Tough but Fair? Bias and the Political Interview

September 4, 2013 • Ethics and Quality • by

Are political interviews fair on either the politicians or voters? Are journalists tougher on certain politicians than on others and what factors influence the treatment a politician receives at the hands of the press?

A recent study by a Swedish research team tries to answer some of these questions by analyzing the levels of aggression different Swedish politicians face in interviews.

Mats Ekström, professor for media and communication studies at the University of Göteborg, and his colleagues pursued the question: Why do journalists treat some politicians differently to others? Why are certain politicians confronted with questions far more adversarial than those their rivals have to deal with? They found the reasons lie in journalistic traditions and customs as well as in the individual behavior of each politician.

The scientists analysed interviews that were carried out before Swedish parliamentary elections in the years 2002, 2006 and 2010 and measured the levels of aggression in each conversation. These were the interviews that the Swedish public broadcaster traditionally organizes with all political party leaders during the election campaign. Each interview takes around 50 minutes. Ekström and his team focused on the interviews with the two party leaders within the governmental coalition and with the two leading opposition representatives – the results studied twelve interviews over the three election campaigns. There are always two journalists posing questions to each politician. The two journalists guide the conversation along a strictly scripted concept.

The Swedish research group got access to 2,500 sequences of questions and answers which they ranked for aggressiveness according to the following criteria: How many adversarial questions – questions that criticize the politician’s actions and achievements in the recent past – did the candidate field? How many questions asked for justification for the politician’s particular statements? To which extend did the two interviewers use assertive questions? And how often was a politician interrupted?

Recent research on bias in political interviews often ascribes the responsibility for unequal conditions that different politicians find in the interview situation exclusively to the journalists. The research works with two theories to explain the bias: Firstly there is partisan bias which is the effect of the sympathy a journalist shows for particular political side. The theory expects the journalist to ask the politicians whose policies they agree with easier questions. There is also structural bias, caused by working routines in editorial offices and the media industry as a whole. Social scientists expect journalists to treat members of the government differently to members of the opposition. Messages issued by politicians in power usually resonate more in the media. A certain news value is ascribed to each of their statement. At the same time, many media follow the idea of „always challenge the mighty“.

Indeed the Swedish study shows differences between the interviews occur because of media structures: Namely, the politicians are forced into scenarios defined by the journalists ex ante; in the media dramaturgy an opposition leader has a different role to play to the president or the prime minister.

Such structural biases led to the result that the leaders of the respective ruling party (in 2002 the left wings were in power; in 2010 the right wing party was in power) always received more adversarial questions than the leaders of the opposition. The opposition leaders were challenged with more requests for legitimization of their recent statements and argumentations and had to deal with more leading questions.

The leaders of the particular governmental coalitions were meanwhile interrupted more often. All in all, the analysis finds, the candidates with low chances on the prime minister’s job got more adversarial questions while the top candidates had to vindicate their plans and argumentations more often. The Swedish scientists also found out that women receive fewer adversarial questions than their male counterparts – a finding contradictory to other international research and the scientists’ own previous expectations.

This phenomenon seems not to apply to the German edition of the summer interviews. At first glance, the summer interviews in ZDF and ARD resemble more or less each other. It doesn´t matter whether the interviewers confront chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the top candidates from the Greens, Kathrin Göring-Eckhardt, or the liberal party’s leader Philipp Rösler – this year’s conversations rotate round the same topics over and over again: the NSA affair, tax policy, the energy transformation, the protests and violence in Egypt and the politicians’ ideas to end it. But at second glance it becomes clear: ARD and ZDF don’t treat every politician in the same manner. Ideally they should be objective, critical but fair.

Angela Merkel is addressed continuously by her title „Frau Bundeskanzlerin“, which shows her might and power, and she receives the chance to explain in detail her government’s plans for issues such as data security in Germany. While she is treated respectfully, the same interviewers interrupt other politicians in a direct way, with provocative, superficial questions. Wolfgang Lieb, co-editor of the political watch blog ‘Nachdenkseiten.de ‘ analyses the questioning.

