Media attention for complex governance processes: does it matter?

Erik Hans Klijn
Erik Hans Klijn

Media are everywhere nowadays and it is well known that politicians are very well aware of that and try to stage their performance to get as much media attention as possible. There are even authors who speak of modern democracy as the drama democracy where everything is about staging media attention and performance and not about implementation (eg Elchardus, 2002).

Are politicians different from rock stars?

As a result of the increasing mediatization of our society we now judge our politicians and public officials with the same standards as we judge our celebrities (rock stars, soccer players, TV personalities). Politicians appear on stage with wife and children, we want to know their private life and they appear as guests on talk shows. Research shows that media pay much more attention to private life of politicians than say for instance 30 years ago.

But the mediatization literature also suggests that the rules of the media logic (like the emphasis on drama, conflict and personal stories and the tendency to frame everything in short soundbites) penetrate other spheres of life (like the political domain, but also public administration). In our Policy & Politics article: Managing commercialised media attention in complex governance networks: positive and negative effects on network performance, we examine the impact of commercialised media attention and its positive and negative effects on network performance in complex governance networks. Since various authors point to the commercialisation of news as the main driver for this media logic we have labelled such attention “commercialised news” in our article. 

Mediatised or commercialised news has of course obvious results: dramatisation of our political life, simplification of the political debate and stronger focus on conflicts. Yet it is doubtful if the process works that simply in more complex governance processes. Korthagen (2014) for instance shows in the analysis of 6 spatial planning processes that media attention indeed is biased in its content but that it also enables less privileged groups to access the governance process, an interesting paradox.

Front stage and back stage: the world of media versus the world of networks

But if we look at the literature on mediatization and the stories about the drama democracy they are mostly about what I would call the front stage: the visible world of politics mostly at the national level.  And the literature is mostly concerned with national salient policy issues.

But what about the complex world of networks that I would call the back stage. Most public managers who want to deliver policy outcomes and services find themselves in networks of interdependent actors which make these governance processes complex. To be effective in these networks requires negotiation, patience, dedication and meticulous network management. Thus media attention could potentially have a negative influence on this process. If the mediatisation literature is true then media attention will tend to focus on conflicts and drama, and actors involved in the network will probably emphasise their own positions more in the media which will put pressure on negotiations and trust building. Consequently we may predict that negative media attention may have a negative impact on network performance and also that network management may mitigate negative media attention. It was this research question that I wanted to tackle in my article. I did that by using survey results of 141 managers of urban spatial planning projects who both ranked their project performance and the media attention for their project.

Does media attention influence complex governance processes?

I was not verifying whether or not the mediatisation literature was right but instead exploring whether or not media attention on spatial projects has a strong commercialised character (negative, sensational and full of mistakes) and whether that impacts on network performance. I also explored whether network management in any way mitigated these effects.

First of all it became clear that, in general, media attention was not that negative (5.03 on 10 point scale) thus nuancing the mediatization claims. We also found quite some variation in how commercialised the news attention was for projects.

And we did find that commercialised news had a significant effect on network performance. In summary if media attention is more negative, more sensational and emphasises conflict, this has a significant negative influence on network performance. Our article also shows that in projects where more network management strategies are employed, media attention is less commercialised. If we look at what kind of activities are part of network management (connecting actors exploring content, assessing process rules at the start etc.) we can understand its positive effect. If public managers employ more of these strategies, they involve these actors more and can therefore respond better to the wishes of various actors in the network. This probably leads to less conflict and less controversies between actors and may reduce the chances that actors may try to use the media as an additional channel of influence.

Thus our conclusion is that negative media attention cannot be ignored by public managers because it does impact on the performance of their networks within complex governance contexts. However the effects of negative media attention can be mitigated by good old fashioned network management, which must be at least a bit reassuring for public managers.

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested to read Governing at arm’s length: eroding or enhancing democracy? 

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