BALANCE

Does Balance Matter? Experiments in TV News Pippa Norris and David Sanders Shorenstein Center Kennedy School of Governme...

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Does Balance Matter? Experiments in TV News Pippa Norris and David Sanders Shorenstein Center Kennedy School of Government Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138 Fax: 617 495 8696 Email: [email protected] www.ksg.harvard.edu/people/pnorris

Department of Government University of Essex Wivenhoe Park, Colchester Essex, CO4 7SQ, UK Fax: 011 44 1206 873894 Email: [email protected]

Synopsis: The principle of political balance is one of the most basic standards commonly used to evaluate bias, fairness and impartiality in television coverage. Given its importance, this study examines the impact of three types of balance commonly employed in newsrooms - stop-watch balance, directional balance, and agenda balance. The first s ection outlines the conceptual and theoretical framework. The second section describes the research design based on experiments within the context of the 1997 British general election. The third section establishes the core findings about the effects of b alanced news coverage for party preferences. The conclusion considers the consequences for our understanding of media effects and for the principles guiding fair and impartial election coverage. © Paper prepared for Panel 38 -12 'The ABC of Media Effects in British Elections: Agenda, Balance and Change' at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston 3 -6 September 1998.

Does Balance Matter? Experiments in TV News

The concept of balance is commonly invoked as one of the main criteria

used

to

evaluate

the

quality

of

news,

along

with

related

notions such as how far stories are 'fair', 'impartial', and 'objective' (for

a

discussion

see

Westerstahl

1983;

McQuail

1992:200 -231).

The

principle of political balance is often used to dete rmine legal rights to election broadcasts, as well as influencing the news agenda for television

producers

conventional

and

yardsticks

editors,

used

for

and

functioning

scholarly

as

one

of

the

of

bias

in

evaluations

journalism. The issue of political balan ce is most sensitive in how broadcasters cover parties and candidates during election campaigns and there is perhaps no area of the news media which is more strictly scrutinized. Given its importance, this study examines the impact of three types of balance commonly employed in newsrooms - stop-watch balance, directional balance, and agenda balance. The first section outlines the conceptual and theoretical framework. The second section describes the research design based on experiments within the contex t of the 1997 British

general

findings

about

preferences.

election. the

The

The

effects

conclusion

of

third

section

balanced

considers

establishes

news the

coverage

the for

consequences

core party

for

our

understanding of media effects and for the princip les guiding fair and impartial election coverage.

The Principle and Practice of Balance

Although widely agreed in principle, the concept of balance raises complex

and

difficult

issues

in

practice.

'balance' may be another's idea of

One

person's

notion

of

'bias'. At least three distinct

meanings can be distinguished in conventional usage. Stop-watch Balance First, the concept is often understood in terms of

' stop-watch'

balance, meaning whether particular candidates, parties or groups have been given equal or proportional coverage in the media (McQuail 1992: 224-5). We commonly tot up the number of column inches for X and Y, and hunt for disproportionality, especially in controversial or disputed matters

with

two

or

more

opposing 2

sides.

Which

candidate

go t more

coverage after a debate? Did we hear more from management or the unions in a dispute? Which party convention got more attention on TV? simple

stimulus-response

model

behind

this

exposure means more persuasive influence.

notion

is

that

The greater

Stop-watch balance focuses

strictly upon the amount of coverage of each party or candidate, not its contents or effects. Ever since pioneering work by Lazarsfeld et al. (1944), comparing press and radio coverage of Roosevelt and Wilkie, scholars have trie d to assess whether election reporting has been balanced by this standard. Content analysis

frequently

compares the amount of news coverage given

to each candidate or party to judge whether the media has been 'fair' 1. Following this convention, in the 19 87 British election Miller et al. added up the total hours of coverage of each party on television and concluded that there was a "massive imbalance" which was overwhelmingly right-wing:

"The

parties

did

not

receive

equal

treatment...The

Conservative government got two bites of the television cherry: once as a party, once as a government." (Miller et al. 1989; Miller 1991:77; for a critique of this approach see Harrison 1989). and politicians monitor

British broadcasters

carefully and assiduously stop -watch campaign news to

impartiality.

In

the

same

way

U.S.

Presidential

campaign

debates use rules regarded as fair if equal time is allocated to candidate.

Similar

standards

are

used

to

grant

free

each

political

advertising to parties on an equal or proport ional basis, for example in Denmark, the Netherlands and Israel (Kaid and Holtz -Bacha 1995). Yet

while

it

is

relatively

easy

and

numerical balance of coverage, this may tell bias in coverage unless we go

mechanical

to

count

the

us little about the actual

on to explore its impact. As McQuail

notes: "The stop-watch measure of balance in output only takes one to a certain point. It reflects the concerns of interested 'senders' rather than

any

rational

weighing

of

likely

consequences

of

balance

or

imbalance. Unless audience reach (and, if possible, response) is also taken into account …[the] amount of media attention is limited as an indicator

of

media

performance."

(McQuail

1992:

226).

If

the

conventional rules are changed, for example if one party receives fa r more coverage than another, or if all parties (large and small) receive equal airtime, would this matter? Directional Balance Directional balance takes the next step and measures the positive, 3

negative or neutral contents of reporting. In this familiar perspective, which draws on classical liberalism, news even-handed

is defined as impartial if

towards the pros and cons of any argument: Democrats

Republicans,

Government

v.

Opposition,

Coverage is regarded as biased if it is

Tweedledum

v.

v.

