Charlotte Löb, Eike Mark Rinke, Hartmut Wessler
Measuring mediated contestation: Four dimensions of democratic news cultures

International Communication Association Preconference on "Media Performance and Democracy: Defining and Measuring the Quality of News", Fukuoka, June 09th, 2016

It is a truism that the quality of democratic governance in large part depends on the interactions in a diverse democratic public sphere. However, it is not any interaction that makes a public sphere democratic. In contrast, the major normative democratic theories of today agree that a democratic public sphere – at least under conditions of present-day social pluralism – will and should be characterized by non-violent, but robust, contestation rather than imposed or superficial consensus. Despite its centrality for modern democracy, contestation has attracted little attention by political communication scholars so far. News media play an important role for the mediation of democratic contestation, although the transition from printed to online-based forms of communication is likely to change the ways in which it is enacted. Similarly, the mediated contestation in news products depends on the institutional and cultural contexts in which journalism operates. In this paper, we present an approach to measuring mediated contestation in news products that (a) respects normative notions of ideal contestation found in several democratic theories (ranging from liberal to deliberative to agonistic approaches), (b) reflects normative notions of journalism as a practice of (re-)constructing societal conflicts for public debate and opinion formation, (c) is applicable to multiple media including print and online newspapers as well as political blogs, and (d) captures the institutional particularities of diverse democracies, including consensus systems (such as Switzerland and Lebanon), majoritarian systems (e.g., the USA and Australia) as well as mixed systems like Germany or Turkey. The paper conceptualizes mediated contestation as a four-dimensional construct and proposes indicators to capture democratically relevant aspects of news and blog content in each of these dimensions. The first dimension concerns the volume of mediated contestation as captured by the frequency and density of critical utterances regarding the substance and procedure of policy making. The second dimension relates to the structure of mediated contestation as captured by the frequency and the addressees of utterances in the news that respond to alternative policy-relevant positions. The paper argues that a critical yardstick of journalism’s democratic performance in this regard consists in whether journalists actively create such “responsive networks of policy ideas,” a quality that can in part be gleaned from news texts and blogs. The third dimension concerns the content of mediated contestation. The proposed instrument is based on the insight that the most fundamental democratic function of contestation is to serve as a catalyst of public justification. It thus captures the degree to which substantive policy positions are argumentatively justified and whether justifications are indicative of a concern for public interests shared by the contesting parties. Finally, the fourth dimension concerns the style of mediated contestation as captured by the degree to which news products and blogs contain content that promotes recognition of opposed parties in society and/or an affective polarization of society by resorting to outrage communication. In sum, we present a new approach to content analysis which enables a systematic, cross-national study of mediated contestation in news products and blogs, and thus a new approach to capture the democratic performance of mediated political communication.