The proposals decided by Swiss voters four times a year are sometimes highly complex. The media has a special role to play here in helping the public to reach a well-informed opinion. Or so you might think. Studies, which researchers recently presented at the Aarau Democracy Days, really put this into perspective.
A reform of the corporate tax system, which the Swiss rejected in February, was one of these particularly thorny issues. Apart from finance experts, nobody really knew the precise contents of the proposal.
Not even Peter Wanner, chairman of the AZ Medien publishing house with several regional in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. During a panel discussion at the Aarau Democracy Days 2017, Wanner announced that he should have voted against the proposal.
He explained that he had submitted a postal vote in favour of the proposal three weeks before the referendum. However, after an interview with the former finance minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, which appeared in a Sunday paper and made great waves during the campaign, the Aargau-based media entrepreneur regretted his decision.
“As a result of the interview where Widmer-Schlumpf said that the proposal was not well-balanced and based on other expert opinions, I realised: ‘Aha, something is not quite right about this proposal’.”
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Critics argued that the reform was too complex, too overloaded, too biased in favour of the big international companies. The available information was indeed confusing, with both supporters and opponents of the proposal using the threat of a large public tax burden in order to argue their case.
Each camp presented different facts, so it was an immense challenge for the public, as non-experts in the subject, to gain a clear overview of the arguments surrounding the reform package. It was also a litmus test for direct democracy.
However, as political scientist Laurent Bernhardexternal link explained at the event in Aarau it is precisely in relation to such challenging topics that the media has a key role to play in terms of enlightening the public. This is fully reflected in the latest research results.
Bernhard presented his theory based on the results of three nationwide votes: A previous corporate tax reform in 2008, the revision of the asylum law in 2006 and the naturalisation initiative in 2008.
The media coverage of the tax reform had a greater influence on voters’ decision than in the case of the asylum and naturalisation proposals, Bernhard said.
According to Bernhard, the media has a large amount of influence in the case of proposals which are more abstract and relate to topics which are less familiar to people.
“Conversely, the public resists the power of the media for topics which are easier to understand,” he concludes.
Renowned political expert Claude Longchamp has expressed reservations about Bernhard’s findings. In his blogexternal link, Longchamp criticises a lack of context information on similar research projects.
Longchamp, chairman of the leading GfS Bern polling and research institute, says a study design has to take account of a complex issue and researchers should examine a sufficient number of cases to reach conclusive results.
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And yet the media is especially fond of pouncing on these emotional issues which attract so much attention.
Linards Udrisexternal link pointed out that the response is particularly great for controversial, polarising proposals.
The media reacts in particular to sensational campaigns by committees, as he demonstrated in his study of 42 votes analysed by the Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society at the University of Zurich – using its “public vote monitor”external link.
The initiative against mass immigration was the front runner in terms of media presence, with 425 articles during the run up to the polling day.
It was given 12 times as much coverage than the referendum launched by opponents to longer opening hours for shops in petrol stations.
In other words, the more populist the content of a proposal and the more it involves foreigners, the more articles are written about it.
However, it is precisely in cases where such emotive proposals are involved that voters tend to make up their minds at an early stage.
It therefore begs the question of whether the media is in fact adopting a Sisyphean role if it can no longer influence voters through its articles. Udris puts it into perspective:
“Of course it would be good if the media also focused more on less sensational issues, but we mustn’t underestimate the influence of the media in terms of mobilising voters through coverage of proposals such as the mass immigration initiative.”
This discrepancy between media response and media influence could also be exacerbated by increasing personalised media consumption.
According to a study by Reuters Digital News Report 2016,external link 35% of Swiss people use social media as a news source at least once a week. This has consequences for the selection of news – unlike the homepage of a media portal, there is no editorial team to decide on the placement and weighting of topics on social media.
Swiss like media portals
There are algorithms which track a certain delivery logic for content. And on social media too, it is clear that proposals which cause emotions to run high or relate to policies about foreigners are particularly popular.
An analysis of the social media barometer, Themenplus.ch, by the Udris’ research institute Zurich found that the articles shared most frequently on Facebook were about the hardline initiative aimed at expelling foreign criminals.
“Issues where you can put good and evil in direct opposition to one another work well on social media. An animal welfare initiative would no doubt be the subject of very controversial debate, because animal rights activists are very well organised online,” Udris said.
And yet Switzerland is still a long way off a media society driven by social media.
In fact, more than 50% of clicks are generated by Swiss media portals by visits to the websiteexternal link. This means that the majority of readers take the trouble to type in the media web address.
Swiss journalists are spoilt compared to their colleagues in the United States, where the homepage is essentially considered deadexternal link. Most visitors access articles via different channels.
What this development means in the long term for media consumption and for democracy will almost certainly have to be another focus of media and political research in the near future.
Translated from German, swissinfo.ch