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Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

The Mediatization of E-Campaigning: Evidence


From German Party Websites in State, National,
and European Parliamentary Elections 20022009
Eva Johanna Schweitzer
University of Mainz

The rise of e-campaigning is often associated with its ability to circumvent journalistic principles of
news selection and presentation. By this, parties and candidates are said to free themselves from the
discretionary power of the mass media and to reach voters in an unfiltered way. This conventional
wisdom is tested through a comparative content analysis of German party websites in state, national,
and European parliamentary elections between 2002 and 2009. The results show that e-campaigns
in all elections adhere in their messages to the media logic. Specifically, they replicate those patterns
of offline coverage that have been held accountable for rising political alienation and civic apathy.
Moreover, the mediatization of German e-campaigning grows over time.
Key words: content analysis, e-campaigning, elections, Internet, mediatization, party websites
doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2012.01577.x

Introduction
The rise of e-campaigning is often associated with its ability to circumvent journalistic principles of
news selection and presentation (e.g., Bimber & Davis, 2003). Due to the technical qualities of online
communication (e.g., ubiquity, capacity, topicality), political actors are said to free themselves from
the discretionary power of the mass media and to reach voters in an unfiltered way. This kind of
disintermediation1 as described by Coleman (2005, p. 182)is seen as both an opportunity and a
challenge to democracy (cf. Coleman & Blumler, 2009):
From an optimistic point of view, the Internet might allow parties and candidates to provide citizens
with more substantial information about the campaign (cf. e.g., Blumler & Gurevitch, 2001; Gibson
& Ward, 2000). In particular, they could overcome those patterns of election coverage that have been
held accountable for growing political alienation and civic apathy in the public (e.g., Selnow, 1998,
p. 191), i.e. strategic horse-race depictions, shrinking sound bite news, and extensive negativism (cf. for
an overview Kaid & Stromback, 2008). In this scenario, the World Wide Web would put an end to the
mediatization of offline politics (cf. Schulz, 2004, p. 95) and would allow for an enriched campaign
environment (see also Blumler, 2009). This could foster a strong democracy (cf. Barber, 1984).
From a pessimistic standpoint, however, political actors might use the Internet just as another means
of self-communication (cf. Castells, 2009). In this way, they could continue to rely on traditional tactics
in cyberspace that have been proven successful in real-world politics (cf. Margolis & Resnick, 2000).
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This includes a deliberate adaptation to journalistic needs and interests so as to secure public attention.
As a consequence, the presentational opportunities on the web could be left untouched in favor of a
traditional politics as usual approach (ibid.) that reflects the impoverished mainstream patterns of
political communication (Blumler, 2009, p. 14) from the offline world. This so-called normalization
of e-campaigning has indeed been observed for several web practices in the past (cf. e.g., Druckman,
Kifer, & Parkin, 2010; Schweitzer, 2008, 2010; Xenos & Foot, 2005). It is an open empirical question,
though, whether the convergence with the offline domain also encompasses a purposive mediatization
of online political communication (cf. Blumler, 2009). This desideratum is due to the fact that most
inquiries in this field concentrate on the functional or formal design of political homepages alone
(e.g., Bimber & Davis, 2003; Foot & Schneider, 2006; Kluver et al., 2007) while content-specific aspects
are seldom taken into account. Those few content analyses that do exist focus on selective indicators,
specifically on the issues or the presence of negativity (e.g., Dolan, 2005; Benoit, 2007), and code
these rather dichotomously across the whole website instead of using more fine-grained measures (e.g.,
Druckman, Kifer, & Parkin, 2010; Xenos & Foot, 2005). In addition, these studies are usually restricted
to single-election periods, preferably on the U.S. senate or house level (e.g., Banwart, 2006; Latimer,
2007; Williams, Aylesworth, & Chapman, 2002) and thus do not allow for systematic generalizations.
In order to address these research deficits and to test whether e-campaigns basically suspend or
adopt the media logic, this paper will present findings from a comprehensive quantitative content
analysis of German party websites using a message-based coding across a range of mediatization
indicators that are applied to a multi-election design. In this way, the study is able to track the essence,
scope, and dynamics of mediatized politics on the web in comparison to traditional offline features
of mediatization. The results provide empirical evidence that e-campaigns on all levels of the political
system adhere in their contents to the media logic and thus replicate the structures of todays political
journalism. This pertains to the selection of issues, the presentational style of the websites, their tone,
and argumentative stance. The degree of mediatization increases over time and is slightly higher in
first-order races. Other external variables, such as political ideology or electoral status, do not have a
significant influence on the way parties incorporate the media logic in their online campaigns. Rather,
mediatized politics on the Internet appears to be an all-encompassing phenomenon that affects various
types of political actors and diverse categories of political races.

