audiences and potential voters (see Entman, 1989). The second challenge, related to the first, is how to measure the impacts of these changes on political attitudes, political participation, and election and referendum outcomes. And the third challenge for political parties seeking to influence the ways in which issues are framed in the news and in public opinion is external and stems from globalization and transnational forms of communication. We also need more in the way of theory to assess the impact of the changing media environment on the development of political parties.

Challenge No. 1. The Media Industry and the Changing Communications Landscape

The growth of the media industry over the past century has not been identical across sectors. The increasing numbers of radio and television outlets over the past few decades, and the growth in the numbers of magazines and specialist journals, for example, have not been entirely characteristic of the newspaper industry which has faced declining sales in many countries. One reason for declining newspaper sales is economic. The rise of local free sheets financed by advertising has impacted traditional newspaper sales in many countries. And in many societies in transition, the cost of newsprint alone makes it difficult for traditional newspapers that rely on sales and advertising for their operations.

Competition from other media as sources for information and entertainment is yet another reason for declining newspaper sales. The Radio Advertising Bureau in the US put it this way:

Declining ad revenue, decreasing circulation—it’s a one-two punch that one would expect to knock newspaper out. However, the position most newspapers enjoy in their local markets won’t disappear tomorrow. Many advertisers still swear by this medium—even if it’s from sheer habit … Americans spend 151 hours per year (2.9 hours per week) reading the newspaper, 15 hours less than in 1995—and that number is projected to drop another 7 hours per year by 2005. Moreover, only slightly more than half of all newspaper readers look at ‘Section I’ of their paper (the front page section), and that’s far and away the most heavily read part of the paper. Younger readers don’t depend on the print media the way their grandparents did. Readers under age 35 are spending less time than ever with their local paper. In most markets, circulation is flat or declining, while paper costs and other factors continue to drive production costs up. (Media Facts, 2000, Newspapers,

And these declines continued in spite of the many ways in which the content of newspapers has changed in recent decades—we have witnessed a greater emphasis on ‘soft’ as opposed to ‘hard’ news, the costly addition of colorful photos and graphics, and the increasing emphasis on compelling visuals, as well as the launch of entire sections devoted to news about non-news subjects such as cooking and lifestyles, travel and entertainment, and reviews of consumer products and technology. Stories emphasize the more sensational elements that attract and hold readers’ attention, and in the coverage of politics this often means more attention to conflict than to a facts-based explanation of the issues.

The party press has declined as political parties are rarely owners of newspapers nowadays (Seymour-Ure, 1974, and 1991), but the influence and political sympathies of proprietors continues to be potentially great (Evans, 1983). And despite the generally ‘softer’ contents, newspaper reporting can be laden with judgments (often negative in tone) in election campaigns and this can and does influence voters some of the time (Curtice and Semetko, 1994; Dalton et al., 1998).

Television network news in the US has watched its audience decline over the past decade, losing viewers to competing cable news programs as well as entertainment programming. The consequence for national political parties is that any ‘free’ coverage they might have received on national news programs reaches a smaller audience. For parties at the local level the opportunity to reach potential supporters through coverage on local television news still exists, but the content of local news is very dependent on the local market. Local television news is ‘soft’ in avoiding policy issues other than specific ones of immediate importance to the local community, and contents appear to be focused on crimes, accidents, and the weather (Graber, 2000; McLeod et al., 1999).

That said, ‘soft’ news and entertainment talk show programs, such as Oprah Winfrey, are apparently a real opportunity for audiences to learn something about political issues and form opinions on such topics as foreign affairs (Baum, 2002, 2003). For political parties, this requires having the ability to deliver a message in the form of a personality or celebrity who is important enough to influence the producer’s calendar. It means a different type of strategy, a kind of two-step flow model, in which the celebrities who are likely to be hosted on such programs are also the ones the party has befriended and primed to discuss issues on air in a way that fits with the party’s perspective on the issue.

