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‘The influence of the media on legislation is limited’

News articles have only a limited influence on the course of legislative processes. This is the finding of political science expert Lotte Melenhorst in her PhD dissertation. Defence 21 March.

Anyone watching the question hour in the Lower House on Tuesday afternoon will regularly hear MPs referring to news articles. Media attention is often the direct cause of questions to ministers or state secretaries, and often the reason for putting topics on the political agenda. 

If we look only at the course of legislative processes, the influence of the media is much less. PhD research by Lotte Melenhorst has led to this conclusion.  The positions of politicians and their parties change little or not at all as a result of media attention. Melenhorst reaches this conclusion after studying three recent proposals for legislation, each of which received a lot of media attention: the Executives’ Pay (Standards) Act, the Law on Work and Social Security, and the Law on Tuition Fees Loans in Higher Education.

Not fundamental

‘My analysis shows that the media do have some influence, but they do not fundamentally determine the outcomes of the legislative process,' says Melenhorst. ‘Political parties have generally already adopted their position and in some cases have even made agreements with one another before the proposed bill is introduced. The Dutch VVD and PvdA parties reached an agreement on the tuition fees bill, which was much more important for this particular law than media reporting during the process. Melenhorst: ‘The degree to which politicians are still open to influence once a proposal has been submitted to the Lower House is very limited.'  

Attention

In Melenhorst's view, the media have a role only in drawing extra attention to an issue: news reports can focus on the specific consequences of a proposed bill, or on a particular argument or the position of a recognised expert. Take, for example, the Law on Work and Social Security: in the communication on this law, a number of different experts expressed their doubts, particularly regarding one part of the measures, namely that relating to flexwerk. ‘Politicians also use the media reports as a rhetorical instrument,' Melenhorst explains. By referring to an article that appeared in he newspapers on the morning of a debate,  they can illustrate their own ideas, challenge their political opponents or show that a proposed law is a current topic.' 

Qualitative analysis

For her dissertation, Melenhorst collected documents and media reports on the three proposed bills. Using a qualitative analysis, she examined whether this media attention preceded the positioning of the politicians, or whether the conduct of the politicians was the impetus for the media attention. She also interviewed all those involved: members of the government and their officials. Ultimately, after analysing the content of the interviews she was able to determine from all these different sources whether and how the interaction with the media influenced, for example, the submission of amendments and motions, and the outcome of the voting. 

Less mediagenic

‘The limited influence of the media comes as a surprise to some people,' Melenhorst says. ‘You see that journalists mainly pay attention to a proposed bill when it is announced, whan it is accepted or once it becomes apparent what the consequences of the bill will be.' 

Platform function

Earlier research by Melenhorst and colleagues showed that around 80 per cent of all proposed bills do not receive any media attention at all, including all kinds of important proposals that have consequences for the daily life of citizens. ‘That's a pity because mass media have an important function as provides of information. Citizens have to be able to check what the party they voted for is doing.  The platform function of the media is also limited: ideally the media translate the concerns and wishes of the public to politics. That's difficult if only a small proportion of the proposed bills are covered.'

Rose coloured

Is the limited influence of the media cause for concern?  It depends on how you look at it. According to Melenberg, there also rose-coloured aspects to the story. As a large part of the legislative processes take place unnoticed, politicians can take their time in dealing with proposed bills outside the spotlight.  Melenhorst: ‘That's reassuring for people who are concerned that the legislative process is dominated by what happen to be the issues of the day.'