Applying the Mediatization Concept to Online Political Communication


The concept of mediatization has been receiving more attention in the academic literature since the
mid-eighties (see e.g., Altheide & Snow, 1988). It seeks to describe the conditions, manifestations,
and consequences that are associated with the diffusion and rising importance of the mass media in
society (cf. Mazzoleni, 2008b; for a critique of the mediatization concept see Livingstone, 2009; Schrott,
2009). In the political arena, mediatization refers to the fact that peoples opinion formation is based
mainly on the respective accounts given by the mass media as the primary source of information.
Journalists thus become central and independent players in political communication who shape the
public perception of issues, actors, and events (see among others Page, 1996; Schudson, 2002). Parties
and candidates try to exert an influence on these journalistic representations by adapting their behavior
and public appearance to the so-called media logic. This encompasses the work routines, principles,
and production techniques that determine todays news coverage (see Altheide, 2004, p. 294; Hjarvard,
2008, p. 113; Mazzoleni, 2008a, p. 2930; for a critique of the notion of a single media logic see Lundby,
2009). In the political context, mediatization can be understood as the rising importance and the
mass medial penetration of the political system and the displacement of political logic through media
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logic (Schrott, 2009, p. 43f.; in similar ways see also Hjarvard, 2008, p. 113; Kepplinger, 2002, p. 973;
Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999, p. 250; Stromback & Esser, 2009, p. 216; on the different rationalities of
politics and the media see Kepplinger, 2009a). In general, this displacement can be observed on four
levels: in the decision-making of politicians (processes), in the organizational management of parties
(structures), in their observation of the environment (awareness), and in their communication output
(content) (cf. Donges, 2008, p. 31; Schulz, 2006, p. 42ff.).2
For the content dimension, past research has applied six empirical indicators to measure the degree
of mediatization in offline politics. This encompasses formal and argumentative aspects. The formal
indicators include those features of political communication that reveal an adaptation to the mass media
on a stylistic level, irrespective of the specific issues, actors, or arguments that are at the center of
the message (see Kepplinger, 2002; Meyer, 2009; van Noije, Kleinnijenhuis, & Oegema, 2008; Vowe &
Dohle, 2009). This means:
the extent to which parties or candidates adopt a journalistic news style to address the public, e.g.
in the structure or language of their messages (format);
the amount by which political messages are triggered by mediatized or staged events (such as press
conferences, interviews, or party conventions) in comparison to genuine events (like parliamentary
decisions, international summits, or political negotiations) (inducement); and
the frequency with which politicians explicitly refer to the mass media in comparison to other
societal groups to substantiate their argument, to comment on public discussions, or to announce
their own actions and plans (references).
These indicators have been used in studies on parliamentary communication in Germany and
other countries. The results show that the mass media have become a focal point in political debates:
Politicians regularly refer to the mass media in their speeches (see Vowe & Dohle, 2009), they are
responsive to the event-centeredness of journalistic reports (see van Noije, Kleinnijenhuis, & Oegema,
2008), increase the number of symbolic statements (see Kepplinger, 2002), and prefer language forms
that are effective in the media (see Meyer, 2009). In this way, politicians have deliberately adapted their
messages on a stylistic level to the requirements of todays political journalism (see also the survey
results among MPs and other political spokespeople by Cohen, Tsfati, & Sheafer, 2008; Kepplinger,
2009b, and Maurer & Mayerhoffer, 2009).
Aside from these formal aspects, the mediatization of political communication has also been
measured by three argumentative indicators (see e.g., Mazzoleni, 1987; Brants & van Praag, 2006;
Stromback & Dimitrova, 2011; van Aelst et al., 2008). These are derived from the current rules of
attention that guide the choice of issues, actors, and statements in the international coverage of elections
(for an overview see Kaid & Stromback, 2008). In detail, this includes:
the way in which politicians focus in their messages on the election campaign itself and the
horse-race aspect of the competition in contrast to substantial policy issues (metacommunication);
the extent to which parties communication revolves around their top candidates, their personalities,
and private lives at the expense of other political actors (personalization); and
the degree to which parties concentrate in their messages on conflict and criticism rather than on
positive self-promotion (negativity).
These indicators have been used in content analyses of traditional campaign channels such as
press releases, TV spots, posters, or newspaper ads. The results show that political actors adopt the
aforementioned patterns of election coverage for their own self-presentation: For example, they focus
in their press releases most of all on attacks (for Germany, see Donsbach & Jandura, 2005), put
the candidates at the forefront of posters and newspaper ads (see Keil, 2003; Lessinger, Moke, &
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285

Holtz-Bacha, 2003), and deal primarily with the professionalism of their election campaign while policy
issues like economy, education, or health care move into the background (see Holtz-Bacha, 2000,
p. 176f.). In this way, political actors do not only try to use the limited advertising space of their offline
tools (paid media) in a more effective way, e.g. by providing voters with short, simple, and emotional
statements that can easily be recognized and remembered (see in brief Kaid, 2004). They also seek to
enhance the publicity in the accompanying media coverage (free media). In fact, studies have shown
that journalists are more likely to report about those campaign messages that adhere to traditional news
values. In this way, the mass media increase the circulation of these messages and create additional
opportunities for voter persuasion (see Jasperson & Fan, 2004; Ridout & Smith, 2008).
This multiplication effect should be particularly relevant for election campaigns on the Internet: In
comparison to traditional modes of advertising, which can also be recognized inadvertently by voters
(accidental exposure, e.g. by posters on the streets or spots on TV), political websites require user
activity and interest. The audience of e-campaigning therefore remains rather limited to a small group
of engaged people that are already committed to a party or candidate (cf. Bimber & Davis, 2003; for
Germany see Wagner, 2004). In order to reach other target groups, political actors are dependent on
the publicity that is created for their campaigns by traditional news reports. It can thus be assumed that
parties and politicians seek to tailor their web campaigns to the informational needs and expectations
of the mass media. This assumption is backed up by studies showing that the Internet has become an
important means of journalistic research (see Machill & Beiler, 2009). Moreover, findings from the USA
and other countries demonstrate that political websites indeed exert an independent influence on the
news agenda (cf. Ku, Kaid, & Pfau, 2003; Meraz, 2004; see also Alde & Borges, 2006; Lee, Lancendorfer,
& Lee, 2005; Tedesco, 2005).
This influence can take place in two ways: on the one hand structurally through the provision
of materials and services on the websites that facilitate journalistic work (e.g., through the use of
newsletters, picture galleries, or audio archives). On the other hand, journalists can be influenced
through the very content of the homepages which is adapted to those principles of news selection
and presentation that support follow-up media coverage. For the first route of influence, there are
already sufficient findings from various elections that prove a structural adaptation of e-campaigning
to the production techniques of journalists (see Jackson & Lilleker, 2004; Lipinski & Neddenriep, 2004;
Tedesco, 2008). For the content level, however, there is still a need for studies that explicitly and
comprehensively examine the presence and scope of the media logic on political websites. To address
this gap, the following analysis applies the six mediatization indicators of offline research to German
e-campaigns.

