by Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest Business School.
What explains the persistence of partisan journalism in Central and Eastern Europe?
During and after the political transformations of 1989–91, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe sought to Americanise, or Anglicise, their media systems. They made efforts to introduce public service media as modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation; their broadcasting acts prescribed standards of neutrality and balance; and their freshly passed ethical codes prescribed objectivity as the main journalism standard to follow.
Their efforts, however, have largely failed. In Hungary, “the one-party model of the press has not disappeared completely but has been transformed into a multi-party model that is still far away from the nonpartisan model of the press” (Lázár 1992). In the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, the failure of this concept of the press “is reflected in a lack of impartiality” (Školkay 2001). In Poland, most journalists continue to “represent partisan politician viewpoints” (Dobek-Ostrowska 2012). In the Baltic states, the media system “has not yet been fully separated from the existing political system” (Balčytiene, 2012, p. 62).
Journalistic professionalisation, i.e. the emergence of an autonomous journalistic field independent from both politics and literature and based on its own discursive standards, has remained an unmet expectation—and, in fact, seems to remain a mission impossible in the foreseeable future.
But what explains the failure of this effort?
Factors behind journalistic professionalisation—and the lack of it
Chalaby (1996) argues that journalism professionalised early in the United Kingdom and the United States because of the early rise of the industrial revolution, which accelerated urbanisation and triggered the invention of steam printing; the rise of mass audiences and mass production have led to the emergence of robust press markets.
To these factors fostering the emergence of professional, non-partisan journalism, Hallin and Mancini (2004) add two more. Religion is key: where Protestantism was strong, the public learned to read early. Rational-legal authority is another explanatory factor: a professional and apolitical public administration is conducive to the rise of professional, non-partisan, journalism, because journalists too consider themselves public servants.
The professionalisation of journalism was interrupted in the countries of Central/Eastern Europe because the conditions for the adoption of non-partisan journalism practices have been missing (Lauk 2009). Belated industrialisation, as well as a legacy of Catholicism and clientelism may also be part of the explanation of why the professionalisation of journalism culture has not been achieved in the former communist countries. Perhaps even more importantly, there are no robust press markets. It has been observed on a global scale that the size of the press market and the level of journalistic professionalisation are statistically related, as “a small market … poses financial challenges to the long-term survival of newspapers, and weakens their capacity to resisting political pressures” (Pereira 2015). The press in the former communist parties had been until the late 1980s a part of the planned economy and hence mainly subsidised by the state. Even though the mechanisms of the market economy have gained ground in the past 30 years, audience and advertising markets are still limited (Poland being a notable exception with a population of nearly 40 million). There is no political independence without economic independence.
Media scholars studying the region also observe that these are societies in permanent transition with different political regimes rapidly following one another:
“…a changing society is characterized by its lack of a solid social or ideological base … finding consensus on important public issues becomes increasingly problematic … All these … social trends significantly contribute to increasing political divergence and fragmentation and create a heterogeneous and socially polarized picture in young CEE democracies.” (Balcytiene et al. 2014)
Political polarisation has been coupled with economic polarisation. In these transition including in Hungary, a country that underwent ten different political regimes during the 20th century (Szabó 1988), social and ideological consensus has not been reached on a number of salient issues.
Confirmation, not information?
Media systems theory explaining why are the media as they are, and why different countries have different landscapes, has traditionally, and perhaps surprisingly, paid little attention to audiences. It might, however, be the case, that audiences differ across countries. In divided societies that are undergoing transition on a permanent basis, the mainstream public might be more responsive to confirmation than to information. This context may not favour the professionalisation of journalism as seen in long-standing democracies such as the UK and the US, but may help to maintain partisan journalism and. In fact, the more divided and insecure a society, the more the ritual function of the media may be needed, because people seek orientation.
Carey (1989/1992) puts forward a ritual approach to mass communication which views
“…reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.”
He argues that media rituals, like religious ones, reassure people who feel lost in a world perceived chaotic, and lead them from ‘Chaos’ into ‘Order.’ The media provide them with values they can subscribe to, virtual communities they can join, and identities they can undertake.
Uses of the media for the purpose of confirmation may be universal phenomena. It can, however, be suggested that in older democracies, where the political landscape evinces moderate pluralism and there is wide-scale consensus regarding the major societal values, audiences are more likely to use the media to gather information, which favours non-partisan journalism. By contrast, in younger democracies, where the political sphere evinces polarised pluralism, and where societies have undergone multiple changes, there are more marked political and ideological conflicts—and, it is in consequence of this that the press is also more partisan.
While it may be difficult to get an empirically based representative picture of how audiences in general use the news media, an email communication sent to the author of this paper Ágnes Lampé, journalist of the Hungarian left-liberal weekly 168 Óra, may be worth quoting as an illustration of such audience expectations:
“Whenever our newspaper came out with the portrait of a politician of the [right-conservative] Fidesz party on its front page, our circulation figures fell. [A reader once asked me,] “Why interview these idiots all the time? … Who wants to know their opinions? All they do is lie, anyway.” … they get relaxed as they feel confirmed that their own beliefs or political views are correct.”
A similar statement has been made by Ottó Gajdics, editor-in-chief of another Hungarian outlet, the right/conservative talk radio Karc FM. As he put it in an interview,
“…people like the outlet that transmits their own thoughts. Should one try to convince them that their pre-conceptions are mistaken, they would be frustrated. … Should I try to invite a representative of the other [political] side for an interview, listeners would go mad and suggest no one is interested in all the nonsense he or she has to say. So I just would not invite him or her. Not because it is not important, but because I do not want to lose my listeners.”
The persistence of engaged journalism in Hungary and in many of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe may thus possibly be also attributed to the audiences’ need for confirmation, and thus the permanent re-enforcement of their identities, which in turn may be explained by a lack of firm societal values, including a marked lack of political and ideological consensus.
While there may be little doubt that journalists must be perceptive of audience needs on plural media markets, more comparative empirical research is needed to establish whether audiences in Hungary and in other Central and Eastern European countries expect more confirmation from the media than those in the Anglo-American world. This could possibly be done by a content analysis of comments posted by readers in different countries under similar news items. Such a research should look into how emotional or rational the comments are, to what extent they focus on the subject matter or engage in personal arguments in countries where partisan and where non-partisan journalism practices dominate.
Based on Péter Bajomi-Lázár:
“Between Neutrality and Engagement. Political Journalism in Hungary,”
Central European Journal of Communication,
vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 48–63 (Spring 2017).
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