The study compiled thousands of newspaper front pages, a million digital front pages and several million tweets (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Engineered by UOC researcher Pablo Rey for his doctoral thesis, the new system offers clearer insight into the dynamics at play between media discourse and public opinion
An 11-year analysis of corruption case coverage in Spain provides visual evidence of media polarization
The data show that social media activity is still driven by the traditional media
UOC researcher Pablo Rey Mazón has designed a method and set of tools for compiling and processing media-generated information in a way that is much more detailed and accurate than anything that has come before. Developed as part of his thesis for the UOC doctoral programme in the Information and Knowledge Society, the system includes various programs created specifically to gather, analyse and visually display the amount of front page space allotted by print, digital and audiovisual media to the hottest issues, such as corruption cases, in order to study their subsequent impact on public opinion.
Rey compiled thousands of newspaper front pages, a million digital front pages and several million tweets to understand the dynamics involved in this complex process and find a way to visually display the information flows. These efforts led to his recently defended thesis, Color of corruption. Visual evidence of agenda-setting in a complex mass media ecosystem. Not only was Rey awarded his doctorate, but also a cum laude distinction. The thesis, published in open access, was supervised by the expert in ICT and society, Ismael Peña-López.
From MIT to the UOC
Rey's research into the media coverage of corruption in Spain started in 2011, while he was a visiting scientist at the MIT Center for Civic Media. It began as a study of Spanish newspapers using the PageOneX software that he was developing at the time to measure the amount of space that the media devoted on their front pages to leading current affairs. In 2015, the project shifted course when it became the basis for his UOC doctoral thesis and expanded to include other channels in the media ecosystem, such as the homepages of digital newspapers, TV newscasts and Twitter (X).
To accomplish his research objectives, Rey developed new tools for compiling, archiving and displaying information. These include Homepagex, a computer program that stores and analyses digital media homepages and creates a database of their hourly updates, and VerbaR, which studies the content of transcripts from TV newscasts.
He said that "one of the core contributions that my research makes is methodological, as I propose new, more detailed and accurate ways of gathering and processing the news stories published by the media across their various channels."
Using these newly engineered tools, the researcher was able to study how different information channels behave in relation to the same corruption scandal, such as the Cristina Cifuentes master's degree case or the Bárcenas affair. He found that they operate in a similar and synchronous manner, with the written press still maintaining an important role in the shaping of public opinion. More specifically, he showed that, in the current media ecosystem, front pages are a good summary of the previous day's agenda, rather than setting the most important issues of the day.
In this regard, the thesis points to a very strong presence of the media as discourse regulators on Twitter (X). Nearly half of all tweets pertaining to a corruption scandal (47% according to a conservative estimate) are directly related to the media, as they include links to news sites or have been posted by media outlets or their journalists.
Thus, while Twitter often succeeds in drawing attention to an issue not covered by the mainstream media, it is necessary for the media to cover it in order to amplify its reach and get it to more people.
Thanks to in-depth, longitudinal studies comparing media coverage to the barometers of the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (CIS), Rey demonstrated that lengthening the media coverage of an issue over time affects public opinion, but that periods of very intense coverage by all media have an even greater impact, both in the short and long term.
A synchronized ecosystem
A detailed study looking at the coverage of a corruption scandal revealed a high degree of synchronization among all the channels examined (newspapers, television, Twitter and Google searches) when analysed on a day-to-day basis, as well as increasing synchronization throughout the day as each headline follows and learns what the others are doing.
"Major events leave a trace in the collective memory that has to do with the amount of information received," Rey explained after researching the short- and long-term impact of the media's agenda on public opinion and how newspaper front pages are perceived and forgotten.
The study of over a decade of media reporting on corruption has painted a picture of Spain's highly polarized and partisan media landscape, where coverage has to do with the ideology of the readers. "We have done our analyses and substantiated with data that the media cover the parties most voted for by their regular readers in a more favourable light," he said.
A key part of his thesis involved figuring out how to graphically present all this information, but he also underlined the importance of making the software developed and databases compiled available to other researchers for further studies down the line. "For me, this is how the scientific method should work."
This UOC research project supports United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Open access doctoral thesis in the UOC's O2 repository:Rey Mazón, Pablo: Color of Corruption. Visual evidence of agenda-setting in a complex mass media ecosystem (08/05/23).
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