Tweedledee.

disproportionately critical,

negative or hostile to one side or the other, or alternatively too hagiographic and propagandistic (see, for example, the Glasgow Media Group 1976, 1980). Directional accounts emphasize the contents and tone of news more than the more mechanical length of exposure. This notion often features in professional codes of conduct and frequently crops up in

informal

discussions

among

journalists.

Participant

observation

studies of British newsrooms during election campaigns have found that editors and producers commonly stress the need for equidistant coverage of the main political parties, as well as even -handedness in commentary, interviews with party leaders, and reports from the campaign trail (Blumler and Gurevitch 1995; Semetko 1 996). The typical story in most British

election

broadcasts

tends

to

present

one

party's

policy

proposals or record, and then a rebuttal from opponents, in a familiar 'on the one hand and on the other' sort of format, rather like watching the ball at Wimbledon. countries: a

Similar news values have been found in other

five-nation survey

by Paterson (1998) found that balance,

or 'expressing fairly the position on both sides of a dispute' was one of

the

commonest

ways

for

journalists

to

understand

objecti vity,

especially in the United States and Britain. Agenda Balance Lastly, the notion of agenda balance is based on the idea common in

theories

of

voting

behaviour

that

parties

often

have

'issue

ownership': hence, rightwing parties are usually regarded as stronger on issues like defense, crime and inflation, while leftwing parties are usually seen as stronger on education, welfare and unemployment (Budge and Farlie 1983). By focussing election coverage disproportionately on one

set

of

immigration,

issues, this

such

plays

on

as

proble ms

conventional

of

inner

party

city

poverty

stereotypes

and

or can

therefore skew the reporting in a partisan direction. Miller et al, for example, argued that the media focus on international security issues in the 1987 British election campaign constituted a "massive and consistent rightwing

bias

in

the

issue

agenda"

government(Miller et al. 1989: 650).

4

which

favored

the

Thatcher

The Context of British Broadcasting How are these different notions of balance applied in the con text of broadcasting British election campaigns?

The BBC Producer Guidelines

stress the strict need for political impartiality, written into the BBC Charter, but are fairly vague about how this is to be achieved in practice: "There is an absolute obligati on for the BBC's journalism to remain impartial as the people of the United Kingdom exercise their right to vote.… Editors should ensure that, through the course of the campaign,

their

coverage

has

proved

wide -ranging

fair." 2

and

Requirements of 'due impa rtiality' are also written into the Independent Television Commission's Program Code 3. Like much British electoral law, the regulations governing broadcasting embodied in Section 93 of the Representation parliamentary Television

of

the

People's

candidates

coverage

of

Act

standing

parties

only

in

is

controls less

of

constituencies. 4

particular

determined

coverage

by

law

than

by

conventions which have evolved since the creation of the BBC in 1922 (Blackburn 1995: 258-261). During British election campaigns b roadcasting is dominated by the concept

of

'stop-watch'

balance,

meaning

proportional

(not

equal)

coverage of political parties. The allocation of free party political broadcasts is determined by the Committee on Political Broadcasting, created in 1947, a body whose proceedings are never published and which has not actually met in person since 1983, but which is composed of senior representatives from the broadcasters and the parties. Through negotiations this body agrees the time allocation for regular par ty political broadcasts (PPBs) outside of elections, and also for party election broadcasts (PEBs) during the official campaign (for details see Scammell and Semetko 1995).

As shown in Table 1, during the 1997

general election, in line with many previous

contests, the ratio was

5:5:4, meaning that the Conservatives and Labour were each given five 10 minute PEBs, while the Liberal Democrats were allowed four, and minor parties

which

mustered

a

minimum

of

Independence Party and the Greens,

fifty

candidates,

like

the

UK

received at least one five -minute

broadcast each, with additional arrangements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (for details see Harrison 1997:149 -154)5. Most importantly, the agreed ratio of time allocated to each party also

operates

coverage

of

in

election

parties

in

newsrooms.

election

news 5

During

the

on

public

all

official and

campaign

commercial

television channels reflects the agreed proportion of time allocated to parties for election broadcasts. The stop -watch principle does no t apply to each daily broadcast, but rather to party coverage for each news or current affairs program during the course of the campaign. Participant observation studies of newsrooms during campaigns have found that the 'stop-watch' principle is conscienti ously implemented and continually monitored by news organizations and by parties (Blumler and Gurevitch 1995; Semetko 1996). In 1992 ITN put slightly greater emphasis on news values driven by editorial judgements rather than the stop -watch rule, but in practice the overall time ITN allocated to parties differed little from the 5:5:4 formula which would otherwise have applied (Tait 1995:60).

'Stop-watch' balance is one of the prime ways that British

broadcasters

try

to

be

impartial.

The

1997

campaign

follow ed

this

pattern: the proportion of coverage given to each of the parties in television news Table 1).

closely reflected the allocation of time for PEBs (see

Nevertheless other criteria of impartiality are also applied

by producers, for example even -handedness in the relative position of parties

in

the

running

order

and

equivalence

of

tone

in

reporting

campaign events. Leader is matched against leader, issue against issue, and press conference against press conference. In this sense the notions of

directional

and

agenda

balance

are

also

pervasive

in

election

newsrooms. [Table 1 about here] The

question

raised

by

the

formal

conventions

of

balance

is

whether 'due impartiality' is achieved in practice. The situation is carefully monitored by broadcaster s and campaign managers alike, with vociferous complaints if the party balance is seen as unfair.

