Gattermann and her team analyse media coverage of elections and how that coverage in turn influences voters. ‘Coverage is not just about the objective performance of a political party. In multiparty systems numbers can be interpreted in multiple ways. Also, party ideology typically influences who does and doesn't make it into the news.’
Gattermann argues that the media, through their coverage, play a crucial role in legitimising elections and fostering acceptance of the results, as well as framing winners and losers. Two key decisions impact the reporting she says.
‘First, media must decide which parties are worth featuring in the headlines and whether to portray a party as an election winner or loser.’ Gattermann finds it remarkable how quickly there was just one frame during Dutch election night immediately after the exit poll: that of the right-wing party PVV as the big winner. ‘It is quite exceptional how everyone, media and politicians, only told one story right after the exit poll and that it did not change, even when the very first results briefly showed a different picture. Usually, in elections in multi-party systems like the Netherlands, we see multiple versions of winners and losers.’
According to Gattermann, the choice of whom to present as a winner or a loser is closely tied to interpretation of the figures. For example, a party may have won the most votes but fewer than in the previous elections. This can be framed as either a gain or a loss. Or a new party may gather many votes but perform worse than predicted in polls before the elections. ‘Usually, media channels present parties that lost votes compared to previous elections as losers. On Dutch election night, we saw this happening with the liberal party VVD being framed as loser since they lost many seats compared to the previous election. However, with the combined Green Left/Labour party a slightly different standard was used. We saw a frame of loss because a comparison was made with pre-election polls, although they actually gained seats compared to the previous election.’
The right-wing PVV clearly won most seats, but Gattermann points out that proportions and percentages can be somewhat obscured. ‘The PVV won more seats compared to all other parties, but proportionally, it amounts to just over 24% of the total and therefore not a majority. When you read the news and look at the electoral maps, as a voter, you can however get the impression that the PVV is the majority party everywhere.’
News media aim to attract their audience with surprising and entertaining content. ‘In the context of election results, parties that take more extreme policy positions and challenge the mainstream often have more news value. There is a greater likelihood that they will be portrayed as election winners than those with more moderate positions, even if their “objective” political performances are comparable.’
This was evident, for example, in Gattermann’s previous research on elections for the European parliament. ‘Political parties with extreme viewpoints made the news earlier than more moderate parties, even if they achieved similar results. In the case of the Dutch elections, these two aspects essentially coincided. The party with the most seats is also a party with a more extreme policy position.’
Gattermann hopes to use her research to make journalists aware of their influence on the political process and on voters. ‘News media play a crucial role in informing voters about election results and legitimising these results. They often do this well, but it's also important for them to realise that the choices they make can influence what voters think. It can impact the sense of legitimacy and how voters accept the results.’