Method
Sample and Research Design. The study content analyzed the websites of all German parliamentary
parties that took part in six elections between 2002 and 2009. This includes the homepages of the
Conservatives (CDU/CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD), the Liberal Democrats (FDP), the Greens
(Bundnis 90/Die Grunen), and the Left Party (Die Linke). These organizations participated in three
national elections (2002, 2005, 2009), one European parliamentary (EP) election (2004), and two
state elections (Brandenburg 2004 and North Rhine-Westphalia 2005).3 Using the same political
organizations on all levels of analysis allows both a cross-sectional comparison for the three types of
races in 2004/2005 (state, national, European) and a longitudinal observation between 2002 and 2009
for the last three national elections (see Figure 1).
Moreover, the study reflects the diversity of the German federal system in that it includes two
states that differ considerably from each other with regard to their geographic location (far-Western
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First-Order

cross-sectional

National
Election 2002

National
Election 2005

Second-Order

European Parliamentary
Election 2004

Eastern
State 04

longitudinal

National
Election 2009

Western
State 05

Figure 1 Research Design

vs. far-Eastern state), their political history (former state of the FRG vs. former state of the GDR),
their government constellation before the election (coalition of Social Democrats and Green Party vs.
grand coalition of Conservatives and Social Democrats), the election outcome (change of government
vs. continuance of government), and the degree of Internet usage among the population (higher in
the Western and lower in the Eastern state). In addition, both state elections took place at almost the
same intervals between the 2004 EP election and the 2005 national election and were not influenced by
simultaneous campaigns on the next higher election level (first-order races).4
The units of analysis were all text-based messages that were published on parties homepages.5
These were saved on a daily basis for the last four weeks before Election Day and coded manually on
the article and statement level.6 The focus on parties websites and their front page messages is due to
four considerations: First, websites are the oldest and most common tool in e-campaigning. Hence,
they are particularly suitable for multi-level and longitudinal comparisons. Second, websites are the
most widely used format among German journalists and voters (see Machill & Beiler, 2009; von Pape
& Quandt, 2010). Their contents are thus most salient on the Internet. This is particularly true for
those text-based messages that are published in a prominent position on the homepage. In fact, these
messages are also reproduced on other platforms, such as parties newsletters, blogs, social networking
sites, or discussion forums. Consequently, they have the widest audience reach and the potentially
largest exposure effect among Internet users. Analyzing these units thus allows conclusions about the
way in which the media logic shapes particularly those parts of the websites that have the greatest
significance for parties digital self-presentation. Third, in contrast to other text-based elements (such as
party manifestos, issue sections, and about us features), these digital messages are neither borrowed
from other offline paraphernalia nor pre-produced by the parties before the election campaign starts.
Rather, they are written and delivered instantly during the hot campaign phase in reaction to current
developments, events, and happenings. In this way, they provide a more valid and context-sensitive
insight into parties factual communication behavior during the election. Finally, the text messages
were used in the very same manner on all party websites. This secures methodological equivalence for
the later comparison.

Variables and Operationalization.