The

extent of directional balance in the 1997 election was measured in content

analysis

favourability of

by

Scammell

stories

and

Semetko

which

analyzed

the

about each party on the main evening news

bulletins on BBC1, ITN and Sky News during the April 1997 election camapign 6. perspective

The

tone

of

the

of

that

party

story on

a

as

a

whole

7 -point

scale

was

coded

ranging

from from

the 'very

negative' (1) to 'very positive' (7). If we compare the mean scores the results in Table 2 show that the mean tone proved very similar for all major

parties,

although

the

Conservatives

received

slightly

less

favourable coverage on all three channels. If we then recode d the data into three categories to examine the distribution of stories, we can confirm that over 80 percent of all stories fell into the 'internally 6

balanced' or mixed category. Nevertheless the Conservatives did suffer from

twice as many negative stories as Labour, while the Libe ral

Democrats had the strongest positive directional bias. [Table 2 about here] Nevertheless the effects of balance upon viewers remain largely unknown. The ITC regularly surveys the public's perceptions of bias in the media (see, for example, Gunter et al. 1994). When asked after the 1997 campaign how far the major channels provided news programs which were 'balanced', viewers tended to give high marks to Channel 4, and about half thought that BBC2 and ITV achieved this 'just about always' or 'most of the time', compared with one third who thought this of BBC1's news (Norris 1998). Studies suggest that such perceptions of bias matter for voting behaviour (Mughan 1992).

But perceptions may or may

not be accurate. Moreover surveys of public opinion can tell us little about the effects of changing the existing news conventions.

If the

rules were radically altered, for example if third parties like the Liberal Democrats were given equal airtime, or if there were no rules governing party balance and the contents o f news programs was determined purely by news values, would this matter? Despite the importance of the principle of stop-watch balance for regulating political broadcasting, we do not know. What we need to do is to systematically vary the contents of the media message and then monitor the effects. Research Design, Hypotheses, and Methods To explore these issues, as one part of a larger multi -method study (Norris et al. forthcoming), the approach adopted here follows the classic logic of experiments. During the 1990s experimental methods have gradually entered the standard repertoire of political research (Iyengar and

Kinder

1987;

Iyengar

1991;

Ansolabehere

and

Iyengar

1997).

Nevertheless because this approach remains less familiar than survey analysis we will outline our research design in some detail. In order to examine the effects of stop -watch, directional and agenda balance on voters' perceptions, we carried out a series of 15 experiments. To summarize the process, respondents completed a pre -test questionnaire and then randomly assigned to separate groups.

Each group was exposed

to a distinctive 30-minute selection of video news and a post -test questionnaire was then administered to each respondent. The purpose of the experiments was to establish the extent to which any changes between 7

pre- and post-test responses varied according to the type of video footage that had been seen. Fieldwork and the Selection of Respondents The

experiments

(Regent Street).

were

conducted

in

a

central

London

location

We included 1125 respondents in total, more than most

experimental designs.

Participants were drawn primarily from Greater

London and south-east England.

Respondents were not selected explicitly

as a random sample of the British electorate, but they did g enerally reflect

the

background location

Greater

and

party

during

the

including

managers,

London

population

preferences. day

to

We

provide

office -workers

in

terms

chose

a

a

diverse and

of

busy

their

social

central

London

group

casual

of

Londoners

shoppers .

The

generalisability of the results rests not on the selection of a random sample of participants, as in a survey design, but on the way that subjects were assigned at random to different experimental groups.

Any

difference

the

in

the

response

of

groups

sho uld

therefore

reflect

stimuli they were given rather than their social backgrounds or prior political attitudes. One potential problem of experiments is that participants may alter

their

own

behaviour

given

the

artificiality

of

setting and their perceptions of the aims of the study.

the

research

In order to

counter this, respondents were told that they would be participating in research to learn how people evaluate and understand television news. Prior to the experiment, we informed respondents (fal sely) that we were primarily interested in "selective perception", that is, whether young people and older people, or men and women, are interested in different stories in the news.

We did not mention that the news would be about

the election, which might well have discouraged participation by the politically apathetic, and we found that many participants believed we were carrying out television market research.

We used a single -shot

rather than a repeated design so that respondents would not become unduly conditioned by the research process itself. Participants completed a short (15 -minute) pre-test questionnaire about their media habits, political interests and opinions and personal background.

They were then assigned at random to groups of 5 -15 to

watch a 30-minute video compilation of television news.

Respondents

subsequently completed a short (15 -minute) post-test questionnaire. 8

The

experiments were carried out in April 1997 during the middle of the official general election campaign.

This timing w as deliberate: we

wanted to examine the attitudes of participants who had been subjected to

the

intensive

barrage

of

political

coverage

that

characterizes

television news during an election period. The Construction of Video Stimuli The video compilations o f news stories were chosen to represent a "typical" evening news program

during the campaign.

We drew on stories

recorded from all the main news program on the terrestrial channels from mid February until early to April 1997. same format.

7

The videos all had the

They consisted of a "sandwich", with

footage at the top and bottom of each program

identical, standard and one of fifteen

different experimental video stimuli in the middle "core" (see the list in Appendix B).

Respondents were not told which video was being shown

to which group or even that different videos were being watched by different groups of respondents. To

test

for

the

effects

of

stop -watch

balance

on

party

preferences, we monitored the reactions of 261 participants who were divided at random into three treatment groups

shown respectively a 20

minute core of Conservative coverage (CON20), 20 minutes of Labour coverage (LAB20), and 20 minutes of Liberal Democratic coverage (LIB20). Most importantly, the stories selected for the comp osite news bulletins were judged to be 'internally -balanced' or neutral overall.

Each story

usually opened with the proponent's case and then presented a rebuttal by opponents. A claim that, for example, taxes had been cut under the Conservatives would be followed by counterclaims by Labour and Liberal Democrat spokespersons, with equally pro and con comments from vox pop and

outside

experts.

