Here we give a short historical overview of the Network of European Political Communication Scholars’ ambitions, activities, achievements and contributions in its first 10 years.
The founding meeting of the Network of European Political Communication Scholars (NEPOCS) took place in December 2008 in Zurich. On this occasion, we formulated our common mission: “NEPOCS is a forum for furthering research in systematic social scientific political communication research that is based on collaboration, comparison, cumulatively and conceptualization”.
This vision has remained the guiding principle of all our activities to this day. Reading the early protocols and founding documents in retrospect, it is astonishing how faithful the group remained to its original mission and how consistent it stayed in its work. In the first ten years, between 2008 and 2017, NEPOCS held 15 very productive and successful meetings:
|Dec 2008: Zurich||Sept 2013: Milan|
|Jun 2009: Munich||Mar 2014: Brussels|
|Jan 2010: Amsterdam||Nov 2014: Lisbon|
|Oct 2010: Hamburg||Aug 2015: Copenhagen|
|Oct 2011: Madrid||Apr 2016: Cracow|
|Mar 2012: Jerusalem||Nov 2016: Prague|
|Jun 2011: Zurich||Mar 2017: Paris|
|Mar 2013: Vienna|
These meetings were primarily intended to conduct joint research projects and prepare joint publications (and importantly to socialize!). The visible output of our activities can be seen above all in multi-authored journal articles, guest-edited special issues, theme panels at conferences, book publications and successful EU-funding for Co-operations in Science and Technology (COST).
Among the multi-authored articles, two in particular should be mentioned. First, the article “Political Information Opportunities in Europe: A Longitudinal and Comparative Study of 13 Television Systems”, published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(3), 2012, pp. 247-274. A link to the article can be found here. Second, the article “Political Communication in a High-Choice Media Environment: A Challenge for Democracy?”, published in the Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(1), 2017, pp. 3-27. A link to this article can be found here.
With these articles, we introduced a new framework concept for cross-national comparative research, namely “political communication environments”. This concept is less static than a “media system” and better able to take into account both the current change in the role of the media as information providers and in the role of the public as information seekers. The idea that both the supply and demand situation must be considered together corresponds exactly to the logic of the Political Information Environments (PIE).
The first article (in Press/Politics) focused on the supply side; the supply side was defined by us as the scope and quality of political information made available through the media, as well as the opportunity structures made available to citizens to use this information easily and learn from it. The second article (in Annals of the ICA) built on this idea and added the demand side perspective, defined by us as the scope and quality of political information which citizens are motivated to use, and which citizens are able to understand and retain. Based on an analysis that takes a joint look at the supply and demand side, the article discusses a series of problematic trends in the political communication in modern Western democracies.
Both articles have received much attention in international political communication research. For example, “Political Communication in a High-Choice Media Environment” is the most frequently read article in the Annals of the ICA since the journal first went online in January 2017. In the years 2019-2022, NEPOCS will continue to pursue various ideas of the Annals article in its research.
Research into political news content to date has often fallen short high demands for comparison, cumulatively and conceptualization. These goals were important in shaping a follow-up examination of the supply side of political communication environments, which had been the focus of the first article published in Press/Politics. NEPOCS decided on a two-pronged strategy: A special issue and a related book on the subject.
First, we successfully applied to guest edit a special issue of Journalism, which appeared in 2012 as issue 13(2) under the title “Studying political news: Toward a standardization of core concepts”. We concentrated on those core features of political news that can be regarded as indicators of democratic news performance: interpretive journalism, partisan bias, media negativity, and depoliticization through a focus on soft news over hard news, framing of politics as a strategic game, and media personalization. Each of the six articles in this special issue focused on one of these core concepts and followed a common structure. The articles outlined why the concept is important, how it has been defined in previous research and what the key findings were, and finally suggested how it should be conceptualized and operationalized in future quantitative content analyses. Each article ended with category recommendations for content analysis, and in its entirety the special issue provided a theoretically substantiated codebook for practical research.
The response to this special issue was overwhelming; the six articles have been cited more than 1000 times in the first years according to Google Scholar. The journal’s impact factor also benefited from the great interest in our work. A link to the special issue can be found here.