He criticizes a general personalization within the interviews. Göring-Eckhardt for example is pushed into the role of of a powerless, weak woman next to her male counterpart Jürgen Trittin (the German party Bündnis 90/ Grüne competes in this campaign for the German Bundestag election in September with two top candidates, they always put forward one man and one woman). For example: The interviewer provokes Göring-Eckhardt by suggesting to her that: „Trittin leads the election campaign in a way that makes you seem invisible.“ A few moments later he asks: „Are you something like ‘the Angela Merkel’ for Bündnis 90/ Grüne?“ – suggesting implicitly, there may be only one successful woman in German politics during each legislation.

Another example on how hard German female politicians are challenged and reduced on their assumed weaker sex in the German summer interview edition is the conversation in ZDF with Katja Kipping, leader of the German socialist party Die Linke in 2012. ZDF interviewer Thomas Walde interrupted Kipping nonstop. He tried to depict her as a woman who has no chance to control the cross-fighting male party members she should lead, namely Oskar Lafontaine, Klaus Ernst, Gregor Gysi and Dietmar Bartsch – all men who clashed on several topics. The video was published on YouTube, and it is no surprise that the users got more annoyed about the way the interview was done than about the content itself. The users are of the opinion that partisan bias can be found in the ZDF interviews, however there is no recent study to examine this phenomenon.

The Swedish scientists come to the conclusion that at least in the Swedish public broadcasting sector there are no partisan bias; the journalists rather act as critical watchdogs. On average, in the analysed three years, left-wing as well as right-wing political party leaders were asked around the same number of aggressive questions.

Of the question that the more left-wing politicians were asked 51 percent were adversarial, 10 percent of the questions asked politicians to justify their claims or be held accountable for some statements they had made.. 17 percent of the questions were assertive. After every third answer they were interrupted by the interviewers.

There was a similar pattern for the right-wing politicians: On average half of the questions were adversarial (52 percent), every tenth question claimed a justification and 16 percent of the questions were assertive. They were also interrupted after almost every third answer (30 percent).

Besides, the study identifies an interesting general development which also might apply to television interviews in several countries: the degree of aggression in political interviews has strongly increased; in 2010 more aggressive questions were asked than in the previous years. Only the number of interruptions decreased. This could be due to the commercialization of the media and the constantly increasing competition. But politicians are also becoming more professional about their TV appearances, hiring consultants to advise them on image and strategy. This could be affecting the way interviewers question them.

The Swedish researcher team addresses this perspective and analyses whether politicians can themselves influence the course of the interview.

The scientists examined the interaction between interviewers and candidates in 2006. They analysed whether the level of aggressiveness and the difference between the interviews manifest themselves in the script, and are in that sense planned in advance, or whether it is primarily an outcome of the interaction in the live interview.

Despite careful preparation the interviewers frequently digressed from their script: all the politicians answered considerably more questions than they had planned to. The leader of the Left Party received the most unscripted questions, with 79 questions more in the live interaction than planned, whereas the leader of the Conservative Party received the smallest number of unscripted questions, with 31 more questions in the live interviews than in the manuscript. The other dimension, of adversary, suggests something else. A priori, the interviewers planned a differing number of hostile questions for the two top candidates for the job of the prime minister. While the interviewers planned 28 adversarial questions for Persson, the acting prime minister at that time, they planned 42 adversarial questions for his challenger Fredrik Reinfeldt. However, a significant shift in the interviews took place: While Rheinfeldt received 64 adversarial questions, Persson had to deal with 79 adversarial questions.

A passage of the interview with Persson gives an example how the conversation developed. Persson, who is interviewed about the energy policy, said: “We can’t put ourselves in that situation that electricity prices wipe out basic industry.” Journalist: But could it be time, Göran Persson, to re-regulate the market?” Persson: “I’ve actually said that a number of times.” Journalist: “How many times are you going to say it before it comes true then?”

This and other similar situations led to the escalation of the interview. This illustrates “how the politician contributes to the aggressiveness of the interview by challenging the questions and opening up the scope for a critical follow-up”, the researchers state.

The authors here take the journalists out of the ‘firing line’. “This study clearly shows that there are no simple explanations to the fact that some politicians are treated harder in interviews during an election campaign. Both structural and more situational factors are important to consider.”

They recommend to research in more detail the live interaction between politicians and journalists and not to assume that journalists are in all cases responsible for the prevailing bias.

This article was translated by Karen Grass and Tina Bettels from the German Der Kampf mit den harten Fragen

Photo credit: Lynne Featherstone / Flickr CC

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