We

recognize

the

difficulty

of

objectively

determining whether or not the content of a particular video selection is

genuinely

'internally -balanced'.

Our

decision

rule

as

to

what

constituted positive, negative and neutral news coverage was that an item had to be coded as such by two independent coders. confidence, however, that similar codings would have other researchers.

We have every

been produced by

Full transcriptions of the content of the videos

concerned are available from the authors. The four directional experiments involved 258 respondents who were shown consistently positive or negative coverage for the L abour or Conservative parties as the 10 minute core (see Appendix B), for example 9

one group was shown a series of critical stories about the Conservative government's record in office, divisions over Europe and internal party splits. Lastly the seven agend a experiments, with 484 participants, varied the subject matter of the video core in terms of policy issues, such

as

whether

description elsewhere

of

news

the

(Sanders

about

Europe,

directional and

Norris

and

pensions agenda

1997;

or

taxation.

experiments

Norris

and

are

Sanders

A

full

provided

1997),

and

monitored

the

further brief details can be found in Appendices A and B. In

addition

reactions of

to

the

treatment

groups,

we

also

an explicit control group of 110 participants who were

shown a core with the standard 5:5:4 ratio of stop -watch party balance. This

control group was used for the descriptive means. Our simple

expectation

is

that

subjects

in

this

control

group

did

not

significantly change their preferences for the major parties between the pre- and the post-test whereas subjects in the stop -watch groups did. For the multivariate analysis to compare the relative effects of the stop-watch, directional and agenda balance experiments we recoded all the 15 groups into dummy variables, comparing the effects of those who received one treatment against all the other participants, excluding the control group. Hypotheses Based on common assumptions about the effects of and

building

upon

the

results

of

previous

analysis

news balance, of

the

dataset

presented elsewhere (Norris and Sanders 1997; Sanders and Norris 1997), we developed a series of specific testable propositions. The first set of hypotheses concern the direct effects of television exposure upon party

preferences,

response, variables.

without

following taking

the

account

simple of

any

logic

of

mediating

direct or

stimulus-

intervening

The core assumption of the principle of stop -watch balance

is that, ceteris paribus, (H#1) greater exposure to one party will have a direct positive impact on pr eferences for that party .

The core

assumption makes no distinction between different types of voters or messages, instead the effects of exposure are regarded as equally likely across all groups in the electorate. We can examine this hypothesis by analyzing changes in the reactions of respondents exposed to each of the different Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat 20 minute video stimuli compared with the control group.

10

Critics of the stop-watch principle often argue that to expect any effects simply from greater exposure to one side or another is naïve, at best, and misunderstands the complex nature of the interaction between the

news

media

and

viewers

(Harrison

1989:655).

The

principle

of

directional balance presupposes (H#2) that 'positive' television news of a particular party will tend to create a more favourable preferences for that

party

while

'negative'

favourable preferences.

coverage

will

tend

to

produce

less

We have demonstrated elsewhere that direction

does matter: positive news was foun d to have a significant impact upon party

images,

even

controlling

for

a

wide

range

of

potentially

confounding factors, whereas negative news failed to exert a significant influence (Sanders and Norris 1997). To build upon earlier work, in this study

we

can

compare

the

relative

influence

of

stop -watch

and

directional effects. In contrast, the model of agenda balance suggests that focussing upon

certain

types

of

issues

will

advantage

one

party

or

another,

depending upon the policy areas which are traditional ly regarded as their greatest strength or home ground. Given the position of British parties across the ideological spectrum we would therefore hypothesize (H#3)

that

Conservative

news

programs

party

focussed

support,

whereas

on

taxation

television

will

tend

stories

to

about

boost social

policy (such as jobs, health and pensions) would probably improve Labour party preferences. Foreign policy issues are more complex to predict, but given the type of coverage during the campaign we would anticipate a priori that stories focussing upon Europe would probably be to the disadvantage of the Conservatives , given well-publicised splits within the back-benches over this issue, whereas news about overseas aid for developing countries would probably slightly benefit La bour. Accordingly we can compare the effects of each of these issues using the groups in the seven agenda experiments. Mediating Variables These simple hypotheses, however, say nothing about the different tendencies of various sorts of voters to shift th eir party preferences. In line with evidence reported by Iyengar and Kinder (1987), we might well expect that the effect of media exposure on party preferences would not be uniform across the electorate but would vary in systematic and predictable

ways

according

to

the 11

prior

political

predispositions,

social characteristics and television habits. Many studies, starting with Lazarsfeld et al. (1944), have suggested that the groups most susceptible

to

influence

by

the

media

during

the

campaign

are

the

waverers who have yet to make up their minds how to vote even late in the

campaign.

Specifically,

we

would

therefore

expect

that

the

politically well-informed, interested and strong partisans would be less likely to change their pre -test to post-test responses than

the less

informed,

relative

uninterested

and

undecideds.

By

examining

the

influence of exposure to the videos broken down by the respondent's pre test

voting

intentions,

pre -test

interest,

and

level

of

political

voters'

changing

knowledge we can examine these propos itions. Two

other

perceptions

sets

need

to

be

of

potential

effects

considered.

Given

on

the

information

that

we

obtained from our pre -test and post-test questionnaires, we are also in a

position

to

apply

controls

both

for

(a)

the

stand ard

set

of

socio-demographic variables (age, gender, education and so on) that are normally

found

to

exert

significant

effects

on

voters'

political

preferences and (b) respondents' television -watching habits (such as frequency of watching and trust in TV n ews).

