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  • Emma van der Goot

You've Got a Friend in Me: How Journalists Report on Political Sources

What determines politicians’ presence in the news? Why do we often read about some politicians but not about others? Politicians rely on the news media to get their messages to the citizens, and their access to the media is limited. Relatively few politicians get their ideas to print, yet fewer make it to the front page of a paper. Ample research has therefore addressed the question of who gets their desired news coverage and why.

It is widely established that newsworthy politicians are among the lucky few to gain media attention. Generally speaking, people would rather read about what the prime minister has to say and does than what an ‘ordinary’ politician believes. Yet, newsworthiness alone does not tell the whole story. In a recent study[1], we contend that reporters’ political background and personal interactions with politicians play a role in shaping news coverage.

Journalists and politicians depend on each other. They engage in frequent personal encounters, for instance during interviews and informal lunches. Journalists need exclusive information that politicians can provide, and politicians are willing to share this information in return for (favourable) media attention. Their relationship is often characterized by interwovenness, friendliness, and in some exceptional cases, love. Perhaps some might recall the controversy about Barbara Rijlaarsdam, a political reporter, who fell head over heels for Hans Bleker, a state secretary. Loving or not, these personal interactions might help explain who receives media coverage and who does not. Moreover, the political preferences of journalists might play an important role in news decisions in the sense that journalists devote disproportionate attention to like-minded politicians.

While it seems like common sense that political preferences of journalists and their interactions with politicians influence news reporting, research that empirically analyses this relationship is noticeably missing. To explore how journalists’ personal interactions and political preferences relate to the content of actual news, we examined a unique combination of data sources: we first conducted an elite survey among Dutch political journalists and then combined it with a content analysis of their news articles.

As one might imagine, journalists are generally not particularly eager to disclose their most important political sources and their ideological preferences, so we were very pleased to find 20 political reporters who were willing to share this information with us. We compared what we saw in the survey study with newspaper articles written by those same journalists. This way, we were able to assess which politicians are more often (prominently) visible and more positively portrayed in journalists’ news pieces – and how that compared to the journalists’ political orientation and their personal interactions with politicians.

The findings indicate that both journalists’ political preferences and their personal contacts play a role in the news production process. Journalists are more likely to provide ideologically close politicians and politicians with whom regular contact exists with significant presence in their news articles. Journalists also tend to cover those politicians more positively. These findings demonstrate the importance for politicians to invest in their relationships with journalists in order to get their messages into the news – and to the citizens - in a desirable way.

[1] Note: The paper titled, Reporting on Political Acquaintances: Personal Interactions between Political Journalists and Politicians as a Determinant of Media Coverage”, by Emma van der Goot, Toni van der Meer, and Rens Vliegenthart, is currently being finalized but will be published in the International Journal of Communication.


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