The impact of media logic on democratic legitimacy in local governance networks

Iris Korthagen and Ingmar van Meerkerk

Many policy- and decision-making processes in today’s democracies increasingly take place in governance networks, these are interactive or network forms of governance. This raises an important question of how democratic legitimacy is being shaped in these networks and which factors impact upon this.

The opportunity for citizens and stakeholders to give voice are viewed as important sources for democratic legitimacy in governance networks, with this enhancing the quality of deliberations between stakeholders and accountability of decision-makers. An important factor which is scarcely examined is the impact of media on these sources of democratic legitimacy. The media can give voice to actors, they can provide a forum for deliberation and they can provide an important channel for decision-makers to account for their decisions.

Rather than neutrally transmit information and images the media select and frame news stories by a commercial logic: news needs to be made every day and it needs to be sold. This means that news is relatively more negative than positive, skewed towards dramatic human interest stories and content designed by public relations professionals. This raises the important question of how this media logic affects democratic legitimacy.

We recently examined this relationship by comparing three local governance networks in the Netherlands. Using content analysis of documents, case studies and interviews, we came to the conclusion that the media logic increased the potential of certain sources, while it decreased others.

Voice

The media are a vehicle to generate attention for certain issues and to gain influence in the process. By adapting to the media logic we found citizen groups succeeded in attracting media attention and were able to put their issues on the political agenda. However, the media logic restricted the messages of citizens’ groups that came through. For instance, having harsh, negative sound bites and organizing protest actions were more attractive than a nuanced and collaborative attitude.

Deliberations

The media can function as a watchdog, as checks and balances in the process and as a platform for diverse deliberations. We found deliberative processes were broadened by the perspectives of the citizen groups that gained media attention. Nevertheless, as the media are more interested in entertaining stories, with a focus on conflicts and drama, this partly reduced the quality of the deliberation process. Images seemed more important than well elaborated deliberations. Furthermore, the media, in our cases, were more a platform for citizen groups than for political authorities.

Accountability

The media are a communication channel for generating transparency and accountability. Since the media were at times so negative about the proposed project plans, they forced political authorities into a reactive communication style: they had to fight against a negative image. Proactive communication, such as branding, is difficult in the context of the citizens’ dramatic stories.

We observed that citizen groups deployed active media strategies at times when they were losing faith in the outcomes of the interactive governance process. Indeed, some decisions were partly changed in favour of the citizen groups that gained media attention. In that sense the mediatized reality can have a substantial impact on the reality of governance.

Certain citizens’ groups thus extended their influence on the policy- and decision-making outputs through their media strategies. At the same time these strategies can be seen as go-it-alone strategies that can damage trust relationships with the authorities and the other actors involved and even isolate the group from the interactive governance process. This also raises an important challenge for political decision-makers. To what extent should they listen to those citizens who are barking loudly in the media, while other stakeholders are trying to reach compromises in an interactive setting?

A full account of this research is available in our recent article in Local Government Studies, published online 09 Jan 2014.

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Iris Korthagen is a PhD studenet at the Department of  Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the research group Governance of Complex Systems (GOCS). Her PhD project focuses on the mediatisation of public decision-making processes. She studies how the logic of news reporting influences the content and the process of decision-making in governance networks.

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Ingmar van Meerkerk is a PhD student at the Department of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His PhD thesis focusses on the role of boundary spanners and the impact of boundary-spanning activities on the democratic legitimacy and performance of interactive governance settings. For his thesis he has published in several international peer reviewed journals, such as Policy Sciences, European Planning Studies and Environment and Planning C.

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