“Democracy is a living thing and needs to be filled with life, otherwise it can easily become undermined, as seen in Hungary, for instance,” notes the media researcher Josef Seethaler with a view to Austria’s neighbour, where the freedom of the media has recently been massively restricted. – With the result that a functioning democracy is increasingly losing its mainstay: an informed and committed general public. There are many examples that show just how central the task of the media is in a living democracy, one of them being the corona pandemic, where there is an (almost) daily need of updating knowledge and dealing with vast quantities of data and facts and many open questions.
Media quality in a country comparison
In order to assist the population in forming an opinion, the media need to prepare facts, assess the relevance of issues, reflect the diversity of opinions and address their audience in a targeted manner. Researchers mention three central criteria in connection with media quality: relevance, diversity and deliberation. These criteria provide the basis for a cross-country comparative analysis designed to measure the democratic quality of the media. The objective of the project is to derive universally valid criteria and define codes for a well-founded assessment of media quality. In the context of the project “Media Performance and Democracy”, research teams in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are undertaking a first cross-country comparison of their respective media systems.
Unlike the situation in Germany, media quality assessments have been conducted for quite some time in Austria and Switzerland. As Josef Seethaler of the Austrian Academy of Sciences explains, researchers in these two countries can build on existing knowledge. Seethaler is in charge of the Austrian part of this international project, which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and runs until 2021. He has already obtained first results for Austria and reveals that “the exceedingly interesting country comparisons are going to be published very soon”.
Information rather than participation
Building on previous studies, including those about the quality of daily news reporting (Qualität der tagesaktuellen Berichterstattung) and the value of non-commercial broadcasters (Wert nicht kommerzieller Sender), which were published in September 2015 and in July 2020, the Austrian researchers were able to introduce even more differentiation in their analyses of the domestic media system. “The notion of democracy is changing – a fact that we take into account in our project”, Seethaler says. Regarding the functions of the media this means they are based on a notion of democracy on a trajectory from a liberal-representative understanding towards a more participatory model. “A representative take on the media, i.e. one committed to the so-called ideal of objectivity, is not actually geared to participation”, explains Seethaler. He reports that the general public does want to be more involved in decision-making processes. The current findings of the study clearly support this view. “For the first time in Austria we have been able to produce an across-the-board picture of the conditions underlying the production and usage of the Austrian media.” The team based its analysis on data from 2018. The results give answers to the questions of how media content develops and how it is received by the audience.
Room for improvement
An issue that was very much in the public eye in 2018, and still is today, is migration. Seethaler considers it as characteristic of the overall findings: “Concerning this issue, the media have performed well in conveying to their audience the respective positions of the parties in parliament. This is done largely in a non-partisan way.” The outcome of the analysis is less positive when it comes to involving the audience in an issue. “The framing doesn’t work”, is how Seethaler puts it, by which he means providing a context for an event that also deals with questions such as: what are the causal implications of a given issue, what is the impact of decisions on affected individuals, on certain groups or the entire population? These questions often remain unanswered.
According to Seethaler, the results of audience analyses are actually showing a more negative picture now than five years ago. As it stands, 35 percent of the population are currently expecting to be provided with more context, and another 35 percent rank this request in second place. The majority of those surveyed thus consider that the media fail to meet the public’s notion of democracy. However, as Seethaler emphasises, that would be particularly important when it comes to sensitive policy issues. Most recently, the Austrian Corona Panel survey has confirmed that the population increasingly hankers for more participation and well-founded facts. In this ongoing large-scale study on the impact of the corona pandemic, the wish for contextualisation ranked second after the need to be supplied with facts.
Focus on social tasks
Seethaler sees several reasons for the lack of framing, including the journalists’ understanding of their profession which is very much geared to facts and the political elite. Seethaler identifies a “large gap” between the output of the media and what people consider to be personally relevant. In order to remedy this situation, media companies could use innovative approaches that expand participatory formats, as is currently being undertaken by non-commercial broadcasters, particularly in rural areas. Talking about how this gap might be reduced, Seethaler mentions that better use could be made of the potential of offline and online media, as well as sound professional training for journalists which would also help to meet the public’s need for more participation and exchanges. Most of all, however, the media need to ask themselves what function they would like to perform for a democratic society.
The study thus shows that the media must move closer to their audience. They need to set their sights on both policy-making and the general public. An enlightened society is the result of all population strata being given due consideration. Another indication of how much room for improvement Austria’s media have in this respect can be found in the results of the gender dimension that was also surveyed in the project. “Women featured as central protagonists in only 13 percent of the media reports representative of 2018. In other words, half of the population is not being given due consideration, if you like”, Seethaler concludes.
Josef Seethaler is the Deputy Director of the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies CMC of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and the University of Klagenfurt. His main research interests include political communication, political participation, media system analysis, the history of media and communication and science communication. He is a member of several international professional organisations, including the International Communication Association ICA and the World Association for Public Opinion Research WAPOR. He is also the principal investigator of the Austrian part of the Austrian-German-Swiss project “Media Performance and Democracy” (2018-2021).