As a result of our

experimental design, however, our hypotheses in both of these contexts favour the null.

The experimental approach is predicated on the random

assignment of subjects to test and control groups. (video

exposure)

respondents' regardless

genuinely

party of

image),

affects the

respondents'

the

group

response effect

If the stimulus (a

should

socio -demographic

shift be

in

the

observable

characteristics

or

television-habits because the test and control groups should contain roughly equal proportions drawn from all groups. level, we could, of course, simply television-habit

effects

do

not

At the individual

assume that socio-demographic and

confound

any

bivariate

statistical

relationships that we might observe between video exposure and ch anging party-images. possible

We prefer, however, to conduct formal tests for any such

effects.

Specifically,

we

hypothesize

that

the

observed

relationship between video exposure and pre - to post-test changes in party

preferences

will

not

be

confounded

by

the

application

of

statistical controls for the effects of (a) the standard battery of socio-demographic habits.

In

the

variables

or

subsequent

(b) models

respondents' we

television -watching

therefore

test

for

the

relationship between media messages an d party preferences controlling for the mediating effects of the political attitudes, social background 12

and television habits. Dependent Variable: Party Preferences We designed the research to achieve conceptual replication of responses, that is, tests we re repeated with conceptually similar but empirically different measures of the variables under scrutiny.

We

included nine related, BES -based, measures of party support in both the pre-test and the post-test.

For each of the three major parties, we

asked respondents to assess, on 0 -10 scales, (a) how likely it was that they would vote for the party, (b) how much they liked the party, and (c) how highly they rated the (named) party leader.

For each party, and

for both the pre-test and the post-test measures, the three scales were averaged to produce a single party support index where a 0 score meant a respondent had a very poor image of the party and 30 meant a very good image. Tests proved that these items were strongly inter -correlated and formed reliable scales (the Cronbach Alpha was, respectively, .90 for the Conservative index, .89 for the Labour index, and .82 for the Liberal Democrat index). Accordingly composite party preference indexes were used summing scores on the three separate items.

Calcula ting each

respondent's "change in party support" score was simply a matter of subtracting the pre-test score from the post -test score: a positive (negative)

change

favourable

view

indicated of

the

that

party

manipulation than before it.

a

in

respondent question

had

after

a the

more

(less)

experimental

We assume that our composite support

scores, precisely because they are based on three different response items, more accurately measure each respondent's party preference than any single party-response item considered in isolation. Analysis of Results First in Table 3 we

can compare the mean response on the pre -test

and post-test average scores on party preferences and change over time.

the average

The overall pattern shows that respondents greatly

preferred the Labour party across all three indicators, but the party enjoyed a particular advantage on the probability to vote score. This increased our confidence in the results, since this pattern was broadly in line with the substantial Labour victory on poll ing day two weeks later. In terms of the change over time from the pre - to the post-test scores, there was very modest change across all parties. Given the limitations of the research design, with only a single stimulae in a 30 13

minute compilation of news, we would expect only very modest short -term effects to be evident. Indeed, if we found any strong results from such a small stimuli we would become slightly concerned about preconditioning participants in our methodology. The lack of overall variance, comb ined with

the

limited

numbers

within

each

video

group,

reinforces

the

importance of any findings which do prove statistically significant. Overall the Liberal Democrats most consistently improved their support while Labour tended to do less well, with the

exception of a slight

boost in the proportion liking Tony Blair. Exposure to television news also produced a slight increase in the propensity to vote, as found in other studies of the influence of television news (Norris 1997). [Table 3 about here] Table 4 goes on to test one of our primary hypotheses by analyzing the mean size and direction of changes in party preferences caused by exposure

to the stop -watch video stimuli compared with the control

group shown a 'balanced' (5:5:4) news broadcast. The res ults show a mixed pattern. Those who watched the Conservative news bulletin (CON20) experienced a small but significant increase in Conservative support, as predicted by Hypothesis 1, however there was also a significant and stronger increase in Liberal De mocrat support among these participants. Viewers who watched the Labour video (LAB20) also modestly increased their support for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, although these changes

did

not

achieve

statistical

significance.

Exposure

to

the

Liberal Democrat bulletin (LIB20) also proved to have no significant effects. [Table 4 about here] To test our primary hypotheses about the effect of watching each of the video stimulae, with the range of control variables described earlier, we can turn to the OLS mult iple regression models in Table 5. The results of the analysis shows that directional balance proved the most

significant

effect,

supporting

Hypothesis

positive news bulletins (where the 30 minute video

2.

Specifically

the

showed a 10 minute

core of positive stories about each party) produced a significant impact in the expected direction for both the Conservative and Labour parties, even

after

including

the

full

battery

of

control

variables.

confirms and reinforces our previous conclusions about the positive news on

This

effects of

preferences for the major parties (Sanders and Norris

1997). In contrast negative news had no significant effect on levels of party support. 14

[Table 5 about here] The effects of watching the stop -watch party balance videos prov ed slightly

more

complex

to

interpret.

The

simple

hypothesis

we

are

testing here is that greater exposure to a party in the news will strengthen preferences for that party. The effects of watching the 20 minute series of stories about the Labour party was since

this

had

no

impact

on

Labour

party

straightforward

preferences.