The characteristics of the US media market are more apparent now than ever before in many countries around the world: declining trends in newspaper readership, many new broadcasting channels, and audiences characterized by greater fragmentation. What does this mean for political parties outside the USA, where multi-party parliamentary systems are the norm? In the long-established democracies, in many countries in Western Europe for example, the opportunities and challenges for established parties are similar to those described above for the main parties in the USA (Mair, 2004), with the advantage in Europe that levels of political knowledge and political identification appear to be higher than in the USA. That said, in Italy, that Silvio Berlusconi’s social and economic position as a major media industrialist put him on an ideal path to electoral office is seen by many as evidence of the (too) close relations between media, campaigning, and governance (Mazzoleni, 1995), and Berlusconi’s parallel influence over public and commercial broadcasting in Italy has led many to think about the varied forms of media systems and the meaning of ‘free press’ in contemporary democracy (Hallin and Mancini, 2004).

In the ten most recent additions to the EU, most of which were part of the Soviet system until the late 1980s, there is even less trust in political parties. Parties face the more difficult task of gaining recognition and earning trust among electorates with very low levels of party identification, though there is some evidence that party systems in the from of voter loyalty are beginning to take shape (Miller et al., 2000). In neighboring countries such as Russia and the Ukraine, political parties in parliament appear to be losers if they are not among the handful of ‘parties of power’ blessed by the support of the president (Semetko and Krasnoboka, 2003; Oates, 2003; Oates and Roselle, 2000). New parties outside parliament and dissident journalists and activists have had some success at influencing public opinion by contesting the framing of issues in the mainstream media by putting alternative perspectives on the Internet; these challenges to the state may diminish, however, as those in power clamp down on regulating the Internet.

While most parents of teenagers have observed the importance of SMS text messages sent by cell phone to their children, this relatively new phenomenon has more recently been described as able to influence political opinions and behaviors as well. While there is a growing literature on the role of the media and Internet in the development of new social movements and challenges to the state, mobile phones and hand-held computers are also presenting opportunities for groups to organize in more spontaneous ways that may, or may not, coincide with the interests of (some or none of the) established political parties (Castells, 2003, 2004). This presents an obvious challenge to social researchers—how do we measure the political contents and uses of cell phones?

Challenge No: 2. Assessing Impacts on Attitudes, Political Participation, and Elections and Referendums

Many studies drawing on data collected in the United States find negative effects of the media on political attitudes. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the news media, and television news in particular, were linked with growing political malaise, not least because of the emphasis on negative news such as political corruption (Robinson, 1983). The US experience with cable in the 1980s has shown that more (outlets) can actually mean less (exposure) in terms of the numbers of citizens who actually tune into political news (Entman, 1989). Research on US presidential election campaigns over three decades identified trends that are no more heartening: campaign news has become more negative, more interpretative rather than descriptive, and more game-oriented than policy-oriented since 1960 (Patterson, 1980, 1993, 2000). In one analysis the 2000 presidential election campaign coverage was summed up as ‘a plague on both parties’ (Lichter, 2001). US television news is blamed for the ever shrinking soundbite (Hallin, 1997), for providing ‘episodic’ reporting on political issues without making sense of them in a larger thematic historical context (Iyengar, 1994), for reporting complex political issues in simple and strategic terms (Capella and Jamieson, 1997), and, ultimately, for the decline of civic engagement and social capital (Putnam, 1995, 2000).

Other studies, however, have focused on the positive correlation between media use and various measures of civic engagement and political cognition. Increases in political interest, discussion, and ideological sophistication over the past few decades in a number of countries have been linked to the rise of the media and the educative role of television in particular (Dalton, 1996; Inglehart, 1990). Television news viewing in the USA and UK, and a number of other countries, has been associated with higher levels of political knowledge, participation, and personal efficacy (Brehm and Rahn, 1997; Norris et al., 1996; Norris, 2000). The 1997 British election study, for example, revealed a positive association between attention to news and higher levels of political knowledge and civic engagement, and an experiment designed to test the effects of television news in the general election campaign found that exposure to positive news about a party had stronger effects on vote choice than exposure to negative news (Norris et al., 1999).

