chapter  4
21 Pages

Comparing news cultures and media systems: Developing a comparative study of television news bulletins in the UK, US and Norway

Over recent decades, comparative research between the media and political systems of different nations has grown steadily. Most academic studies today rarely exhibit the kind of “naïve universalism” Blumler and Gurevitch (1995: 75) once described of scholarly inquiries limited to discussing media systems within just a national focus. For the significance of theoretical interventions or empirical conclusions in journalism, media and communication research is increasingly understood in the context of broader international debates and trends. Academics have increasingly sought to collaborate on cross-national research projects, sharing their knowledge and understanding at international conferences, in scholarly journals and books (Esser andHanitzsch 2012). Of course, the level of scholarly activity remains shaped by the economic influences of the richest nations – the US, in particular – but in order for debates to gain traction and credibility within scholarship new empirical observations or theoretical insights are expected to be tested cross-nationally. Moreover, as scholarship has become more globalized, developments in the most advanced democracies – again, most notably the US – have generally been understood as potentially shaping the future direction of other countries. According to Esser (2013b: 113), “Virtually no other approach has potential

to bring communication studies further forward in the age of transnationalization than the comparative approach”. As the world has become increasingly connected – or globalized – there remain unique national characteristics that shape why communication is different cross-nationally. Comparative research, in this context, allows communication scholars to empirically investigate and theoretically explain the reasons behind these differences whereas single country studies could only postulate about them. Of course, comparative research has become more sophisticated over time – or matured, as Gurevitch and Blumler (2004) have put it. Siebert et al.’s (1956) Four Theories of the Press, for example, ambitiously interpreted the nature of media systems according to the political identity of just three countries – Russia, the US and England. While pioneering comparative media research, it has since been criticized for its generalizability

in a global environment (Curran and Park 2000; McQuail 1987). More recently, Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics has become the most influential comparative study. It explored 18 nations in different Western European/North American contexts with similar histories and mature democracies. The study developed 3 models – liberal, democratic corporatist and polarized pluralist – and classified the 18 different countries based on their political and journalistic identities. Hallin and Mancini have since expanded upon their 2004 study in an edited volume called Comparing Media Systems beyond the Western World (2012). This was intended, according to the authors, to encourage scholars to develop an understanding of media systems by studying the media and political environments they inhabit, rather than applying models empirically grounded within Western Europe or North American contexts. The advancement of comparative research into media systems has brought

wider political and cultural influences into sharper focus, encouraging scholars to consider how different environments shape communication processes and outcomes. So, for example, Semetko et al.’s (1991) The Formation of Campaign Agendas identified a number of systemic reasons explaining the comparative differences between US and UK election reporting and political campaigning. They concluded the more professionalized environment of US political actors, for instance, shaped a more sophisticated approach to campaign strategy than in the UK, with spin doctors closely managing the media agenda. In the UK, by contrast, the election was more prominently reported, which – they argued – related to the overarching public service framework shaping the broadcast ecology compared to the US’s more market-driven system. Their conclusions were wider reaching, of course, and went beyond system influences to include micro-level factors (see Semetko et al. 1991: 8-9). But the broader point is their comparative design enabled them to reach conclusions based on the wider cultural and political environments shaping election campaigns. Needless to say, if the authors were to revisit their comparative study today they might draw different conclusions because of the changing media and political landscape over recent decades. The aim of this chapter is to offer a comparative cross-national dimension

to understanding the contemporary form, structure and style of television news bulletins. While previous chapters in this book have interpreted the changing character of UK television news generally and political news specifically in light of cross-national studies, the focus now turns to developing a more systematic comparative assessment. Television news bulletins in the UK, US and Norway will be compared using the same analytical framework as previous chapters, considering the level of journalistic interventionism displayed in routine television news coverage. Or, put another way, the chapter will examine the extent to which television news is mediatized on UK, US and Norwegian evening bulletins. Whereas rolling news has been a long-standing influence in the US – after CNN began broadcasting in 1980 – in Norway the first

Comparing news cultures and media systems 81

dedicated 24-hour news is less than a decade old. In the UK, by comparison, Sky News launched a news channel in 1989, with the BBC establishing one eight years later. The sample selection thus allows the contrasting cultures of news to be compared along with other influences such as the greater public service regulation shaping television bulletins in the UK and Norway compared to the US. The chapter will then focus on the media and political environment in the

UK and US, interpreting the degree to which political news is mediatized in early evening bulletins using a range of measures to understand the comparative differences between nations. Over recent decades, the US has largely been understood as the most mediatized nation, which operates in a largely freemarket environment of broadcasting that has historically championed an interventionist approach to journalism (Schudson 2001). Since the US’s more interventionist and commercialized model of broadcasting are considered system level influences that enhance the mediatization of politics, the UK’s less interventionist and more public service regulated broadcasters could offer some revealing comparative differences. When interpreting the mediatization of news or politics, of course, overall

the typical aim is to empirically investigate whether a media logic has increasingly shaped reporting. After all, mediatization of politics refers to a process, where political reporting over time subscribes to the values of news media (Lundby 2009a; Strömbäck and Esser 2014a). This was the research design of Chapters 2 and 3, where UK national television news bulletins generally and political news specifically were longitudinally examined. But while it would have been illuminating to interpret the changing nature of bulletins in the UK, US and Norway from the 1990s into the 2000s – particularly since the development of dedicated 24-hour news differed between each nation – it was not possible to archive television coverage cross-nationally.