The study coded for several formal and argumentative variables that correspond to the mediatization
indicators that were used in past offline studies (see above). Specifically, the factors format, inducement,
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references, and metacommunication were operationalized on the article level, while the variables
personalization and negativity were measured on the statement level. For each article, eight statements
could be coded including the respective source.
The format assessed the stylistic editing of the messages. This includes both the text genre and the
formal presentation. With regard to the genre, differences were made between a speech that directly
addressed voters (direct voter address), a message based on a sequence of questions and answers
(interview), and articles that appeared as journalistic news reports (journalistic news style). The latter is
characterized by the imitation of classical modes of presentation in the regular media coverage (see also
Hjarvard, 2008, p. 113; Mazzoleni, 2008a, p. 2930). This includes a chronologically reversed structure
with the most important information at the beginning (inverted pyramid principle); an adherence to
the journalistic W-questions (where?, who?, what?, why?, etc.); the embedding of quotes instead of
direct speech; the use of the third person; a distanced, matter-of-fact language; and a recognizable
author who is not identical with the political actors themselves. The copresence of these features is
regarded as a manifestation of the media logic (see also Stromback & Dimitrova, 2011). Furthermore,
the study coded the number of words, images (photos and graphics), hyperlinks, the add-on materials
(such as embedded audio/video streams or PDFs), and the days that the messages stayed online on
the homepages. In this way, conclusions can be drawn about the formal sophistication of the website
content in comparison to the traditional media coverage.
The inducement of the messages was operationalized according to the categories that were used in
a study by Kepplinger (2002). He differentiated between statements, issues, and events as triggering
moments. A message is induced by a statement when it refers back to an oral or written declaration of
another politician that is then discussed on the party website under various points of view. An issue
is the cause of an article when the message does not explicitly comment on an individual statement,
but addresses an ongoing, general matter of concern that is debated in the public, such as questions
of health care, security, or unemployment. In contrast, events are coded as triggers, when a message
reacts to a single, self-contained incident that is clearly defined in space and time. Here, differences
are made between genuine and mediatized events. Genuine events happen without any influence of
the mass media. This includes, for example, natural disasters, parliamentary decisions, or political
negotiations. Mediatized events, on the other hand, indicate public happenings that are either changed
in their course due to the presence of media representatives (partly mediatized, e.g. canvassing tours,
party conventions) or that are made possible only because of the media presence (fully mediatized,
e.g. press conferences, media appearances, televised debates). An adaptation to the media logic is given
when parties website messages are published primarily in reaction to mediatized events.
The references of an article deal with the extent to which parties are concerned with representatives
of the media system in comparison to other societal groups. For each message on the homepage,
six references could be coded at maximum. These were categorized according to their name, their
organizational or institutional affiliations, or their professional activity in various sectors of society,
such as politics, economy, science, etc. A mediatization of e-campaigning is seen when the website
messages are directed more towards members of the media system (e.g., to journalists, single media
outlets, or broadcasting corporations, etc.) than to other civil actors (on this operationalization see also
Vowe & Dohle, 2009).
The indicator metacommunication was operationalized on the issue level of the articles. Based on an
extensive review of the research material, the author created an inductive list of single-subject matters
for all election campaigns. These were individually coded and later summarized into common categories
(such as foreign affairs, economy, education, etc.). For each report, the main subject was coded that
covered more than 80% of the message. A mediatization of e-campaigning is visible when the articles
deal more with the election campaign itself (e.g., parties canvassing tours, their advertising strategies,
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or recent public opinion polls) than with substantial policy issues (see also Brants & van Praag, 2006;
Mazzoleni, 1987; Stromback & Dimitrova, 2011).
Connected to this operationalization is the variable personalization. It was measured on the article
and statement level. Personalization refers to the extent to which parties concentrate on the top
candidates as main issues, main targets, and main sources of the statements. For all election campaigns,
name lists of the top candidates and other party members were generated. These actors could then
be coded as main focus of the messages (as part of the general issue coding), as statement object, or
originator. An adoption of the media logic is given when other agents are neglected on all three levels of
the websites in favor of the respective top candidates (see also Stromback & Dimitrova, 2011; van Aelst
et al., 2008).
The last mediatization indicator deals with the news factor negativity (cf. Stromback & Kaid,
2008). In the online messages, this was coded on the statement level. Specifically, all statements were
categorized into positive comments that explicitly praised the own party or candidate (self-promotion)
and in negative comments that questioned or attacked the opponent (negative campaigning) (see
also Benoit, 2007; Druckman, Kifer, & Parkin, 2010). For the data analysis, all positive and negative
statements were classified according to their content. The basis for this were the five image dimensions
that are regularly used in the international research literature to analyze the portrayals of political actors
(i.e., competence, leadership abilities, integrity, empathy, and charisma; cf. Hellweg et al., 1989). An
adaptation to the media logic can be seen when the website messages concentrate mostly on conflict
and criticism, i.e. on attacks rather than on acclaims (see also Schweitzer, 2010).

Results: Formal Mediatization


In the six election campaigns that took place between 2002 and 2009 altogether 2,000 messages were
coded on parties homepages. The majority stemmed from the national and EP elections. These races
offered the most comprehensive (between 280 and 349 words) and most illustrated text messages and
updated them also more regularly (= shortest length of persistence) than on the state level (see Table 1).
Furthermore, parties in the European and national elections provided more add-on materials
in the articles (including PDFs, embedded audio and video streams, e-cards) and offered a greater
number of hyperlinks. German e-campaigns are thus marked by a digital divide between first- and
second-order races. This parallels the traditional differences in campaign professionalism that have
been found for German parties offline advertising in national races on the one hand and European
parliamentary or state elections on the other (cf. Tenscher, 2007, 2008). For example, they spend three
times more money in races for the national parliament (the Bundestag) than in European elections
and have twice as many co-workers in the headquarters (cf. Tenscher, 2007, p. 72ff.). This divide is
due to the political significance and reach of the first-order races and the correspondingly greater
attention that they receive in the public and among journalists (cf. Tenscher & Schmid, 2009; Wilke
& Reinemann, 2007). Both factors motivate parties to be also more proactive on the Internet: They
publish a larger amount of sophisticated online messages to feed the extensive news interest of the media
and to influence their overall campaign coverage. The formal presentation of these website messages
has even gained importance over time: Between the 2002 and 2009 national elections, the number of
illustrations, multimedia add-ons, and hyperlinks has increased across all parties (see Table 1). These
developments correspond to findings on traditional election coverage that prove a more comprehensive
and elaborate visualization of the candidates and the campaign in the press and on television since
the end of the nineties (cf. Esser & Hemmer, 2008). German online campaigns thus seem to reflect the
presentational trends that shape political journalism. This is particularly evident when looking at the
format, inducements, and references of parties website messages.
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Format. On all election levels and over time, a factual news style dominated as text genre on the
homepages. In contrast, direct voter addresses by politicians were rarely used (see Table 1). Specifically,
the reports were written by members of the online campaign staff and appeared with individual
headlines and teasers. They provided information according to the inverted pyramid principle, followed
the journalistic W-questions in the course of the article, addressed the top candidates only in the third
person, and referred to the latter mainly through brief and commented quotes (see also the results on
the statement sources). In these ways, parties seek to evoke a sense of seriousness and credibility on their
websites. Moreover, they also hope to increase their chances of publicity in the traditional mass media
if they adhere to the regular news format. In fact, past input-output analyses from public relations
Table 1 Formal Mediatization
National
2002
Articles (N)
References (N)
Words ()
Persistence ( days)
Articles (in %) with. . .
photos
graphics
additional materials
hyperlinks
Format (in %):
news style
direct voter address
interview
other
Inducement (in %):
mediatized events
statements
genuine events
issue discussions
other
References (in %):
mass media
political institutions
economy
NGOs
science
other

