Attitudes Towards Politicians and Institutions in the Bulgarian Press in 2011: A Look at Seven National Dailies

12 март 2012, Автор: Orlin Spassov
Публикувана в 2011 Media Monitoring Report

The annual Media Index (see Appendix) commissioned by Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and compiled by Bulgarian research and consulting agency Market Links is unique in that it is the only one in Bulgaria that traces the dynamics of media attitudes towards leading politicians, political parties and key institutions. The latest Media Index offers a comparison of analogous periods in 2010 and 2011. It covers seven Bulgarian national dailies: 24 Chasa, Trud, Dnevnik, Monitor, Novinar, Sega and Standart. The total number of registered items in the period under review is 24 249.

Politicians

In 2011, too, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov remained the most frequently mentioned politician in the monitored dailies. He had an overwhelming lead over all other politicians. Borisov’s number of mentions (5265) was 2.7 times that of the second most frequently mentioned politician, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (1896). Despite the large margin between Borisov and all other politicians, the prime minister was mentioned 20% less frequently than in 2010. This happens for the first time since he came to power. The reason was largely due to the elections in 2011. Many of the politicians who ran in the elections radically increased their visibility in the media, ‘taking away’ media attention from the others. In 2011 Tsvetan Tsvetanov lost approximately 37% of his presence in the media. This also applies to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, who lost 29% of their attention. Even so, Borisov, Tsvetanov and Djankov remained by far the most frequently mentioned politicians in the Bulgarian press in 2011. For his part, outgoing President Georgi Parvanov ‘underwent’ a 35% drop in media coverage. Many of the other politicians who did not run in the elections, such as Sergei Stanishev, Ahmed Dogan, Ivan Kostov or Martin Dimitrov, also saw a decline in their media visibility, although on a smaller scale, which was partly due also to the fact that they got less media coverage to begin with.

Thus, Borisov’s dominance and the strong media presence of the key figures of the ruling GERB party remained the decisive factor, but in 2011 they did not have the same total quantitative expression as in previous periods. The decrease in their coverage occurred above all during the election campaign period, when the media became full of information about the many candidates, but was not limited only to it. It was due also to the rise of politicians (like Meglena Kuneva) who have the potential to change the news agenda, attracting strong media attention outside the framework of the campaign, too.

Besides keeping a traditionally large margin between himself and the other political figures in terms of intensity of media presence, in 2011 Borisov significantly increased his weight in another category as well: the group of political actors who most frequently express attitudes in the media. Here, too, he remained the absolute leader, even managing to express attitudes in 25% more items (1551) than in 2010. This practically means that Borisov was not only passively present in the media as the most frequently mentioned and discussed figure, it means that he succeeded best in using the media for direct communication of political ideas. He expressed attitudes in three times as many cases as the leader of the largest opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Sergei Stanishev (543). The amount of opinions produced by Borisov in the media exceeded even that of whole political parties: BSP (660), DPS (427), GERB (313 items).

The media rating (expressing the ratio between items with a positive and with a negative attitude) of Borisov remained definitely positive. His rating in 2011 ranged between 1.5 and 3.3 points, that is, the positive items about him were on average 2.2 times more than the negative items. The major print media, those with the largest share of the market, kept their positive attitude towards Borisov as in 2010. The only daily to become more critical of him was Sega, while Novinar and Dnevnik, which used to be positive, tended to be neutral in 2011, and this is an indication of a cooling of their attitude towards the prime minister.

The media were and are largely inconstant in their attitudes towards Tsvetan Tsvetanov and Simeon Djankov. In 2011 their rating was at times positive and at times negative, depending on their concrete political acts. Tsvetanov’s average media rating in 2011 was negative (-1.9). Thus, Tsvetanov fell out of favour with some influential dailies which had a positive attitude towards him in 2010. This change was most obvious in Trud (now with a definitely negative attitude) and 24 Chasa (from positive to neutral). Dnevnik, Sega and Novinar also became more negative towards Tsvetanov. Only Standart and Monitor kept their positive attitudes. Djankov’s rating was, on the whole, positive although not definitely so (1.3). The monitored dailies’ attitude towards Djankov was slightly ‘warmer’ than in the previous monitored period, especially in the case of Standart. As a whole, the attitude towards Djankov remained neutral, tending towards positive.

Whilst in the last year of his term in office President Parvanov managed to keep the generally neutral and slightly positive attitude of the press towards him and had a positive annual rating (1.5), BSP leader Sergei Stanishev and DPS leader Ahmed Dogan continued to attract negative attention and failed to change the media’s attitudes towards them. None of the monitored dailies had a positive attitude towards them in 2011. Even Monitor, the only daily that was positive about Dogan in 2010, changed its attitude to neutral/negative in 2011. The average annual media rating of the two opposition politicians was negative: Stanishev (-3.0), Dogan (-4.5). This also applies to Ataka leader Volen Siderov. In a relatively short period of time, the media visibly changed their attitude towards him in a definitely negative direction. He came to be regarded as even more unacceptable than Dogan.