Viewing

the

Conservative party bulletin (where the 30 minute video showed 20 minutes of

neutral

or

'internally

balanced'

footage

about

the

Conservative

party) also produced no significa nt improvement in Conservative party preferences, after controlling for other factors. Indeed, contrary to the

hypothesis

we

were

testing,

watching

the

Conservative

video

unexpectedly served to boost Liberal Democratic preferences. In contrast to

our

hypothesis,

bulletin

was

viewing

associated

the a

20

minute

slight

Liberal

fall

in

Democratic

Liberal

news

Democrat

support(although only significant at the .08 level), not an increase. These results give no support for the core hypothesis about stop -watch balance and the modest effects we did find remain a puzzle. It may be that

although

we

evaluated

the

selected

stories

for

each

party

as

'internally-balanced' or neutral, others perceived them as negative. We did

not

control

the

creation

of

these

news

stories ,

only

their

selection, since we were editing typical stories from the campaign. Perhaps our selection of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat stories provided some unintentional directional cues against these parties. Lastly the assumptions of agenda ba lance, as suggested by Miller et al. (1989), also find no support in these tests. Showing respondents a 30 minute bulletin which includes a 10 minute core of stories about one of six

different issues produced no significant boost for any

party. On these grounds we have to discount Hypothesis 3. Conclusions and Implications: The BBC Producer's Guidelines stress: " Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. It is a core value and no area of programming is exempt from it. It requires programme makers to fairness and a respect for truth. " are

written

into

the

BBC

8

Charter

show open-mindedness,

Requirements of due impartiality and

the

Independent

Television

9

Commission's Programme Code . The principle of balance is the standard most commonly used by journal ists, broadcasting regulators and scholars 15

to judge the impartiality of news. The question explored by this study is how far stop-watch balance, directional balance and agenda balance actually exerted any influence on experimental subjects during the 1997 British election campaign. The assumptions of stop -watch balance are that there needs to be proportional treatment of the major parties in the news because greater coverage of one of the major parties would automatically give them an electoral advantage. The principle assumes that media exposure, ceteris paribus, will lead to persuasion. But the results of this analysis strongly suggests pervasive

in

that the principle of stop -watch balance, which is so

regulating

coverage

of

election

news

in

British

broadcasting, is not supported by this evidence. The results suggest that the short-term effects of the amount of coverage of each party in the news, measured by the stop -watch principle,

does not provide an

automatic boost in that party's support, or a consi stent decrease in support for other parties. On this basis we find little evidence for Hypothesis 1.

The assumptions of directional balance are that what

matters is less the amount than the positive or negative contents of television news. In this view im partiality is achieved by an evenhanded approach to criticism and praise of each party. Our evidence, confirming Hypothesis

2,

suggests

that

directional

balance

is

important,

in

particular that positive news has the capacity to provide a short -term and modest boost to that party's for

Hypothesis

newsrooms:

the

3

about

policy

the

topic

fortunes.

need of

to

Lastly we found no support

maintain

stories

which

agenda we

balance

examined

had

in no

differential effect upon levels of party preferences. A newsroo m which focussed heavily on coverage of

health and jobs, for example, would not

thereby be improving Labour support any more than one which carried many stories about tax would necessarily help the Conservatives. In a nut shell, we conclude that what matt ers is how parties are covered in television news, in particularly positive stories, rather than how much coverage they receive or on what topics. These results may have important implications for public policy and the conventions which dominate British broadcasting during election campaigns.

If

we

can

generalize

from

the

results

of

short -term

experiments to the cumulative experience of the real world, and this is a real 'if', then it follows that all the paraphernalia of stop -watch balance which is so c arefully monitored by the party managers and by 16

news executives and producers may, at best, be irrelevant, and, as worst, may obscure

any real biases in British television journalism. A

more laissez-faire attitude to time balance, so that stories are driv en by news values more than by the need to give proportional coverage to each party, irrespective of what they are actually doing during the campaign, might produce more stimulating and effective coverage. But since it is relatively easy and mechanical to measure the time allocated to different parties, while it is highly problematic and controversial to

measure

directional

bias,

we

can

probably

expect

that

even

if

irrelevant, the principle of stop -watch balance will continue to be observed in British broad casting. If nothing else, it provides a modest fig-leaf of impartiality to clothe naked and unprotected journalists hit by the chill winds of charges of party bias.

17

Appendix A: Video News Compilations Used in the Party Balance Experiments

All

video

compilations

had

th e

same

beginning

and

end

segments

consisting of: Beginning 1.

Report

on

the

Commentary by Robin Oakley.

opening

day

of

the

official

campaign.

Statements by Major, Blair and Ashdown.

Discussion by Oakley of the four main issues of the campaign: the economy, Europe, constitutional reform and leadership. [5 minutes]. 2.

Continuation of news on the opening day of the campaign.

Description of Major's, Blair's and Ashdown's activities during the day. Description of the timetable for the election and the ti ming of the next Queen's Speech. "feelgood

factor"

Discussion by John Pinnaar on the failure of the to

re -kindle

Conservative

fortunes

thus

far.

[5

minutes]. End 1.

Description of a runaway horse incident at a racecourse. [2

minutes]. 2.

Discussion of motorway traffic congestion.

[1.5 minutes].

3.

Incident of two bombs left beneath flyover on the M6.

[1.5

minutes]. 4.

Discussion of the introduction of self -assessment tax forms.

[1.5 minutes]. 5.

Discussion of freemasonry in public life.

[1.5 minut es].

6.

Results of the Oscar award ceremony in US.

[2 minutes].

