A study looking at how politicians and journalists interact with each other in Berne reveals some surprises about the interplay between media and government.
Is the interaction between journalists and politicians in small states different to that in medium sized nations like Germany, France or Italy? Stephanie Schwab Cammarano looks at this question in her doctorate research at the University of Zurich. She focuses on Swiss national politics but the research can also provide insights into other small European countries like Austria.
Her research aims to highlight ”processes of mediating politics which take place backstage of the national political arena and across different policy fields“.
Her results are illuminating. The first surprise is that in a small country like Switzerland, only one third of the members of parliament have contact with journalists several times a month. As a result, media coverage of politics tends to focus on parliamentary elites, especially those leading political parties, parliamentary groups or other government commissions.
Another surprise is that parliamentary correspondents are actually less likely than other journalists to maintain close personal links with politicians. By contrast, editors-in-chief cultivate such friendships more frequently than other journalists. However, these senior editors also have to listen to a lot of griping: according to Schwab Cammarano, “Politicians contact often editors in chief if they want to complain about media coverage.“ This is one reason why the top editors in the survey sense the “interaction with politicians as much more conflict-laden then other media professionals. “ In comparison with an earlier study from the Federal Parliament, which Ulrich Saxer had publishes 20 years ago, the definition of journalists role as ”mouthpiece of government and parliament” has almost disappeared.
Schwab Cammarano’s research also shows that while politicians from the populist-right wing SVP frequently attack the media, they maintain more intense contacts with journalists than members of parliament from more centrist parties.
There are interesting differences in how male and female politicians deal with the media. Female members of parliament contact media professionals less frequently than their male colleagues, and female journalists are also contacted less frequently by MPs than their male rivals. Another unexpected finding is that there seem to be “little differences in Switzerland concerning the interactions between journalists and politicians by language regions “.
The research insights are based on a survey of members of parliament, correspondents accredited at the parliament, editors in chief and leading editors dealing with national politics. Overall, 76 MPs and 161 journalists filled out the questionnaire. The rate return was remarkably high: 37 percent among politicians and 38 percent among journalists. The author recalls, however, that her results are based on statements of the interviewed, and that they might differ from their real behavior. This is why the data should be used with caution. For example it may well be that the female participants in the survey have underestimated the frequency of contacts, while males may have overrated them.
Much of the research is relevant to other small countries but there are some things peculiar to Switzerland that should also be taken into account before applying the results to other countries. “In an international comparison, the Swiss parliament is one of the least professionalized legislatives, measured by income, costs and time burdens of parliamentary activity”, says Schwab Cammarano. There is also no other country which exercises the popular vote and direct democracy to the same extent.
It would be fair to say that the highly professionalized PR machinery which has for long time been a characteristic of Swiss daily political life does not in fact shape the relationships between MPs and journalists, but has an effect elsewhere in the machinery of politics political system.
Stephanie Schwab Cammarano (2013): Rollen in der Politikvermittlung. Die Interaktion zwischen Politik und Journalismus in der Schweiz, Baden-Baden: Nomos
This article was first published in Schweizer Journalist Nr. 12/2013 + 1/2014
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