Scandal! What happens to politicians on the public pillory

Imagine you are a politician and suddenly in the center of a scandal. What is going on in your mind? How do you feel when you get confronted with extremely critical media coverage? Answers to these questions might reveal what it means to be a prominent headliner.

At first, there is no doubt that in democracy it is the media’s role to criticize and control politicians. However, it is not always clear in how far politicians in the center of a media scandal have really misbehaved. Anyway, they have no choice: They have to deal with public outrage and find a way out from being on the public pillory.

In this situation, politicians are not able to ignore media coverage, although they are aware that critical articles may hurt them personally. Instead, they even tend to intensify their media use, extremely focusing on how journalists portray them. In consequence of that, they can become victims of psychological perception phenomena: Assuming that all the people around them use the critical media coverage as intensively as they do. This is definitely wrong and leads to an overestimation of the media’s impact on ordinary citizens. Correspondingly, those politicians under pressure feel condemned by the whole country (Kobilke & Baugut, 2015).

Moreover, politicians under public attack feel treated unfairly because only they know exactly the circumstances under which they have allegedly acted wrong (Kepplinger, 2007). For example, a politician accused of not having told the whole truth could in fact have been forced to do so by party colleagues. While politicians know what really happened, journalists tend to trace misbehavior back to the politician’s personality: “He or she is just a dishonest person.” This hurts.

Politicians in the center of a scandal painfully realize that the way they want to appear in public is completely different from the way they actually do appear. This means mental stress. In order to change their public image, scandalized politicians might hold a press conference or justify their behavior on TV. They want to regain control over their public image. But from a journalist’s point of view, scandals must continue, because catching the readers’ and viewers’ attention means making money. This is why any new accusation and any new detail is newsworthy, even if it might be absurd. News consumers therefore sometimes forget what the scandal is actually about (Pflügler & Baugut, 2015).

But let’s go back to the mind of a politician who is still under pressure when being in the limelight of a scandal. Emotions like indignation, anxiety, and depression are likely to come up (Daschmann, 2007). Resignation is sometimes the last possibility to cope with harmful media coverage.

Look at the face of a retiring politician and you will see the emotional impact of the media. We do not have to feel sympathy with misbehaving politicians, but given the enormous power of critical media coverage, public allegations against politicians should be substantial. Otherwise, the question arises: “Who wants to become a politician in times of attention-grabbing news style?” It should be someone who is aware of the potential media impact on his or her emotional state and someone who knows how to deal with it – without losing his or her face.

About the author:

Philip Baugut is a PhD candidate at the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. In his PhD project, financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG), he has investigated the relationships between political actors and journalists on the local level. His research interests include scandals, political journalism, and normative theories of political communication.

Contact: philip.baugut@ifkw.lmu.de

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