Sergio Sparviero and Josef Trappel, with the collaboration of Stefan Gadringer, Roland Holzinger, and Isabella Nening
University of Salzburg
Austrian media have benefited from increased interest in news, following heated parliamentary elections, which saw the far right join a coalition government in December 2017. Meanwhile, digital and social media have contributed to an increasingly polarised climate in which overall trust in the media has suffered.
After winning a substantial victory in parliamentary elections, Sebastian Kurz, at 31 years of age, became the youngest chancellor in Austrian history by forming a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This victory came after almost a year of government crisis and a controversial rerun of the presidential election. The agreement between Kurz’s centre right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, allowed the latter to gain control of key government positions, including the ministries of Defence and Interior, in exchange for a relaxation of their anti-EU positions.
But these controversial political events were only the second-most covered topic in national newspapers after stories about immigration and asylum seekers, according to the Austrian Press Agency (APA), with Donald Trump’s presidency the third most followed topic. The elections also boosted television ratings, as more than 40 candidates’ debates were televised, with the final one being, reportedly, the most followed ever.
The role of social media in spreading so-called ‘fake news’ became a central issue in the election campaign. A political consultant hired by the Social Democratic Party of Austria was alleged to be responsible for two Facebook sites that provided false information about Sebastian Kurz. The resulting outcry eventually led to the resignation of the SPÖ general secretary, who also served as campaign manager.
During the campaign, the role of Austria’s public broadcaster (ORF) and some of its journalists came under intense scrutiny from centre and right-wing politicians. The former ÖVP leader attacked the popular news anchor Armin Wolf, following a joke on national television, which undermined his position. Another ÖVP politician accused Wolf of partisan journalism and Freedom Party leader Strache subsequently took to Facebook to accuse the ORF and Wolf of lying. Meanwhile another prominent ORF anchor-man was accused of favouring the SPÖ.
With ORF’s critics now in power it could face serious consequences. Politicians have talked about reforming the ORF, including the elimination of the mandatory licence fee, its main source of funding — despite the fact that our data show ORF still as Austria’s most trusted news brand (6.60), just ahead of Die Presse (6.59) and Der Standard (6.47). While the heated tones of the electoral campaign may have calmed down, the issue has not been forgotten and detailed plans are likely to emerge within the next year.
In the media business world, the Austrian private commercial TV operator ATV was sold to its main competitor, the ProSiebenSat1Puls4 group, raising plurality concerns. The Federal Competition Authority will be insisting that ATV maintains its editorial independence as the merger goes through.
2017 experienced the shutdown of NZZ.at, the first online news publication in Austria financed by digital subscriptions, and the launch of a new digital platform, Addendum, managed by a non-profit company financed by Red Bull’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz.
Although Austria essentially remains a traditional news environment, printed copies of newspapers are in decline. Compared to the previous year, Der Standard reduced its print circulation by 12%, Die Presse by 7%, and Kurier by 6%.1
Reach for the main brands remains relatively stable with small percentage gains for all the top brands, and the percentage of people extremely or very interested in news has increased to 69% of respondents.
Trust in the news in general has fallen by 4 percentage points in the last year, while there is a 2% increase in respondents agreeing they trust the media they themselves use. This suggests an increase in polarisation as readers become more entrenched in media that reflect their views.
Indeed, Austria is home to a number of partisan websites that have gained popularity through social media. The best known of these is Unzensuriert (Uncensored), a site that the Austrian federal office for the protection of the constitution has described as xenophobic with anti-Semitic tendencies.2 Founded by a former Freedom party politician, almost one in five (19%) of our sample has heard of this site, with 4% having accessed it in the previous week. Info Direct (2%), Alles Roger3 (1%), and Contra Magazin (1%) are three other far-right, anti-EU websites/magazines. There are a number of other small sites that represent centrist and left-wing positions.
Online news is now the most popular news source (76%) with our Austrian respondents while TV news continues to decline (-4). Social media use for news continues to grow (+4) amid political upheavals, which have seen the far right take posts in a coalition government.
Overall trust in the news is down 4 points and a closer analysis reveals that this fall comes largely from left-wingers and supporters of the political centre. Trust amongst those who self-identify on the right has increased over the last year, perhaps reflecting wider satisfaction amongst these groups with the changing political climate.