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VOTE DECISION, MEDIA AND PUBLIC OPINION: HOW DOES ELECTORS ACT

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Renate Kösher
Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach – Alemanha

On November 2009, Dr. Helcimara Telles (UFMG) and Dr. Silvana Krause
(UFG), from the editorial board of Em Debate, interviewed Renate Kösher,
Director of one of the most important institutes of public opinion research in Germany – the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach (http://www.ifdallensbach.de/ – founded by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, author of the theory of The Spiral of Silence. On this part of the interview she talks about public opinion researches, it’s interaction with media and with vote decision.

Em Debate: How do you conduct surveys concerning the internet?
Renate Köcher: One has to respond, actually, in different ways to this question. We employ ourselves intensively with the question how the internet usage is evoluating in the society, virtually that means the internet usage is regarded as an object of research. The internet as a vehicle to conduct inquiries, so that we conduct interviews via the internet, we solely bring into action very selectively. We still prefer face-to-face interviews.

ED: In which ways do you explore the phenomena of communication through the internet?RK: We are intensively engaged with this. We conduct 10.000 annual interviews to analyze this and just recently published once again the results of this study in Munich in a presentation in one of the main papers concerned with trends of the internet usage in Germany.

ED: Did you publish the material also in english in the internet?
RK: We have published it in German. To what extent it is translated already I do not know. Usually our big Map Media Studies are published in German and English. There are also English code books, therewith one can inform about everything which the study contains.

ED: How do you employ qualitative and quantitative methods? Do you combine them? RK: We do employ both techniques, but with a strong focus on quantitative methods. As for qualitative methods, we normally employ them to prepare quantitative investigations. For example, we are at the moment investigating with regard to qualitative methods on the question, why the CDU does have structural problems to gain support of the youth and of electors in bigger cities. We are approaching this question first through qualitative methods before investing more with quantitative methods. But we conduct election surveys just based on qualitative methods with the help of face-to-face interviews.

ED: Is it possible to conduct election opinion surveys three days ahead of the elections, legally? RK: Yes, we published five days and again two days in front of the elections new figures. That is absolutely no problem.

ED: How far do this publication of the electors opinion in front of the elections influence the elections? RK: I would say that the institutes for opinion surveys do not discuss this since a long time, because all thesis about this didn‘t prove to be right. For example in 2005 the CDU should have faced an increase in the support instead of a decrease. When during the last day there are significant changes in the electors opinions then this is due to a new topic which attracts the attention of the public, for example
during the election in 2002, just in front of the elections there was a change of topic in the public, from working market to the Iraq, and the work market topic was helping the CDU and the Iraq topic was helping the SPD. When there is a change of topic just before an election – and this is also for the parties an election tactic always interesting to think of – is there any topic which is possible to support in the last minutes before an election to employ agenda setting which is changing the perspective of the electors? Such things are important. Or if parties commit serious errors concerning the electoral tactic in the end of the electoral campaign, like the CDU in 2005, which was suddenly presenting new tax policies, which were also controversy discussed in the own party, but the publishing of opinion survey there do not exist reasonable evidence which suggesting an influence, especially because there do exist several institutes which do publish the last week in front of elections without one can explore significant influences.
ED: For Brazil, if one wants to find out in how far the political contours of the
electorate has changed, that means the electoral behavior, and in how far the electoral behavior changes due to the different strategies of the parties during the elections. That means the effects of the electoral campaigns on the votes, which represent the political behavior of the electors.
RK: What period of time do I have to think of for an electoral campaign in Brazil? In Germany, for example, we just witnessed 4 to 6 weeks of actual electoral campaign and in this period not much has changed.

ED: In Brazil 3 months and lot of TV. TV is crucial, fundamental, and therefore marketing is very important, to produce good programs for the TV. One has to consider that the programs are very focused on persons, so that the image of the persons is decisive, for this Lula has changed a lot of things for the elections in 2002. The electorate, especially because the majority has just received a minor education, receive their informations through TV. RK: The TV is also becoming more important here in Germany, because the newspapers consumption is declining.

ED: The difference is, that in Germany the people are paying more attention to the TV nowadays than to newspapers, but in Brazil politics started in the TV. RK: Of course, but also in Germany during the period of expansion of TV the amount of political interested people doubled back then. Originally before the establishment of TV in Germany the share of political interested people was approximately 1/4 of the entire population and after a few years of TV the share increased to 1/2, this level remained. ED: Even if TV is very important to obtain political information during the elections, that does not mean the people do care about politics. Disaffection of the people concerning politics is not getting abolished by TV. RK: That is the same for Germany.

