Crimes, disasters, and accidents tend to occupy a central spot in the news in the most popular TV stations and online media in Bulgaria, creating “a catastrophic agenda”. Sensational headlines and negative news dominate the news flow, while the scandalous and the extraordinary are practically absent from the content of the news reports themselves. The publication of authorless stories and the reuse of information from other media, often without credit, is a widespread practice online.
These are some of the key findings of the study “The News: A Close-Up”, which the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) presented in Sofia on 25 July. The authors of the study, which covers 3,556 journalistic items published or broadcast in February-April 2017, include Sofia University researchers Prof. Maria Neykova, Dr. Zhana Popova, and Dr. Vyara Angelova.
The complete version of the report can be downloaded here: News…Close-By
The authors looked at news, reports, and information announcements in the three most viewed national TV stations – bTV, the Bulgarian National Television (BNT), and Nova Television – and the five most visited news websites as of 15 January 2017 according to Alexa – Blitz.bg, Bradva.bg, Vesti.bg, Dnes.bg, and Plovdiv24.bg.
The study focuses on the dramatization of media content, thematic diversity, and the use of sources, analyzed in relation to the professional standards set out in the Ethical Code of Bulgarian Media.
Unsurprisingly, the early parliamentary elections top the list, with 498 of all registered stories (just over 14%) devoted to them. Domestic politics comes second with 435 stories, followed by crimes (411), disasters and accidents (404), economy (254), and social problems and conflicts (161).
In contrast to television, where the elections are the most reported topic (204 items), news websites pay the most attention to disasters and accidents (248), followed by domestic politics (232), and the elections.
“The media set a catastrophic agenda of sorts which produces a strong emotional response by the audience and has a powerful psychological impact on it,” the authors of the study point out.
The media unnecessarily dramatize their reporting of breaking news through the so-called “live” and the repeated broadcasting of the same shots containing violence and raw footage from the scene, according to an analysis of the coverage of several key events during the period covered by the study, such as the death of a woman in a tunnel on the Hemus motorway and the terrorist attacks in London, Stockholm, and Saint Petersburg.
The trustworthiness of a piece of information, which is linked to the audience’s levels of trust in the media, can be tracked through authorship. Of all the stories analyzed here, 1,205 come with an author (a reporter or a correspondent), 1,191 are authored by the media, and 1,112 appear without any author whatsoever.
The news websites covered by the study employ various techniques, such as compiling of information and unreferenced borrowing from other media, to multiply the same piece of text. This practice challenges the widespread myth that the Bulgarian online space displays extensive media diversity and transparent authorship.
Domination of negative news and sensationalism
Among the stories analyzed, 1,675 are characterized by high levels of sensationalism, 1,077 – by low levels of sensationalism, and 762 – by moderate levels of sensationalism.
It is an established practice for news websites, but also for TV stations, to package their stories with sensational headlines. The headlines, especially in some of the websites, often reinforce “what is missing” in the text, namely the scandalous, the shocking, and the extraordinary.
Regarding the level of conflict in the stories analyzed, the category “absence of conflict” comes first (1,588 items), followed by “a significant level of conflict” (1,313) and “conflict to some degree” (635).
Photo: Zdravko Yonchev
*This study is part of AEJ-Bulgaria’s project “Mediator 2: A Bridge Between Ethical Journalism and the Society”, supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.