Connection for salience – Old and new media in agenda-building on the internet

Pfetsch, B., Maier, D., Miltner, P., & Waldherr, A.
ECREA, 5th European Communication Conference
Lissabon: 2014, November

Does the Internet help to mobilize issues in public debate and if so, what is the function of mass media online? We argue that communication networks on the Internet offer an essential opportunity structure for political outsiders to gain salience in public debate. Focusing the issue area of food safety, we investigate the structures and coalitions of online issue networks kicked off by challengers and their relations to traditional and new media online. The Internet has become a viable means of food risk communication, making food safety a suitable case for the study.
The theoretical framework is rooted in agenda building research. We focus in particular on mobilizing strategies of political challengers, “who do not have routine access to the decision-making arena or to the established media” (Kriesi 2004, p. 196). Social movement studies suggest that challengers use online as well as traditional media to sponsor their issues in public debate, a strategy also termed “intermedia agenda-building” (Denham, 2010, p. 317). We argue that also in the digital age, challengers need the attention of the broad public to achieve mobilization for their issues. This is why we expect that: (1) Challengers seek to connect to the debates of traditional mass media online. (2) Because of lower attention thresholds for upcoming issues, genuine online media function as bridges between challengers and traditional media. We also assume that (3) challengers’ networks differ according to the political context: In a pluralist democracy such as the US we expect challengers to be more closely connected to media actors than in a more corporatist democracy such as Germany, where direct connections to the political and industrial food complex should be stronger.
Our empirical study uses data from an ongoing comparative research project on the issue of food safety. Applying the software “Issue Crawler” we reconstructed hyperlink networks in the US and Germany in June 2012, starting from a set of predefined source ULRs representing the most influential challenger actors. In order to constrain the resulting networks to “issue networks” (Marres, 2005) containing only thematically relevant web pages, we additionally searched for thematic key words using a web scraper. Finally, we attributed the identified domains into different actor categories.
In our analysis of the network structures we find that the issue networks reflect the idea of a “hybrid media system” (Chadwick, 2013). In both countries old as well as new media sites form relevant parts of the issue networks. As expected, challengers foremost connect to online platforms of traditional mass media, while mass media sites rarely link back to challengers. Genuine online media do not stand out in the structures of the networks, neither as focal points, nor as bridges. The latter function is rather fulfilled by blogging citizens or organizations from civil society, which integrate smaller NGOs into the challenger communities. As hypothesized, in the US issue network challengers form stronger alliances with the media whereas in Germany the issue network is mainly used to consolidate the challenger community.

Zitation (APA)

Pfetsch, B., Maier, D., Miltner, P., & Waldherr, A. (2014, November). Connection for salience – Old and new media in agenda-building on the internet. ECREA, 5th European Communication Conference, Lissabon