2005

2009

European
2004

State
BB
2004

State
NRW
2005

350
499
286
2.9

451
558
349
3.3

370
354
280
4.9

464
553
318
5.8

186
166
238
7.9

179
163
242
17.7

48.6
18.6
n/a
n/a

66.3
22.2
23.9
53.5

94.1
6.2
25.5
61.7

57.3
9.9
n/a
42.7

26.3
3.2
1.6
8.6

56.4
18.4
20.1
43.0

77.0
13.4
7.4
2.2

66.7
16.9
8.9
7.5

61.9
24.1
5.1
8.9

81.0
8.0
7.3
3.7

62.4
24.7
5.4
7.5

54.2
15.6
3.4
26.8

n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a

33.3
47.2
7.3
12.2
0

41.9
31.6
25.7
0.8
0

n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a

33.9
26.9
34.4
4.3
0.5

56.4
25.1
14.5
3.9

25.3
29.3
12.4
5.2
16.6
11.2

24.0
34.8
15.4
3.8
7.3
14.7

33.3
29.1
20.1
3.7
4.8
9.0

10.3
61.1
6.0
9.2
6.9
6.5

30.7
28.9
18.1
7.2
11.4

3.6

39.3
11.0
19.0
7.4
12.9
10.4

BB = Brandenburg; NRW = North Rhine-Westphalia


n/a = The categories were not coded in this election.

= Differences to 100% are due to rounding errors.


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research have shown that press releases are particularly likely to be covered in the news if they imitate
the journalistic style of presentation (see in brief Frohlich, 2008).
Inducement. The majority of the online messages was not caused by genuine events in society or
by ongoing issue discussions. With the exception of the state election in Brandenburg, individual
statements of politicians and mediatized events were the most common triggers for parties online news
(see Table 1). Political organizations thus react to those offline incidents on the Internet that promise
intensive journalistic research and follow-up media coverage, for example in relation to the televised
debates, the party conventions, or the canvassing tours. In this way, parties increase their likelihood
of being covered in the news. Moreover, responding to the media agenda allows them to establish
alternative interpretations for those campaign situations that are currently discussed in the public. In
contrast, substantial policy debates or in-depth comments on social problems were hardly found on
parties websites (see also the findings on metacommunication). Hence, they concentrate more on
tactical spin-doctoring than on civic education. This applies to both first- and second-order races and
can be observed for all political organizations. Particularly strong is the focus on mediatized events
among the major (55.4% vs. 35.9%) and Conservative parties (46.3% vs. 35.8%). Moreover, the reliance
on mediatized events has grown over time: In national elections, the share of messages induced by these
occasions has risen from an initial 33.3% in 2005 to 41.9% in 2009, while the number of issue-induced
website messages has dramatically declined in the same period (from 12.2% to only 0.8%). Parties thus
become even more responsive in their online communication to the offline happenings that are partly
or fully controlled by the mass media. This indicates a strong mediatization in German e-campaigning.
The same is true for the references in the website messages.
References. Across all political organizations and on all election levels, members of the media system
were the most common (see 2009 national elections; 2004 state elections in Brandenburg) or the
second most common actors (national elections 2002 and 2005; EP election 2004) that were named
on parties homepages (see Table 1). In particular, parties referred to the public broadcasting stations
and the national quality newspapers (Suddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Welt;
21.7%). Political representatives from national or supranational institutions dominated only in the
2004 EP election, while representatives from economy, science, or civil society (NGOs) were hardly
mentioned. References to the population or individual voters were even completely missing in all
elections. The website messages therefore focus primarily on the interaction between politics and
journalism. Specifically, references to the mass media were used (a) to discuss journalistic statements;
(b) to comment on statements of opponents that were covered in the news; (c) to announce politicians
appearances in the media; oron rare occasions(d) to substantiate personal arguments by citing
news sources. The mass media thus advance to the focal point of parties online messages. This can
be seen for all political organizations, even though to a greater extent among the major parties (31.8%
vs. 23.5%), for Conservatives (30.6% vs. 20.5%), and among incumbents (30.2% vs. 24.6%). The
latter are, due to their political influence, a common subject in the media coverage. Hence, they
have more opportunities to refer to news articles or journalistic commentaries that deal with their
position. In addition, the number of media references has increased for all parties over time: Between
2002 and 2009 the respective share on the national level rose from an initial 25.3% to 33.3% and
thus surpassed for the first time the number of references to political institutions (see also Table 1).
Consequently, parties do not only adapt stylistically to the requirements of the mass media. They
also point regularly and explicitly to journalistic resources in order to link their self-presentation
strategically to the media discourse. This provides strong evidence for a formal mediatization in
German e-campaigning. Whether this can also be substantiated for the argumentative dimension shall
be discussed next.
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291

Results: Argumentative Mediatization


The argumentative indicators include those aspects of parties website messages that suggest an adoption
of the content-specific patterns of election coverage, i.e. a preference for campaign rather than policy
issues (metacommunication); a focus on the candidates as main issues, statement targets, and sources
(personalization); and a conflict-oriented news selection (negativity). For metacommunication and
negativity, the results confirm the assumed mediatization of German e-campaigning (see Table 2).
Metacommunication. Longitudinal content analyses of election coverage on television and in newspapers
have found that German journalists increasingly concentrate in their reports on the strategic horserace aspects of the campaign while substantial policy issues move into the background (see Esser &
Hemmer, 2008). This trend is reflected in parties e-campaigning: With the exception of the 2004
EP election, the amount of metacommunication varied on the websites between one half and two
thirds of all examined online messages (see Table 2). On their homepages, political organizations thus
concentrate on aspects such as their campaign activities, recent opinion polls, or the performance of
the candidates in the last televised debate. Controversial questions from the fields of economy, finances,
or foreign affairs, however, were hardly discussed. This campaign-centeredness on parties websites
Table 2 Argumentative Mediatization
National
2002
Articles (N)
Statements (N)
Metacommunication (in %):
campaign as issue
policies as issue
Personalization (in %): candidates. . .
. . .as issues
. . .as targets
. . .as sources
Negativity (in %):
total amount
+
challengers
+
incumbents
source: party
candidate
other
target: party
candidate
other
dimension: political
apolitical