18

Appendix B Timing of 30 minute Video Experimental Stimuli Experiment STOPWATCH BALANCE

Start

Core

End

Control

10 neutral

Conservative Balance

5 neutral

Labour balance

5 neutral

Liberal Democrat

5 neutral

4 Con: 4 Lab: 3 LibDem 20 minute Con neutral 20 minute Lab neutral 20 minute LibDem neutral

10 minute neutral 5 minute neutral 5 minute neutral 5 minute neutral

DIRECTIONAL BALANCE Con Positive Con Negative Lab Positive Lab Negative AGENDA BALANCE Tax Jobs Health Pensions Europe Overseas Aid Issue Control

10 10 10 10

neutral neutral neutral neutral

10 10 10 10

Con Con Lab Lab

positive negative positive negative

10 10 10 10

neutral neutral neutral neutral

10 10 10 10 10 10 10

neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral

10 10 10 10 10 10 10

tax neutral jobs neutral health neutral pensions neutral Europe neutral overseas aid mixed issues

10 10 10 10 10 10 10

neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral neutral

19

References Ansolabehere, Steven and Shanto Iyengar. 1997.

Going Negative.

New

York: Free Press. Blackburn, Robin. 1995. The Electoral System in Britain . New York: St Martin's Press. Blumler, Jay G. and Michae l Gurevitch. 1995.

The Crisis of Public

Communication. London: Routledge. Budge, Ian and David Farlie. 1983. Explaining and Predicting Elections . London: Allen & Unwin. Glasgow Media Group. 1976.

Bad News.

London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Glasgow Media Group. 1980.

More Bad News.

London: Routledge and Kegan

Paul. Gunter, Barrie, Jane Sancho -Aldridge and Paul Winstone. 1994. Television and the Public's View , 1993. London: John Libbey. Harrison, Martin. 1989. 'Television Election News Analysis: Use and Abuse - A Reply' Political Studies XXXVII(4): 652-658. _____. 1997.'Politics on the Air'. In David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh. The British General Election of 1997 . London: Macmillan. Iyengar,

Shanto,

1991.

Is

Anyone

Responsible?

Chicago:

Chicago

University Press. Iyengar, Shanto and Donald R Kinder. 1987. News That Matters.

Chicago:

Chicago University Press. Kaid, Lynda Lee and Christina Holtz -Bacha (1995). Political Advertising in Western Democracies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Lazarsfeld, Paul, Bernard Be relson and Hazel Gaudet. 1944. The People's Choice. New York: Columbia University Press. McQuail, Denis (1992). Media Performance. London: Sage. 20

Miller, William L., Neil Sonntag and David Broughton (1989). 'Television in the 1987 British Election Campaign: Its Content and Influence.' Political Studies XXXVII (4): 626-651. Miller, William L.

1991. Media and Voters. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mughan, Anthony. 1996.

'Television Can Matter: Bias in the 1992 General

Election'. In David M. Farrell et al. (eds.) British Elections and Parties Yearbook, 1996 , pp.128-142. Norris, Pippa and David Sanders. 1997.

London: Frank Cass. It Was the Media, Stupid:

Agenda-Setting Effects During the 1997 British Campaign .

Paper

prepared for delivery at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Sheraton Washington Hotel, August 28-31. Norris, Pippa. 1997. Electoral Change since 1945 . Oxford: Blackwell. Norris, Pippa (1998). 'The Battle for the Campaign Agenda'.

In Anthony

King (ed) New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls . Chatham. NJ: Chatham House. Norris, Pippa, John Curtice, David Sanders, Maggie Scammell and Holli Semetko. (1999). Communicating the Campaign . London, Sage. Sanders, David and Pippa Norris. 1998. 'Negative News and Political Cynicism'. Paper presented at the PSA Annual Conference, Keele, April. Scammell, Margaret

and Holli Semetko. 1995 'Political Advertising on

Television'. In Lynda Lee Kaid and Christina Holtz -Bacha (eds.) Political Advertising in Western Democracies. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Semetko, Holli. 1996. 'Political Balance on Television'.

The Harvard

International Journal of Press/Politics . 1(1):51-71. Tait, Richard. 1995. The Parties and Television. In Ivor Crewe and Brian Gosschalk. Political Communications: The General Election Campaign of 1992. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Westerstahl,

J.

1983.

'Objective

Research. 10;403-424. 21

News

Reporting'.

Communications

Table 1: Ratio of Election Broadcasts and Proportion of

Election News,

Major Parties 1964-1997 Party Election

Proportion of BBC TV

Proportion of ITV

Broadcasts

Election News

Election News

Con

Lab

LDem

Con

Lab

LDem

Con

Lab

LDem

1964

5

5

3

42

41

17

41

39

20

1966

5

5

3

39

42

16

43

40

16

1970

5

5

3

46

42

10

45

43

11

1974F

5

5

3

39

40

18

37

36

22

1974O

5

5

4

35

35

26

37

37

21

1979

5

5

3

35

35

22

37

37

21

1983

5

5

4

34

36

26

34

37

27

1987

5

5

5

35

31

25

38

31

26

1992

5

5

4

32

32

31

31

34

32

1997

5

5

4

35

31

24

35

30

28

Sources: Information about PEBs from Margaret Scammell and Holli Semetko 1995 'Political Advertising on Television' and

Christina

Holtz-Bacha

(eds.)

Table 3.1. In Lynda Lee Kaid

Political

Advertising

in

Western

Democracies (Thousand Oaks, Sage). The proportion of election news per party from successive volumes of T he British General Election of.. by David Butler et al.

22

Table 2: Directional Balance of Television News, 1997 Campaign Conservative

Labour Party

Party

Liberal Democratic Party

Negative

12.2

6.3

0.9

Mixed

82.5

84.9

92.0

5.4

8.8

7.1

Negative Minus Positive

-6.8

+2.5

+6.2

Mean Directional Score

3.92

4.04

4.08

N. of Stories

1267

1276

1269

Positive

Note: Coding of political stories on BBC1 9 O'Clock News, ITN News at 10, and Sky News evening bulletin. The Directional Score is calculated on a 7-point scale from 1 (Neg ative) to 7 (Positive). Source: Seketko, Scammell and Goddard 1997 British General Election Campaign Content Analysis.

