This study analyses whether personalization in Dutch political newspaper coverage has increased since 1950. In spite of the assumption that personalization increased over time in The Netherlands, earlier studies on this phenomenon in the Dutch context led to a scattered image. Through automatic and manual content analyses and regression analyses this study shows that personalization did increase in The Netherlands during the last century, the changes toward that increase however, occurred earlier on than expected at first. This study also shows that the focus of reporting on politics is increasingly put on the politician as an individual, the coverage in which these politicians are mentioned however became more substantive and politically relevant.
Keywords: Personalization, content analysis, political news coverage, individualization, privatization
When personalization occurs a focus is put on politicians and party leaders as individuals. The context of the news coverage in which they are mentioned becomes more private as their love lives, upbringing, hobbies and characteristics of personal nature seem increasingly thoroughly discussed. An article published in 1984 in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf forms a good example here, where a horse race betting event, which is attended by several ministers accompanied by their wives and girlfriends is carefully discussed1. Nowadays personalization is a much-discussed phenomenon in the field of political communication. It can simply be seen as: ‘a process in which the political weight of the individual actor in the political process increases over time, while the centrality of the political group declines’ (Rahat & Sheafer, 2007: p. 65). The process of personalization is part of a larger shift, in which the role of the media seems to change from being societally responsible to being profitable where journalists are increasingly concerned with what the public is interested in rather than what the publics’ interest should be (Underwood, 2001; Hanitzsch, 2007; Takens, 2012).
A report published in 2003 concludes that the press increasingly focuses on individual politicians and therefore turns away from substantive reporting (RMO, 2003). According to this study this process results in improperly informed citizens that are lacking political engagement causing an unhealthy democracy. Some scholars share this view and argue that the personalization of political newspaper coverage can cause damage to a healthy democracy as it puts focus on individual politicians and thus turns the attention away from parties, programs, policies and substantive issues (Van Aelst, 2012; Van Santen, 2012; Langer 2007). This process clashes with the normative requirements that a healthy democracy demands: it can damage the public debate and it could inhibit citizens from casting a well-informed vote (Takens, 2013; Van Aelst et al., 2012), which could form a problem according to some models of democracy and their associated requirements.
In spite of the assumption that personalization is a process that increases over time (Rahat & Sheafer, 2007; Hart, 1992), empirical findings illustrate a scattered image as empirical studies in several Western democracies showed no increase of personalization (Takens, 2012; Vliegenthart 2011; Wilke & Reinemann, 2001: Sigelman & Bullock, 1991), a few studies did show an increase of personalization (Wattenberg, 1998; Dalton et al., 2000) or presidentalization (Takens, 2012) and some studies show mixed results (e.g. Kriesi, 2011). Van Santen (2012) shows through a qualitative content analysis that personalization could be seen as a historical continuity in Dutch television. It is not a surprising fact that studies led to different results in different countries as trends that can lead to personalization do not per se occur (simultaneously) in every country. It is however rather interesting that scholars found differences in results when it comes to countries that are much alike and even found mixed results within one country: The Netherlands (Vliegenthart, 2011; Kriesi, 2011; Takens, 2012; Van Santen, 2012). According to Kepplinger (2002) and Vliegenthart (2011) these contradictory findings can be explained by the timeframes that were analyzed in these studies for two reasons. Firstly, as the fundamental changes toward that trend of personalization, such as the process of depillarization and the emerging competitive media market, occurred earlier on. Secondly, the larger shift of which personalization seems to be part has been identified as a slow process and can therefore be best analyzed over several decades.
Due to the scattered image that exists of personalized political newspaper coverage in The Netherlands that can be explained by the relatively short timeframes that were analyzed and the threat that personalization can be to a healthy democracy it is of importance to study personalization in the Dutch context while applying a broad timeframe. The research question of this paper is stated as follows:
RQ: Did the amount of personalized political newspaper coverage increase since 1950 in The Netherlands? In this paper I will first shed light on the theory of personalization, where conceptualizations, explaining factors such as depillarization and the emerging competitive media market and existing literature on personalization will be discussed, which will lead to the hypotheses that are formulated. Then the newspaper data and methods of automatic and manual content analysis will be discussed. Subsequently the results of this study on the development of personalization since 1950 will be presented, interpreted and be put into their context together with the theoretical and practical implications of these findings. Following this paper will be concluded with a discussion including limitations and suggestions for future research.