Parties

Thanks to the elections, 2011 saw growing media coverage of the activity of political parties. This trend partly offset the smaller visibility of many of the major party leaders who did not run in the elections, as well as the media’s declining interest in some key institutions (see below). The rise in media interest was most obvious in the case of GERB (whose media presence increased by 25%), but this applies also to all other parties, and especially to the BSP (24% more mentions in the press). Yet despite the heightened attention towards parties, the rise in interest did not lead to a significant improvement of the way the media present information about them.

Compared to 2010, GERB managed to slightly improve the attitude of the monitored dailies towards it but on the whole remained in the zone between negative and neutral. Monitor was the only daily with a positive attitude towards the prime minister’s party. GERB’s average media rating was negative (-2.0).

The overall definitely negative attitude of the press towards parties was even more obvious in the case of the other political formations. The BSP and DPS failed to win the approval of the press and remained isolated within a general negative attitude towards them. Their average annual rating was definitely negative: the BSP (-3.8), the DPS (-3.2). This also holds for the SDS-DSB Blue Coalition (-2.0), and especially for the Ataka party whose annual media rating shows that most of the items about the party were negative (-10.4).

Institutions

Whereas the GERB party increased its presence in the media but failed to attract positive coverage, in 2011 the Borisov government was mentioned in the monitored dailies 34% less frequently than in 2010. In the period around the elections (September and October) the government had a positive rating of 1.3 (meaning that there were 1.3 times more positive than negative items). In the period immediately after the elections, though, the government’s media rating slumped and became negative (-2.4). Its average annual rating was negative (-1.6). Even so, the general attitude of influential dailies like Trud, 24 Chasa and Standart towards the government was slightly warmer in 2011, that is, less negative than in 2010.

The biggest losers in the battle for media attention were parliament (57% less coverage) and the interior ministry (54% less coverage). And whereas the decline in the interior ministry’s media presence can be explained to some extent with the ministry’s policies towards keeping a lower profile in its operations (after a series of scandalous videotapes of arrests involving unnecessary use of force, police officers posing for souvenir photos during operations, and so on), the drastic decrease in interest in the work of parliament is a truly alarming symptom. It attests to a crisis of confidence in this key institution of representative democracy. The decline of media interest in parliament reflects its declining weight in Bulgarian political life and its transformation into a formal theatre channeling law-making decisions taken in other centres of power.

Media interest in issues related to the European Union and the European Commission dropped by as much as 30%. This trend was in synchrony with the distrust of the key national political institutions. Although during the election campaign an attempt was made to revive European issues (above all by Plevneliev, Kalfin, and Kuneva), those efforts were largely ignored by the press.

As was to be expected in a year of presidential and local government elections, institutions such as the presidency, the municipal administrations and the Sofia municipal council received significantly more media coverage.

Elections 2011

All major candidates in the presidential race and in the local government elections increased their media visibility. Rosen Plevneliev, the winner of the presidential election, added 60% to his presence in the press as compared to 2010. Even so, he remained a poor fourth (after Borisov, Tsvetanov, and Djankov) by total number of mentions in the press in 2011. Plevneliev’s main rival, Ivaylo Kalfin, doubled his aggregate visibility in the media. This also applies to the third main contender, Meglena Kuneva. Volen Siderov, the Ataka party’s presidential candidate, was mentioned in the monitored dailies 50% more frequently than in 2010. Yordanka Fandakova, the winner of the Sofia mayoral election, attracted 37% more media attention.

In terms of overall presence in the media in 2011, GERB presidential candidate Rosen Plevneliev had a significant lead over his main rivals. He was mentioned in 1066 items. Kalfin, Kuneva, and Siderov scored approximately the same number of mentions: in 420, 446, and 462 items respectively.

During the campaign itself Plevneliev was the candidate who attracted the most positive media attention, but before he entered the presidential race the monitored dailies were even more positive towards him and there were almost no negative items in them about him. This practically means that in 2011 Plevneliev was more popular in the media in his capacity as minister of regional development and public works than as presidential candidate. In the month of the elections, October, the press reported on Plevneliev in a positive light six times more frequently than in a negative light. For Kalfin, the ratio of positive to negative items was 1.7. For Kuneva, however, the ratio changed and in October the negative items in the media about her were almost twice as many as the positive ones. The media were even more critical towards Siderov, presenting him in a negative light almost 33 times more frequently than in a positive light. Thus, the marginalization of the Ataka party was concomitant with a strong negative attitude towards its leader. Siderov’s media rating in 2011 (-8.6) is symptomatic both of the disapproval of his ultra-nationalist rhetoric and of the ‘appropriation’ of nationalist sentiments by the GERB party, which began to represent them much more actively than before and in a more moderate form (for example, in its attitude towards the DPS, widely regarded as an ethnic Turkish party).

