Rainer Freudenthaler, Hartmut Wessler
Mapping emerging and legacy outlets online by their democratic functions – agonistic, deliberative or corrosive?

International Journal of Press/Politics, 2022: 27, issue 2, pp. 417-438
ISSN: 1940-1612 (print), 1940-1620 (online)

In this study, we offer a novel approach to research on migration reporting by focusing on the argumentative substance prevalent in different online outlets. Taking German refugee policy as our case in point we map the role that moral, ethical–cultural, legal, and pragmatic argumentations play within journalistic, partisan, and activist outlets; and how these coincide with incivility and impoliteness. Using dictionary-based content analysis on a data set of 34,819 articles from thirty online news outlets published between April 10, 2017, and April 10, 2018, we find that legacy mainstream media, partisan media, and activist media perform vastly different functions for the larger public sphere. We observe that human rights activist media perform an advocatory function by making the moral case for refugees, whereas corrosive partisan media at the fringe—particularly within the contra-refugee camp—often present opponents as inherently illegitimate enemies. Implications for public sphere theory and directions for future research on emerging and legacy media are discussed.