Research examining the effects of the news media on political attitudes has, in sum, put forth broadly conflicting explanations. From one perspective, media use diminishes involvement and contributes to political cynicism and declining turnout; from another, media use contributes to political involvement, trust, efficacy, and mobilization. Aarts and Semetko (2003) address these explanations with detailed measures of media use drawing on data from the 1998 Dutch National Election Study (DNES). The Dutch case is representative of what can be found in many countries outside the USA: a multiparty parliamentary system, a national press, and what was once a public service broadcasting system and is now a fully competitive system. The 1998 DNES is unusually rich because of the many questions regarding the specific news and entertainment programs citizens use regularly, which provide a more realistic and comprehensive picture of media use in comparison with the standard set of exposure measures used in most national election studies. The authors concluded:

Our study establishes that although media use can be clearly linked to some aspects of political involvement, the relationship is more complex than is often assumed in the literature. To take the example of television, watching public television news regularly has a positive influence on a number of political involvement measures including knowledge, internal efficacy, and turning out to vote, whereas regularly watching commercial television news has a negative impact on these aspects of political involvement. This pattern supports a dual effects hypothesis. All of these relationships remain significant when controlled for political interest, age, level of education, and other types of media exposure. We also address a problem that is central to media effects research, the problem of endogeneity Lacking panel data, we use two-stage least squares to address these concerns. We believe this is appropriate and that it strengthens our conclusions because it largely rules out self-selection. (Aarts and Semetko, 2003: 775–6)

The study finds a lack of relationship between the respondents’ media use and trust in institutions, in contrast to previous research. Norris (2000: 243, 289), for example, argues on the basis of 1996 Eurobarometer data and 1998 American National Election Study data that media use is a consistently significant predictor of ‘positive institutional confidence.’ And in another study, Moy and Pfau (2000) found that media use, as measured by exposure to US network news, has a negative effect on trust in US government institutions.

The study concludes with broader implications for developments in the new larger Europe that encompasses 25 countries and more than 450 million people:

Our analysis of media use and its effects on political involvement gives us the opportunity to reflect upon what may be the beginning of a more serious development in Dutch democracy, one that may also threaten other European countries that have experienced increasing competition in their broadcasting systems in recent years. We refer to a democracy divided between the involved and the uninvolved because of media choices. Viewing behavior separates the more knowledgeable, the efficacious, and the politically involved from those who are not, revealing what might be described as a ‘virtuous circle’ for some and a ‘spiral of cynicism’ for others. Our findings suggest that the virtuous circle described by Norris (2000) may only exist in a European context for those who rely largely on public television for their news, and this number has diminished as competition for audiences increases. At the same time, commercial news viewing in the Netherlands and probably in a number of other European countries, if not ultimately contributing to what Capella and Jamieson (1997) have dubbed a spiral of cynicism, then at least is contributing to diminishing political involvement.

The relatively recent competitive developments in the broadcasting systems of western Europe are for the most part anchored in more than four decades of press freedom and free elections with established party systems and comparatively strong political parties. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, however, similar competitive developments in the broadcasting systems occur when citizens have little experience with free elections, the political parties are very weak, and party systems are in their infancy. In Russia and the former Soviet republics, since most people can hardly afford a daily newspaper, television is arguably an even more important source of information and entertainment than in the West. In these societies in transition, as well as in Latin America, research suggests there is a positive relationship between media use and satisfaction with democracy, trust in institutions, and other measures of political attitudes. But given the limited range of questions about media use in the surveys that establish this correlation, such a general conclusion may mask a more complex set of relationships. (Aarts and Semetko, 2003: 777–8)

The role of television in politics in these countries today is under conditions quite apart from those under which research on this subject first began (Swanson and Mancini, 1996). Contrast, for example, the study by Jay Blumler and Denis McQuail (1968) on Britain with the work of Ellen Mickiewicz (1999) on Russia.