In Kuneva’s case, the changes clearly show how her media rating declined drastically from positive in the first half of the year to negative by year’s end: in December 2011, the negative items about her were 7.5 time more than the positive ones. This fact was obviously due to the massive campaign against her in the media. This campaign continued after the elections and was no doubt associated with Kuneva’s declared ambitions for serious future participation in Bulgarian political life.

The ratio between the average annual ratings of the two major contenders for the presidency, Plevneliev (5.5) and Kalfin (2.3), was symmetrical to their performance in the election, where they finished first and second respectively. Kuneva’s success in finishing third and winning almost 7% of the vote in the first round came largely despite the attitude of the media, where her average annual rating was negative (-1.2).

Trends

This picture allows us to identify several key trends in the development of print media publicity in Bulgaria. Of course if we do not look at other newspapers and magazines, at the broadcast media and the internet, our conclusions would remain incomplete and partial. That is why they should be considered in the context of the other analyses included in this annual report of the FMD.

First, in the context of the large-scale crisis of media confidence in parliament, in parties and in other key institutions, media approval is concentrating more or less in a single direction: on the figure of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Thus, the Bulgarian press has actually reduced the presentation of political content to two opposite poles: Borisov, and everyone and everything else. Even at the height of the election campaign in 2011 the prime minister was present much more actively in the press than the main candidates in the presidential race. It is indeed true that Rosen Plevneliev had a higher average annual media rating than the prime minister, but this success was achieved on the basis of a much more limited (almost 3.5 times less) overall presence in the media. Considering that the newly elected president, Rosen Plevneliev, was de facto chosen single-handedly by Borisov as the GERB presidential candidate and that the voters had only to confirm (as if following the public opinion poll forecasts) his decision, it becomes obvious that the media support a policy pursued to a large extent single-handedly. Critical media voices towards it are not absent, but they come from small and more peripheral newspapers which do not have the potential to influence the general picture. That is why in 2011 in the Bulgarian press there was a limited, formal media pluralism based on serious imbalances.

Second, the developments in 2011 show that the information space is a relatively limited resource that is redistributed among different participants and that cannot be increased endlessly so as to make everyone happy. The emergence of new figures and new issues happens to a large extent at the expense of the existing status quo. That is why the decline of media interest in many of the politicians and institutions belonging to the establishment was due not only to the elections but also to the ambitions of active new figures for achieving long-term political goals. In 2011 those ambitions were curtailed by means of large-scale media campaigns. Another factor for drawing attention away from the established politicians and issues was the strong competition that came in 2011 from the avalanche of important international news: the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the events in Libya, and many others.

Third, the leading political parties, GERB and the BSP, have achieved a certain media parity. It recognizes the advantage of GERB as represented by Borisov but ensures sufficient media comfort for the socialist party too, especially in an election situation. This ‘prioritization of the status quo’ (Daskalova 2011) greatly reduces the possibilities for appearance in the media of smaller, newer or less traditional political formations. These possibilities are reduced further by the imposed paid forms of political advertising during the election campaign which gave an enormous advantage to parties with rich budgets (a detailed analysis of this issue is offered by Georgi Lozanov in this annual report of the FMD).

Fourth, the decline in media interest in the work of key institutions in Bulgaria and in the EU is symptomatic. It indicates a drastic decline in the expectation that these institutions can rationally structure public life at the national and supra-national levels. By way of compensation, confidence is shifting towards a single ‘saviour’ in the person of Boyko Borisov. This excessive personalization is concomitant with a reorientation of the press mostly towards tabloid codes of interpreting political content. The scandals, changes in opinion, didactic postures, sentimental revelations and, generally, the prime minister’s very style of policymaking are encouraging the boulevardization of many media outlets. Whereas this phenomenon is not new to Bulgaria, 2011 can be remembered as a ‘tabloid year’ for the Bulgarian press. As if to respond more adequately to this dominant political discourse, two new large-circulation tabloid newspapers appeared in 2011 while a number of mainstream newspapers joined, in an even more categorical way, the wave of uncompromising commercialization, converting ‘tabloid’ symbolic capital into real-life profits.

Fifth, placed in this context, journalism as a profession is under strong pressure from both political and economic dependences. Very few journalists work truly freely. Many media outlets yield to the model dictated by the political scene: simplification of reality and underestimation of the public. Ultimately, many journalists themselves refuse to take a stand and to criticize the status quo. The debates in the media, to the extent that they exist, usually come after the relevant political decisions are taken. Thus, the Bulgarian media tend to follow the political events and largely refuse to influence them by shaping public opinion. Instead of that, the journalistic profession is becoming increasingly bureaucratic. In many cases, Bulgarian journalists function more as bureaucrats or clerks serving the interests of the media they work for than as professionals loyal above all to the Bulgarian citizens.

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