When good news is scarce and bad news is good: Government responsibilities and opposition possibilities in political agenda-setting


  • Gunnar Thesen

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    • International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), Stavanger, Norway and Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University, Denmark
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Address for correspondence: Gunnar Thesen, International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), PO Box 8046, N-4068 Stavanger, Norway. E-mail: gunnar.thesen@iris.no


Recent studies have drawn attention to the political contingencies of the media's political agenda-setting influence, finding, for instance, that issues from the media agenda are more likely to attract attention if a party enjoys ownership of the issue. Supplementing the debate on why political parties respond to news, it is argued in this article that ownership is only part of the picture and that policy responsibility, together with news tone, constitutes a stronger explanation of news politicisation. Opposition parties respond to bad news because they reflect negative developments in social problems for which the government could be held responsible. The government responds to good news that reflects positive developments in social problems because this could politicise policy success, but is also forced to react when news explicitly address government responsibility and thereby threatens its image as responsive and competent. Furthermore, it is shown that news tone and policy responsibility condition the incentive to politicise owned issues from the media agenda. Thus, opposition parties will not politicise owned issues when news is good because this could draw attention to government success, while government is unable and unwilling to prioritise owned issues when news is bad and instead is likely to make use of its ownership strengths when news is good and the pressure to respond is low. The arguments are tested on a large-N sample of radio news stories from Denmark (2003–2004). Opposition response is measured through parliamentary questions spurred by the news stories, while government response is indicated by references to these stories in the prime minister's weekly press meeting. Results confirm the expectations, suggesting that parties care more about the tone of news stories and the type of attention they might produce, rather than what type of issues they could serve to politicise.