Political Advertising

How have parties responded to the added complexity of the field of competition in election campaigns given the more fragmented media market? In the USA, money has been funneled into the most profitable (as measured by number of vote switchers or new voters) media markets in election campaigns. We know that money is specifically targeted to battleground states in presidential elections, and within these states to specific segments of the potential voting public. Where one lives in large part determines the type of presidential election campaign one experiences. We know more about this in the USA than in other countries because of the new technology available to capture the contents and measure the reach of political advertising in major metropolitan markets in the 2000 election (Goldstein and Freedman, 2002). Several lessons for those who seek to measure the impact of political advertising are put forward by a study of close to 1 million televised political ads aired during the 2000 election. The authors argued:

First, we illustrate the importance of looking at spots actually broadcast rather than examining the individual ads produced, in order to gain an accurate picture of the campaign environment. Second, we show that for an accurate portrayal of a campaign—particularly of candidates’ relative advantages in a given race—it is necessary to look at ads broadcast not just by the campaigns themselves but by parties and interest groups as well. Third, we demonstrate the importance of paying attention to advertising in races below the presidential level. Looking at races for House and Senate seats can provide a different—sometimes a dramatically different—picture of the kinds of persuasive messages citizens have been exposed to. Fourth, the targeting data allow us to examine the relationship between competitiveness and campaign tone. We show that more competitive Senate and House races are characterized by substantially higher levels of negativity … (Goldstein and Freedman, 2002: 6)

The ability to capture the contents of the ads broadcast in competitive markets takes us to the next level in media effects research. Until now, the studies that have been based on experimental data or aggregate-level data provide mixed findings on important issues such as the effect of negative advertising and negative campaigning on voter turnout (Ansolabere et al., 1999; Wattenberg and Brians, 1999; Kahn and Kenny 1999).

Outside the USA political parties are not as free to utilize their financial resources to target potential voters with emotionally compelling images on television. Put differently, outside of the USA political parties are on a more equal footing when presenting themselves in broadcast political advertising because of democratic rules and traditions that make possible the allocation of free time and put restrictions on the purchase of time, so that a range of competing political voices can be heard at election time (see, for example, Semetko, 1996, 2003; Scammell and Semetko, 1995; Kaid, 1999a, 1999b, 2004; Kaid and Dimitrova, 2004; Kaid and Holtz-Baeha, 1995; Kaid and Johnson, 2001).

Because of these rules and traditions, political parties in Britain, for example, recognize that their party election broadcasts (PEBs) aired during election campaigns, and party political broadcasts (PPBs) aired outside of election campaigns during routine periods, actually have a more limited reach than in previous decades when the small number of TV channels aired the 5- to 10-minute PEBs simultaneously so viewers had nowhere to turn to escape them, unless they turned away entirely from the screen. Nowadays, with a great many more channels available, and with PEBs no longer required to be even 2 minutes long, parties may have a greater opportunity to craft compelling ads of 10–30 seconds, but they cannot control when they are aired. Germany has permitted parties to purchase air time on commercial channels in recent elections, as have a number of European countries. During the 2004 European parliamentary elections, restrictions on length and format of free-time ads were reduced, allowing for shorter and more spot ads.

In many countries with the free-time tradition, parties may benefit from two to ten spots per party in a campaign (Plasser, 2002, 2001). In the USA in 2000, by contrast, presidential candidates spent approximately $240 million for more than 100 spot ads (Devlin, 2001). Costs are much lower elsewhere, though they have been rising. To take just one example, in Britain between 1983 and 1997 Labour’s general election campaign expenditure went up from €2.2 to €26.0 million and the Conservatives’ jumped from €3.6 to €28.3 million, and this was for the entire campaign operation, not only advertising (Norris et al., 1999: 39).