The codebook categories designed in the special issue formed the basis for a large scale content analysis, the results of which we published in the book “Comparing Political Journalism” (London: Routledge, 2017) edited by Claes de Vreese, Frank Esser and David Hopmann. All members of the NEPOCS group participated in the empirical research which was a content analysis of 7500 political news stories from 16 countries (Western Europe plus Israel and the United States). From 15 April to 5 July 2012 we examined 10 news outlets in each country: upmarket and mass market newspapers, public service and commercial TV channels, as well as leading news websites. In addition, we were careful to have media with a rather left and a rather right political line in the sample. It deserves special attention that we did not take a descriptive approach, but a causal one. We used regression analyses to determine which explanatory factors of the event level, media organization level, media system level and political system level have the greatest influence on the use of interpretive journalism, partisan bias, media negativity, soft news, strategic game framing and media personalization. A link to the book can be found here.
The evidence from 16 countries suggests that economic factors, such as strong competition, private broadcast ownership, and heavy dependence on commercial logics are disadvantageous for democratically beneficial news performance. Overall, however, we did not find a pervasive and uniform presence of ‘bad news’ with little political substance. We did find, however, characteristic combinations of news features that create a peculiar news architecture that is increasingly found in Western media. Looking cross-nationally, we observed that Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom have the most issue-focused coverage, whereas Austria, Greece, Portugal, and Sweden have the least. News in France, Greece, Israel, Italy, and the United States is the most focused on strategy game coverage.
Paolo Mancini wrote in a review of our book, that “Comparing Political Journalism is a perfect example of good empirical research. Methodologically, it is very sophisticated and clearly shows how comparative research in political communication has entered into an age of maturity.”
EU-Funded COST Network
At the inaugural meeting of NEPOCS in Zurich in December 2008, raising external funds to facilitate and strengthen our plans for international co-operations in science and technology (something the EU “COST” scheme explicitly supports) was already identified as one of our group’s possible goals. At the fourth NEPOCS meeting in October 2010, we set up a task force to prepare the first draft of a COST proposal on media and populism. When, after repeated revisions, we finally submitted our application in 2013, we had 230 competitors within the “Individuals, Societies, Cultures and Health” domain at COST. We were one of only 5 submissions that were funded that year – a wonderful recognition for the time and effort we had put into this proposal (while working on other projects at the same time).
During the four-year funding period of our COST Action IS1308 “Populist Political Communication in Europe: Comprehending the Challenge of Mediated Political Populism for Democratic Politics”, NEPOCS members held key managerial roles, such as Action Chair, Vice Chair, Grant Holder, Work Group Chairs, and Scientific Missions Coordinator. 80 scientists from over 30 countries participated in this COST network. The challenge was to coordinate this complex structure, effectively bundle people’s interests and competencies, align them with our common goals, and ensure that the network became a success. The main objective of the COST Action was to produce up-to-date knowledge on mediated political populism via a coordinated, comparative and comprehensive scientific effort. This included defining and explaining populist communication, and conducting original empirical research in 30 countries in a way that allowed for uniform conceptualizations, cross-national comparisons and accumulation of knowledge. For a link to the Action’s website see here.
Our results can be found in two books by Routledge (London, New York). The first book – edited by Toril Aalberg, Frank Esser, Jesper Strömbäck, Carsten Reinemann and Claes de Vreese – was published in 2017 under the title “Populist Political Communication in Europe”. The second book – edited by Carsten Reinemann, James Stanyer, Toril Aalberg, Frank Esser, and Claes de Vreese – was published in 2019 under the title: “Communicating Populism: Comparing Actor Perceptions, Media Coverage, and Effects on Citizens in Europe”. We also published two guest-edited special issues (Information, Communication & Society 20:9, 2017; International Journal of Press/Politics 23:4, 2018) and organized an ICA preconference on populist political communication in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2016.
Our “education package” deserves special mention. One element of this package was an instructional Youtube video entitled “Populist Political Communication Explained». The European Commission’s science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), was so enthusiastic about our outreach efforts that they awarded us the EU4Facts transfer award to acknowledge our dissemination strategy directed primarily towards young citizens. Here is a link to the video. We were also proud that the COST office in Brussels selected our Action on several occasions to showcase the EU research they support, both at their “Snapshots of EU Research” event in Brussels in 2017, and at one of the “EU for Science Journalists” annual meetings. In a final evaluation report by independent reviewers, our COST Action received the highest grade “excellent” for our outputs and achievements.
NEPOCS members learned a great deal about the management of major international projects that try to meet the requirements of collaboration, comparison, cumulatively and conceptualization. We regard our involvement in this COST Action as an extraordinary success in the short history of NEPOCS. We have summarized the particular scientific benefit we have gained as a group from our participation in the COST network in an article entitled «Populism as an expression of political communication content and style: A new perspective”, by Claes de Vreese, Frank Esser, Toril Aalberg, Carsten Reinemann and James Stanyer in the International Journal of Press/Politics, 2018, 23(4). A link to the article can be found here.