350
689

2005

2009

451
1, 289

370
1, 067

European
2004
464
755

State
BB
2004

State
NRW
2005

186
407

179
531

49.0
51.0

59.6
40.4

59.8
40.2

28.9
71.1

45.7
54.3

68.7
31.3

3.9
24.0
26.7

3.3
18.9
28.3

1.1
15.8
16.0

1.3
0
7.2

1.6
15.7
46.7

0
21.8
25.4

56.6
61.9
45.2
60.8
21.8
17.4
69.2
30.8
0
98.5
1.5

56.6
52.5
63.6
58.3
22.8
18.9
72.4
21.1
6.4
70.9
29.1

51.0
59.0
41.0
81.4
16.6
2.0
85.3
14.7
0
81.8
18.2

55.0
75.2
33.8
90.8
6.7
2.5
90.0
0
10.0
86.0
14.0

56.3
57.5
52.8
36.2
42.8
21.0
73.4
15.3
11.4
83.4
16.6

47.1
49.6
41.1
52.4
25.6
22.0
69.2
16.4
14.4
78.8
21.2

BB = Brandenburg; NRW = North Rhine-Westphalia


+ = Based on the total number of statements by challengers or incumbents, respectively.

= Differences to 100% are due to rounding errors.


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is strongest for the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005 (68.7%) as well as for the past
national elections in 2005 (59.6%) and 2009 (59.8%). Moreover, the amount of metacommunication
has continuously increased over time from 49% in 2002 to 59.8% in 2009, which exactly mirrors
the development that has been observed for German offline campaign coverage. For parties, this
concentration on the horse-race fulfills several functions: First, political actors seek to feed journalists
with those information on the websites in which the latter are most interested in. This secures follow-up
coverage. Second, by focusing on the campaign itself, parties avoid polarizing or unfavorable policy
discussions that could appall potential voters. Third, by talking about the own campaign performances,
parties create an impression of modernity and professionalism in the public. This is seen as a functional
equivalent to political competence (see also Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 1999). Members of the ruling
government coalition (= incumbents) were particularly likely to center their website messages on
metacommunication (59.2% vs. 49.3%). In this way, they tried to divert attention from controversial
political decisions that were made in the past legislation period (see also Holtz-Bacha, 2007, p. 71). The
only exception from this pattern was the EP election: Here, political organizations focused on their
homepages throughout on EU policy debates, e.g. on economy, agriculture, and security. Campaignrelated articles, on the other hand, accounted for only a quarter of all messages (see Table 2). This was
true for all parties irrespective of their size, their parliamentary status (government/opposition), or their
ideological orientation. This finding can be explained by both the scarce EU knowledge in the population
(see the findings of the latest Eurobarometer: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm) and
by the very nature of the EP election: It is a second-order race that is marked by low degrees of campaign
professionalism (see Tenscher, 2007) and limited media attention (see Wilke & Reinemann, 2007). To
mobilize voters, parties are therefore forced to convey even the most basic political information about
the EU on the Internet so as to explain the meaning, purpose, and relevance of the EP election. This
motivation is not given in online campaigns at the national or state level, where parties rely instead on
the horse-race aspects. This finding defies initial hopes that political actors could provide citizens with
more extensive, fact-based, and non-mediatized information on the web. Rather, they adhere in their
messages to the issue priorities of traditional political journalism. This confirms a strong adaptation to
the media logic on the content level of e-campaigning. For the next argumentative indicator, though,
this does not hold true.
Personalization. In communication research, personalization has been found to be a central criterion
in the selection of news. The focus on individual actors allows journalists to explain complex political
situations in a simple, straight-forward, and engaging manner that finds its way to the audience. In
Germany, longitudinal content analyses have shown that the focus on the top candidates in TV and
newspaper coverage has dramatically increased in national elections since the introduction of the
televised debates in 2002 (cf. Esser & Hemmer, 2008). In this context, even politicians private lives
receive more attention in the news (see Rohowski, 2009). Similar trends towards personalization have
also been found for traditional campaign channels like parties TV spots, ads, or posters (see above).
Here, the candidates are placed at the center of the messages to emotionally connect with voters and
to contribute to parties image-building. For German e-campaigning, however, this strategy is not
confirmed. Rather, the study finds a clear trend towards depersonalization on parties websites (see
Table 2). This becomes evident in all three dimensions of analysis; i.e. on the issue, statement, and
source level. In all elections and across all political organizations, less than 4% of the online messages
were primarily concerned with the candidates as main subjects. This proportion has also dropped
significantly between 2002 and 2009. References to the private lives of politicians, i.e. to their families,
homes, or personal interests, were almost absent (only 2.7% of the text messages in the 2009 national
election). In addition, the top candidates were addressed as main targets in less than a quarter of all
statements in the website messages. These concentrate instead on other parties, specifically on CDU/CSU
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 17 (2012) 283302 2012 International Communication Association

