Media Storms: Mechanisms, Conducive Factors and Effects

Date: 16 December 2016

Venue: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus, Promotiezaal van de Grauwzusters - Lange St-Annastraat 7 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 4:00 PM

PhD candidate: Anne Hardy

Principal investigator: Prof Stefaan Walgrave & Prof Amber Boydstun (UC Davis)

Short description: PhD defence Anne Hardy - Faculty of Social Sciences


Media attention typically goes up and down as issues come and go. At a given point in time, some topics might be on the media agenda, just a little later these same topics may have edged out of the limelight until, after a while, they attract renewed attention. Yet, in some instances, media seem to give disproportionately high attention to an issue, and do so quite suddenly. Many people in Europe will remember some of last year’s stories, such as the refugee crisis or the Paris Attacks, that dominated the news for days or even weeks. In cases like these, an issue attracts an enormous amount of news coverage, blowing away most other issues from the front page. Most news outlets pour attention upon the problem or event, devoting several news items to it, and coverage tends to be ubiquitous across media outlets. This phenomenon of sudden high media attention to an issue or event is called a media storm.

This thesis aims to investigate media storms in depth. In the first part, I try to change the understanding of media storms from a “you know it when you see it” phenomenon into a clearly defined and conceptualized process. I develop a definition with measurable criteria (size, explosiveness, duration and “multi-medianess”) to operationalize media storms in a systematic way.

In the second part, I look at the mechanisms, conducive factors and effects of media storms. With mechanisms, I refer to the internal processes that lead to media storms and that cause them to remain on the agenda: lowering news thresholds and imitation. The conducive factors refer to the characteristics that determine that some stories attract an enormous amount of attention and stay on the media agenda for weeks, while others make the front pages for a day but disappear quickly afterwards. Finally, the political effects of media storms are studied. More specifically, I examine the various types of statements and actions that politicians in the Belgian federal parliament took in response to a media storm.

What connects both parts is the overall research question: “in what ways do media storms differ from non-storm coverage?” In each chapter, I systematically compare storms with non-storms. Such a comparison between media storms and non-storms is the best way to make valid claims about media storms. Are media storms really a different kind of animal? I conclude that they are, both in terms of content and in terms of effects.

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