Preliminary findings from a cross-national comparative analysis of key characteristics of political advertisements in general elections in 19 countries, including the USA, Korea, and several Western European countries, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland, reveal that the US emphasis on negative advertising is the exception as the vast majority of ads elsewhere were positive (Kaid and Dimitrova, 2004). This may be largely due to the fact that in multiparty systems, parties need to form coalitions after the campaign, so it does not pay to focus on negatives when a party might have to work closely with another party in government or opposition just after the election.

Referendums, Parties, and the Media

Citizen initiatives and referendums have become an important means of enacting or preventing legislation in countries around the world. These represent challenges to the authority of elected representatives in the long run, and in the short run they can make campaigning an even more complicated affair for political parties. Although the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ nature of the proposition appears to be rather simple, referendum issues are often complex and multi-faceted. Party campaigning and political rhetoric are more difficult than in a routine election campaign, because citizens are not voting for a party or candidate but for one or another position on an issue. Referendum issues may split parties in two, as has been the case in Britain on both the question of membership of the European Economic Community and joining the euro. Referendum campaigns may also result in a transformation of the party system, with parties on the extreme ends of the left-right continuum finding themselves on the same side of the referendum fence; in other words, parties that normally oppose one another in general elections may suddenly be on the same side of the issue, as in the 1994 Nordic referendums on EU membership (Jenssen et al., 1998). Referendums are also opportunities for new parties or movements to come into existence specifically to take a stand on the issue, as was the case in Denmark’s referendum on the euro in 2000 (DeVreese and Semetko, 2002a, 2002b, 2004a, 2004b). Cues to voters in referendums are therefore often more ambiguous than in a routine election campaign, and parties are more likely to never have control over their message as in an election (Neijens et al., 1998).

Referendums put parties in a difficult position because parties are usually unaccustomed to cooperating amongst themselves on campaign strategies, and this can be especially problematic when the other parties are those of a distinctly different political persuasion. The ways in which the political parties on one side of the issue choose to discuss or frame the various aspects of the topic can be crucial to the success of getting their agenda across in the news and, eventually, to their camp’s success or failure in the referendum itself (DeVreese and Semetko, 2004b). But a party’s attempts to control the framing of the issue in a referendum are open to being foiled by the interest of the news media in the statements by a political personality or the latest developments in a conflict. Unlike a routine election, in a referendum campaign conflict is more likely to be within camps than between camps. With no candidates or parties on the ballot, citizens must decide among alternatives that may be unfamiliar. A number of volumes dedicated to the study of referendums (see Farrell and Schmitt-Beck, 2002; Hug, 2003; Mendehlson and Parkin, 2001; and LeDuc, 2003) only mention the media in rather descriptive and peripheral terms.

Keeping in mind the need to know more about how political parties and candidates campaign and how journalists report on referendums, and the consequences of this for public opinion and the vote, DeVreese and Semetko (2004a) investigate campaign effects in a European referendum, drawing on panel survey data, media content data, focus groups, and interviews with journalists and campaign managers; the authors show how media and political elites sought to frame the referendum issue in the news and how the public came to understand the issue. They find that news about the referendum not only influenced public perceptions of the campaign, the referendum issue and the party leaders in a close race, but also shaped the voting decision and the political future of the incumbent governing party in the country. The media present an increasingly important challenge to the authority of elected political parties simply by using the ‘media logic’ or journalistic norms so common to conventional political reporting in the coverage of referendum campaigns (Mazzoleni, 1995).

The Internet

Doris Graber (2001) shows that because of the way in which the brain processes information, visual media such as television and the Internet are and can be even more important in the future for political learning. Despite the fact that the Internet can strengthen existing divisions in society and create even bigger gaps between those with and without access (Davis, 1999; Margolis and Resnick, 1997; Norris, 2001), the Internet offers an array of opportunities for citizens to learn and become involved (Margolis and Resnick, 1999; Bimber, 1999).