ED: TV in Brazil most likely does have a different role than here in Germany.
Generally speaking the Brazilians consider TV as a way to relax. They are used to telenovelas, which pass all the time on TV, so many of the Brazilians consider electoral campaigns on TV almost as a type of telenovela which serves to relax but they don‘t take it very seriously. But I think in Germany it is different. RK: I think in Germany the development is heading exactly towards this direction.
ED: And politics adopt the format of TV?
RK: In Germany all the private channels were established since the end of the 1980‘s. They were focussing from the beginning on „infotainment“, that means not a lot of serious informations, very personalized, the informational parts strongly reduced, and when we consider, especially the younger generation, which uses TVas a way of entertainment, they watch politics on TV basically under the aspect of entertainment with a moment of relaxation.
ED: Which factors do have the deepest impact on the formation of the public
opinion: the mass media or the interpersonal communication? RK: That‘s a question which cannot be answered in general. In situations in which
people formate their opinions related to topics, on which people in their personal environment do already have experiences with, generally the interpersonal communication is more important. On all other topics where one does not have a chance but to trust on the media, for example in the area of Europe, German participation by military operations, and so on, the view of the media is of high relevance. And it is also important to keep in mind that the process of opinion formation is always characterized by dependencies, that means interpersonal and medial communication are influencing on another, especially the agenda setting of the media does strongly influence the interpersonal communication.

ED: How far is it still possible to assume that the mass media are receiving a silent majority which is not able to articulate their opinion in the public in times of modern communication vehicles especially concerning the possibilities of discussion forums which are accessible through the internet?
RK: I don‘t know if I did understand the question. We are intensively observing the meaning of the internet for political informations. What we observe is that the internet is providing a huge audience with political informations, but the vast majority of these people use the internet just rarely due to an active demand of information. The internet serves only for a relatively small audience as an information vehicle on a regularly basis. Still the continuous information is mostly received through TV or print media. And therefore, this is a topic which is very important to me, the internet is changing the way of dealing with information. The ones that trust on the internet do not inform their selves on a regularly basis but if they want to find out a particular information. That means the information process is more related to a particular occasion or event and therefore less continuously and profound. On consequence we can observe that the spectrum of interests is getting more narrow in the young generation, because they primarily ask for the things which do interest them.

ED: Brazil is a country where the media is controlled by only a few people.
Nevertheless, Lula was able to win the last elections even though he was strongly criticized by the mass media before the elections. How is it possible to explain that, even though the mass media is trying to denigrate Lula every day and in the light of political scandals, that Lula still has such a high popularity?

RK: First of all, I do not know the Brazilian situation. Therefore I just can mention the hypothesis I would investigate on. I would initially ask myself in how far the population knows that the mass media is controlled by only a few people and therefore is regarding the mass media as a communication vehicle of a particular group which results in a basic suspicion of the population towards the mass media if the mass media is providing real information or just propaganda like it is often discussed in the context of Italy. This would be possible to find out with the help of opinion surveys. Then I would investigate on the question in how far a candidate succeeded, especially in a society which is marked by deep class contrasts, in connecting with the people, in a way that the people say: he is one of us, he
fights for our interests and is getting criticized by the media because of that, which results in a solidarity effect. Further one has to investigate on the different candidates and their profiles, so there are more important personal characteristics, for example, to fight and not to give up is a personal characteristic, which is highly important for the voters, and I can imagine that, especially in a situation like Lula‘s, this is the case.

ED: In how far is it possible to explain the strongly deviation of the results of the surveys from the real results by the phenomena of the spiral of silence?
RK: Actually it is not, because normally the results do not differ strongly. We only had one case, that was in 2005, and this case had nothing to do with the spiral of silence but was due to dissonances. The electors were convinced that they had to change the government from SPD to CDU, because the SPD de facto resigned from office before the end of the legislature and surrendered. But the CDU did announce tax increases and welfare state reforms and it was also the case that at this time the people were insecure if Ms. Merkel would be able to lead the government, that just changed during here first office. And therefore the people didn‘t like the program of the CDU, the preferences of the candidates were in favor of Schröder and not in favor for Merkel, and that led to a last minute decision by a lot of electors to finally not vote for the CDU. And therefore we learned to pay highly attention to dissonances, that means if the several indicators are heading towards the same direction or if they don‘t. At the last elections all the indicators were heading towards the same direction. The candidate preferences were in favor of the CDU, the preferences of the parties were in favor of the CDU, the wish that the CDU should remain in office was strong, and therefore this time the view was clear and there wasn‘t a strong deviation.

ED: In Germany and Europe, there are many Muslims, which have their own
values and cultural behavior which are not compatible with a lot of western values. Is it possible, by looking at this group, that a spiral of silence is evolving?
RK: We do not have that impression. Just recently we have conducted a survey with immigrants with the help of bilingual interviewers who mostly do have an immigration background. Normally the immigrants are telling openly their political opinions. But depending on the group of immigrants the sympathies vary a lot. Turkish immigrants are clearly more left-wing orientated while immigrants of the former Soviet Union tend to support the other side.

ED: Is it possible to explain why the Turkish are more left-wing oriented while the immigrants from the former Soviet states tend more to support the right-wing parties? RK: One has to see that also in Turkey the left-wing parties are strong. And regarding the turkish immigrants here is also of course a class effect. And a third reason is that the SPD always has been considered as a pro-immigrants party, while the CDU, especially regarding their basic opinion towards the membership of Turkey in the EU, where the CDU always emphasized that they do support a privileged partnership but not a membership of Turkey, was regarded less friendly by the Turkish immigrants.

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