293

and SPD, that are named and attacked as collective entities (see also below). This organizational focus
was particularly prominent in the website reports that were launched during the 2004 EP election (see
Table 2). Due to the low name recognition of EU politicians, the messages dealt primarily with national
parliamentary parties and their European coalition partners. The major candidates, on the other hand,
were barely mentioned on the issue, statement, or source level. With the exception of the 2004 state
election in Brandenburg, a low citation rate was found in all races for the respective top politicians.
Generally, the candidates accounted for only a quarter of all statements. On the national level, the
number of direct quotations has also decreased significantly between 2002 (26.7%) and 2009 (16%).
This development corresponds to the shrinking sound bite phenomenon that has been observed in
Germany for both television and newspapers for the past national election cycles (cf. Esser & Hemmer,
2008). In contrast to the regular news coverage, though, this trend towards de-authenticization is not
connected to a parallel rise of journalistic comments. Across all organizations, other party members
remain the most common sources that are cited on the websites. In this way, a diversification of voices
can be seen in that second-rank politicians get a chance to speak for the interests and concerns of
the organization. Comments of the top candidates, in contrast, are increasingly transferred to more
specialized platforms for personal self-promotion on the Internet, such as candidate homepages and
profiles on social networking sites. This unburdens the party websites and allows political organizations
to counter the general focus on the candidates in the mass media. These findings illustrate that political
actors are indeed able to partially suspend the media logic in their online campaigns. However, with
the exception of the detected depersonalization trend, this option is hardly used. This also holds true
for the last indicator.
Negativity. The focus on conflict and attacks is another key factor in the journalistic news selection.
In the German press, the number of critical reports has significantly increased since the 1998 national
elections (cf. Esser & Hemmer, 2008). Moreover, negative information are more easily recognized
and remembered by recipients, irrespective of their political predispositions (see Lau, 1982). Parties
and candidates thus try to make use of this quality by focusing in their campaigns on assaults on the
opponent. In this way, they hope to yield additional publicity in the mass media and to cast doubt on
the competitors suitability for office. In German e-campaigning, this strategy is visible in all elections
and across all parties. With the exception of the 2005 state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (47.1%
negativity), the statement-based criticism on the opponent dominated over positive self-promotion.
As to that, challengers were generally more likely to go negative than incumbents (see Table 2; for the
exception in the early national election in 2005, cf. in detail Schweitzer, 2010). A significant difference
between the ideological camps, however, was not apparent. Over time, the number of assaults has
also slightly declined at the national level (from 56.6% to 51%). This can be explained by the shared
government responsibility of CDU/CSU and SPD since 2005 that made it difficult for both partners of
the grand coalition to attack each other in the campaign. Despite this special circumstance, however, a
conflict-oriented argumentative behavior prevailed in the website messages even in the 2009 national
election. The attacks were usually formulated by second-rank party members or by third sources (e.g.,
supporters, journalists) and were targeted in all elections at the parties as collective entities (see Table 2).
The latter were mainly criticized in political terms, i.e. with regard to their competence (especially
in economic matters) or their leadership abilities. In contrast, personal denigrations referring to a
politicians appearance, popularity (charisma), or empathy were rather scarce (see also Schweitzer,
2010). This underscores the trend towards depersonalization in German e-campaigning. Overall, these
results indicate another orientation on the media logic. Parties do not make use of the freedom of
self-presentation on the Internet to break away from the conflict-centered style of news reporting.
Rather, they continue to focus on their websites on a provocative and headline-grabbing attack behavior
that fosters journalists attention (cf. also Ridout & Smith, 2008). The assumed mediatization of online
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political communication thus receives further support. In a final conclusion, the main findings of the
analysis will be summarized and discussed with regard to their theoretical implications.

Summary and Conclusion


The present study sought to challenge the conventional wisdom that e-campaigns are basically nonmediatized and thus enable political actors to bypass journalistic principles of news selection and
presentation. The inquiry was based on a quantitative content analysis that applied six mediatization
indicators from past offline research to German party websites in two state elections, three national
elections, and one European parliamentary election between 2002 and 2009. This design allowed crosssectional comparisons of three types of races in the years 2004/2005 and a longitudinal observation for
the national elections in the years 2002, 2005, and 2009. In this way, the study offers a comprehensive
account of the extent, scope, conditions, and trends of mediatization in online campaigning. The results
provide empirical evidence that parties adopt rather than suspend the media logic on their websites.
This was true for five of the six indicators.
In detail, parties online messages were presented in all elections in a journalistic news style as
regards the sequence of information, the preferred language, and the formal appearance (format). The
articles were not caused by genuine happenings (such as parliamentary decisions) or ongoing public
controversies but were rather published in reaction to mediatized, i.e. staged events such as press
conferences, party conventions, or canvassing tours (inducement). Moreover, the messages referred
frequently to representatives of the media system as the most or second most common societal
group, while other actors from politics, economy, or science moved into the background (references).
Substantial policy discussions were scarce as well: The website messages concentrated instead on the
strategic horse-race aspects of the campaign (metacommunication) and thus mirrored the patterns of
traditional election coverage. This was also true for the statement level of parties websites: Their releases
focused most of all on attacks on the political opponent to match the conflict-centered news selection
in political journalism (negativity). The only deviation from the media logic was visible for the indicator
personalization. This was evident for all political organizations and all races: On the issue, statement,
and source level, the top candidates were not at the forefront of parties online messages. Rather, other
party members dominated as actors in the website reports. This led to a diversification of voices that
overcomes the focus on the party leaders which has been observed for both German offline election
coverage and parties traditional campaign channels. For all other indicators of the study, however,
the reliance on the media logic continued. In fact, the mediatization of German e-campaigning has
grown over time as the number of media references, the amount of metacommunication, and the visual
adaptation to current journalistic trends has increased in the national elections from 2002 to 2009.
With regard to the basic research question, these findings therefore lead to the conclusion that
e-campaignscontrary to the conventional wisdomare not free of the media logic. Rather, the
mediatization of online political communication appears to be an all-encompassing phenomenon that
affects all parties and all election levels in Germany. Slight variances appeared only in the degree of
mediatization with the latter being a bit more prominent in those instances where extensive offline
coverage and journalistic interest is almost guaranteed, i.e. in first-order races as well as for major
parties and incumbents. The discretionary power of the mass media thus goes well beyond the realm
of traditional news reporting. The basic elements of election coverage are adopted by parties in their
online political communication to improve their chances of publicity. In this way, the mediatization of
e-campaigning can be understood as a strategic response to the limited audience reach on the Internet.
The latter shall be overcome by a homepage that is specifically tailored to journalistic needs so as to
ensure a wide and favorable follow-up coverage in the news media (see section 2).
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295