There is a common profile to the demographic characteristics of users in a number of established democracies. Internet users tend to be better educated and better off financially than non-users (Norris, 2001). The problem is that citizens still make comparatively little use of the Internet for political information in election campaigns in societies in which it is most widely available: only 2 percent with Internet access in the 2001 UK election and 7 percent in the 2000 US election claim to have visited party websites during the 2001 and 2000 elections, respectively (Coleman, 1998; Stromer-Galley et al., 2001). Research comparing the characteristics of parties campaigning on the web in the 2001 UK and 2000 US elections concluded that the parties themselves are slow to offer innovative approaches to interacting online with supporters and potential new voters (Gibson and Ward, 2003; Gibson and Rommele, 2001). Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign initially fueled the perception that the Internet could drive grassroots support and dramatically improve fundraising capabilities during the primary season, but this phenomenon petered out in a matter of months and led to one of the earliest conclusions to a primary season. There will undoubtedly be numerous studies on the Internet’s role in the 2004 US election campaign, and the findings are far from predictable.

Research on the political role of the Internet has been limited to societies in which there has already been rapid growth in its use among the general public. Two views exist on the impact of the Internet on the political structures: one view is that it reinforces the current political structure by giving visibility to the most powerful parties (Margolis and Resnick, 1997, 1999), and another is that the Internet gives more visibility to smaller or new parties thus challenging the current political order (Gibson and Ward, 1998; see also Gibson and Ward, 2003).

Research conducted at election time in the USA and the UK has shown that the websites of traditional news organizations are a more popular destination for Internet users than party or candidate websites (Research Center for the People and the Press, 2000). And although some traditional news media outlets in these two countries are perceived to be politically biased by some citizens, it is generally accepted that the news media operate independently of state control or government pressure. In this respect, then, the information to be obtained from traditional news media websites in established democracies may be perceived to be more objective or credible than the information on party or candidate websites.

In societies in transition, however, traditional news media are often under pressure from the government of the day to toe the party line, so to speak. The Assembly of the Council of Europe documented the many ways that states or governments pressure and threaten news organizations and journalists in many societies in transition. In these countries, therefore, traditional news media may not readily be perceived as any more independent or objective as a source of political information than partisan information sources. A comparison of Russia and Ukraine, two countries with similarly low levels of Internet use in households, provides an interesting contrast to previous research conducted in established democracies.

Geographically the largest countries in Europe, Russia, with 147 million people, and the Ukraine, with 50 million, also rank high in terms of national populations. Both countries are members of the Assembly of the Council of Europe and have therefore adopted legislation on the freedom of the press and media, but in practice and often during election campaigns news has heavily favored the incumbent and the parties in power (Brants and Krasnoboka, 2001; Fossato and Kachkaeva, 2000; McFaul et al., 2000; Mickiewicz, 1999; Oates and Roselle, 2000). In the January 2001 meetings of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, both countries were severely criticized for inhibiting freedom of expression via censorship, legal pressures and physical aggression against journalists. Ukraine in particular was singled out for human rights abuses. One study comparing party and news websites in the two countries concludes:

Our research shows very clearly that assumptions based on the political role of the Internet in established democracies do not always hold for societies in transition, where even the term ‘political party’ has a different connotation. At the same time, however, some of our results are similar to those found in developed democracies … Our study also shows that ‘new’ political parties in these two countries sometimes have an even greater prominence online and better quality websites than ‘old’ parties. New parties in Russia and Ukraine, defined as those created after the previous parliamentary elections, are better equipped to compete with ‘old’ parties because of the Internet … It is also worth noting that in many cases when both a party and the party leader have websites, the personal websites of the leaders are much more popular than the political party websites. This illustrates that the Web may also help to personalize politics in a way reminiscent of what Mickiewicz (1999) says of television in Russia. Parties are often created around leaders, rather than the other way around, and people tend to vote for leaders rather than for parties. Based on the numbers of visits to online sites, the Internet reinforces this trend. The new type of ‘authoritarian democracy’ and the dominance of the ruling elite on the political scene and in traditional media pushes many parties in Ukraine and Russia to use the only free, cheap and accessible medium, namely the Internet, for their communication with citizens. For those who are opposed to or critical of governing authorities, it is under these most threatening of circumstances that the Internet provides an opportunity for communication and for obtaining information that would not otherwise be found in traditional media outlets … Online-only media … appear to have more credibility as a source of information for Internet users in these societies in transition than offline media online. This is in contrast to established democracies, such as the USA or the UK, for example, where hits on websites of online versions of offline media are far more common than hits on online-only media. This difference is a reflection of the political constraints under which journalists in these societies are working. Whereas journalists in established democracies have considerable freedom to criticize the government of the day, in Russia and Ukraine and many societies in transition, this kind of behavior can result in a variety of forms of pressure being brought to bear on the individual journalist and/or news organization. (Semetko and Krasnoboka, 2003)

Both Russia and Ukraine have, since this study was conducted in 2001–2, attempted to further regulate and control the Internet because of its presumed anti-government biases, whereas many journalists and those in opposition in those countries believed it to be a source of uncensored and objective information.

Challenge No. 3. Globalization and Transnational Forms of Communication: Developing Theoretical Perspectives on Political Parties and the Media

For national political parties, the field of competition for influencing perceptions has widened as transnational news media may encourage citizens to challenge the interpretations of national political parties on issues that are global or have international relevance. Take, for example, the debate on the veil in France in early 2004, when some French politicians in Jacques Chirac’s party (UNP/RPR) called for Al-Jazeera to be banned in France because of the channel’s alleged ability to harm French national interests (Cherribi, 2005). Transnational media such as Al-Jazeera provide opportunities for those interested to follow news from a different region of the world. For many political parties in many countries, this translates into less opportunity to influence citizens via the mainstream national news outlets, and more opportunity for audiences of foreign media to consider alternative viewpoints and agendas. And as local or national issues become part of a larger global exchange of views via the media, individual prime ministers and presidents become the focus of international media attention with less room for party debate.

Bilingual second- and third-generation citizens may also turn to foreign news outlets to follow news in their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland and to get another perspective on world events from what is offered in their national news media. And increasingly in the USA, Spanish-language news media are speaking to growing populations of Spanish speaking Americans.

All of these developments point up the need to further develop theory for understanding party competition and party systems in an era of electoral dealignment (Mair et al., 2004), in this increasingly complex field of local, national, and international communications systems. Anthony Giddens (2003) and Manuel Castells (2004) offer contemporary social theory perspectives on the communications field. There is also a well-developed literature on party systems and electoral competition (Lijphart, 1995; Kitschelt et al., 1999). And research on protest voting and populism (Mazzoleni et al., 2003) or ‘telepopulism’ (Peri, 2004) also contributes to our thinking about the challenges political parties face in today’s complex media environment. Political communications research also provides evidence on the processes by which political parties and candidates aim to shape the media and hence the public agenda, and use the media to get their messages across, particularly during election campaigns (Semetko et al., 1991; Scammell, 1995; de Vreese and Semetko, 2004a and b).


There is no doubt that the explosion of outlets around the world made possible through the liberalization of the airwaves since the 1970s, the development of cable and satellite technologies in the 1980s, and the growth of the Internet and wireless telephony since the 1990s, has made life more complicated for political parties in established democracies. Political parties also find themselves facing a more complex and changing citizenry, one that is increasingly demographically diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, interests, and income and education levels. These multicultural populations make voting behavior less predictable. In election campaigns, political parties rely more heavily on consultants and market research to customize messages for tailored and targeted audiences (Plasser, 2002), though not all parties have made the leap to professional campaigning (Gibson and Römmele, 2001).