23

Table 3: Average Rating of Party Preference Variables Pre-

Post-

Mean

N. for

test

test

Change

mean change

Probability of voting Conserv ative

2.82

3.01

0.21

945

Liking of Conservatives

3.19

3.32

0.14

1082

Liking of John Major

3.86

3.84

-0.02

1084

Conservative party preference index

9.98

10.31

+0.34

916

Probability of voting Labour

5.67

5.50

-0.09

1003

Liking of Labour

5.30

5.29

-0.03

1085

Liking of Tony Blair

4.94

5.08

+0.13

1089

Labour party preference index

16.2

16.0

-0.02

936

Probability of Voting Liberal Democrat

3.25

3.43

+0.20

889

Liking of Liberal Democrats

4.46

4.64

+0.13

1053

Liking of Paddy Ashdown

4.69

4.76

+0.04

1068

Liberal Democrat party preference

12.4

12.9

+0.31

859

7.24

7.41

+0.19

1113

index

Probability of Voting

Note: All measured on a 10 -point scale except for the index which is summed to

a 30 point scale. The index score is the summed aver age of

the other three scores in each party grouping. It is only measured for those respondents who answered all six component questions. Source: Television News Experiments, April 19 97.

24

Table 4:

Mean Changes in Party Preferences by Stop-Watch Balance Video

Stimuli Change in Conservative preferences Mean

P.

N.

Change in Labour preferences Mean

P.

N.

Change in Liberal Democrat preferences Mean

P.

N.

92

-.26

98

+.22

70

+.14

78

+1.29

.01

76

+.50

76

+.51

71

+.36

56

-.84

61

-.34

50

Control video

-.28

Cons. video

+.69

Labour video LibDem video

*

*

90

*

65

Note: The significance of the mean difference between the control group and the exposed group is measured through ANOVA. P. *=05. **=.01. Source: Television News Experiments, April 19 97.

25

Table 5:

Changes in the Party Preference by Video Balance Experiments

Video Group

Change in

Change in Labour preferences

Conservative

Change in Liberal Democrat preferences

Preferences B Constant STOPWATCH BALANCE CON20 LAB20 LIBDEM20 DIRECTIONAL BALANCE Con Positive Con Negative Lab Positive Lab Negative AGENDA BALANCE Tax Issue Jobs Issue Health Issue Pensions Europe Overseas Aid CONTROL VARIABLES Gender Graduate Age Ethnicity TV Trust TV Use Political Knowledge Political Interest Own vote Undecided vote R2 N. S.e. of estimate

Sig

-2.0

**

.02 .01 .02 .05 -.03 .06 .04 .09 -.02 -.01 -.01 .06 .04 .10 .05 .04 .04 916 2.64

Sig

-.59

.06 -.02 .02 .11 .03 .06 .04

B

**

**

.12 .64 .68

.04 .04 -.08

.01 .35 .09 .31

-.04 .06 .11 .03

.62 .86 .67 .21 .49 .12 .26 .01 .61 .69 .87 .09 .30 .01 .20 .32

Sig .57

.29 .33 .02

.09 .01 -.07

.26 .13 .01 .50

-.01 .02 .01 .02

.91 .69 .80 .54

.02 .01 .04 -.01 -.03 .04

.58 .88 .30 .93 .43 .36

.01 -.03 -.01 -.01 -.06 -.01

.80 .49 .65 .84 .14 .69

.01 -.01 .04 .03 -.01 -.06 -.01 .05 .01 .05 .04 969 3.18

.83 .75 .24 .27 .71 .07 .89 .20 .85 .22

.01 .01 -.01 .01 .08 -.03 -.08 -.02 -.09 -.01 .03 859 3.36

.70 .85 .76 .98 .02 .42 .07 .68 .02 .75

*

**

Note: OLS regression models. P. *=05. **=.01. Source: Television News Experiments, April 1 997.

26

B

*

*

**

.02 .88 .08

1

See, for example, the chapter on broadcasting in

D.E. Butler and

Anthony King The British General Election of 1964 (1965, London: Macmillan) and successive editions. 2

See the BBC Producer Guidelines 1996 Chapter 19 (5.1).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/editorial/prodgl 3

See ITC Programme Code: http://www.itc.org.uk/regulating .

4

Section 93 of the Representation of the People's

Act is designed to

ensure strict impartiality by requiring the prior consent of every candidate in a seat to any broadcast about the constituency during the campaign. candidates

But it only regulates coverage in of part icular parliamentary running

in

particular

constituencies,

not

the

national

campaign. 5

It should be noted that the parties determine the editorial contents

of the programs although as the publisher the broadcasters must ensure that the programs follow the law on libel and contempt, and also follow accepted standards of taste and decency. The precise timing of election broadcasts is also within the hands of the television companies. 6

We would like to thank Holli Semetko and Maggie Scammell for access to

this data, which will be forthcoming in Pippa Norris et al. Communicating the Campaign (Sage, forthcoming) 7

The programs sampled were Nine O'Clock News (BBC1), News at Ten (ITN),

Channel Four News and Newsnight (BBC2). 8

See the BBC Producer Gu idelines 1996

http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/editorial/prodgl . 9

See the ITC Programme Code http://www.itc.org.uk/regulating .

27