This does not preclude, however, that other, less prominent parts of the website do provide some
basic information for citizens, e.g. on the election manifestos, the party history and structure, or the
candidates (cf. Schweitzer, 2008). In Germany, though, these data are usually borrowed from offline
material and are not specifically produced for the online campaign. Moreover, they are placed in
subordinate sections of the website which makes them harder to find for voters. This impairs their
effectiveness as a means of civic education (cf. Lupia & Philpot, 2005). In contrast, the salient front
pages could be used to invite citizens to learn more about the election and the policy issues at hand.
Yet German parties do not make use of this opportunity: Rather, they deliberately preserve the most
central parts of their Internet presences to reflect the media logic. In this way, the homepages become
strong indicators of parties strategic choices and priorities: Instead of fostering civic education, they
concentrate here on an adaptation to journalistic needs and requirements. This has the side-effect that
also those patterns of election coverage are prominently replicated on the web that have been held
accountable for rising political alienation and civic apathy in the public, i.e. extensive negativism and
horse-race depictions (cf. Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Patterson, 1993). German parties thus do not
only make it difficult for voters to find substantial policy discussions on their websites. They also thwart
the potential effects of online civic education through focusing on detrimental campaign portrayals in
the first place. In this way, the results of this study cast doubt on the democratic hopes that have been
placed on the Internet as an information basis for a strong democracy (cf. Barber, 1984).
In fact, the technical potentials of the World Wide Web do not guarantee an online campaign style
that compensates for the deficiencies of offline political communication. Rather, typical patterns, considerations, and strategies of real-world politics are likely to be transferred to cyberspace when parties and
candidates perceive them to be beneficial for their respective campaign goals. Research therefore needs
to ascertain in each case whether the theoretical hopes that surround the diffusion of e-campaigning are
realistic in practice. For the aspect of mediatization, future studies should clarify in particular whether
the adoption of the media logic can be found for other parts of the websites and for other forms of
e-campaigning as well (e.g., blogs, candidate homepages, or online videos7 ). These inquiries can be
combined with additional surveys among campaign consultants, politicians, and party members to learn
more about the reasons and motives that lead political actors to adopt the media logic on the Internet. In
the present study, this multi-method approach could not be applied due to economic restrictions. Furthermore, longitudinal and comparative analyses are needed to test for mediatization in different temporal, spatial, and social settings, such as in political routine periods (legislative period), in other countries,
and among other types of political actors. This allows insights into the generalizability of the present
findings in relation to past evidence on the variation of offline mediatization (see e.g., Esser, 2008).

Notes
1 Originally, the term disintermediation emerged in the field of finances at the end of the 1960s
(cf. e.g., Hester, 1969). It denotes the removal of intermediaries (such as brokers or agents) in a
supply chain. The term has been popularized in economics by Hawken (1983) before it became
widespread in online communication. I am grateful to one of two anonymous reviewers who
pointed this out.
2 This understanding of mediatization has to be distinguished from the overall concept of
mediation (cf. also Hjarvard, 2008, p. 114; Stromback & Esser, 2009, p. 207). The latter denotes
the rather neutral act of communication through different media, as opposed to reconfiguring
the whole of political life around media practices, technologies, and institutions (Stromback,
2011, p. 368). The mediation in societyas shown in the growing importance of various media
channels for human interactionis thus a logical prerequisite of the mediatization of politics that
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3
4
5

denotes a deliberate adaptation of parties and candidates to journalistic needs and requirements
within these channels.
In the 2002 national elections, a pilot study was carried out that concentrated only on the websites
of CDU, SPD, FDP, and the Greens.
On the classical distinction between first- and second-order elections, cf. Reif & Schmitt, 1980;
Reif, 1984; see also recently Carrubba & Timpone, 2005; Weber, 2007.
The total data collection also comprised 33 online videos that were shown on the front pages in
the hot campaign phase of the 2009 national election (= 8.9% of all messages in this election;
1.6% of all messages in all elections). In earlier races, audiovisual content was not at all used by
German parties. To allow for a consistent longitudinal and multi-level comparison, the online
videos for the 2009 election were therefore removed from the analysis. Future studies should
include this format as well (see also the remarks in the conclusion).
To determine the intracoder reliability, the author recoded a random sample of 5% of the research
material in each race. For all election campaigns, the respective coefficients varied between .83 and
1.00 according to Holsti. This formula has been used in other analyses of political websites as well
(e.g., Banwart, 2006; Bimber & Davis, 2003; Trammell et al., 2006). In the methodological
literature, it is deemed appropriate for coding decisions on a nominal level (cf. Stempel, 2003,
p. 216; Watt & van den Berg, 1995, p. 375).
In a recent study on political TV news, Stromback & Dimitrova (2011, p. 35ff.) have developed
several indicators to measure mediatization in audiovisual content. These could be applied and
extended for an analysis of online videos.

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About the Author


Eva Johanna Schweitzer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of
Mainz, Germany. Her research interests include online political communication, e-campaigning, and
comparative media studies.
Address: Department of Communication, University of Mainz, Colonel-Kleinmann-Weg 2, 55099
Mainz, Germany. Email: eva.schweitzer@web.de
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