Can Europe Make It?

"Tickers of terror" – the crisis of Polish media as told by news crawls

As Poland prepares for another divisive and violent independence day holiday on 11 November (celebrating "100 years of independence"), we look at the polarising TV coverage of last year’s event.

Rafal Zaborowski
8 November 2018

Screenshot: TVP Info, November 11, 2017. The main ticker says “Donald Tusk wanted sanctions for Poland – today he was booed in Warsaw”.

In the wake of the controversy that surrounded the 2017 Warsaw Independence Day March (which was hailed as "patriotic" by the Polish right wing press but decried as "fascist" and "xenophobic" by the Polish opposition and the international press), Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz has just announced that this year she has prohibited the event

This does not seem to have deterred the right-wing organisers of the march however, who are threatening to demonstrate on November 11 despite the ban, while Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have announced an alternative, government-led independence march. As Poland prepares for another divisive and violent independence day holiday in 2018 (celebrating "100 years of independence"), this may be an opportune moment to reflect on the role of television coverage in the mediation of the unfolding spectacle a year ago.

Since the Polish government took control of state media in 2016, Polish public television has been heavily criticised for its censorship practices and partisan identity. Against a backdrop of pronounced changes to the structure and audio-visual content of Polish programmes, a particularly salient example of the shift in broadcasting is the changing role of television tickers on public television.

The ticker

The term "ticker" – or "crawl/crawler" – refers to horizontal text in the lower third of the screen, seen typically during news programming. The format of the ticker varies across countries and networks, but its shared characteristic is brevity, not unlike a newspaper headline.

Traditionally, a ticker has served one of three main roles: introducing a news topic, promoting a network's content or attributing the words or visuals on screen to a person. With advances in the digitalisation of news, the use of tickers has become more complex – often with numerous pieces of horizontal text competing for viewers' attention on the screen simultaneously – albeit without radically altering the nature of their role.

Over the past two years, tickers in Polish public television (dubbed "the tickers of terror" online) have gathered much attention in domestic media, who have hailed them as a new type of propaganda. The tickers have evolved beyond straightforward news or promotional content to encompass a strong editorial tone and emotional vocabulary.

Perhaps the most widely known is the infamous "Brussels lets Spaniards hit people with batons, but forbids us to fight the bark beetle" ticker. There is a bit of context to unpack here: the crawl notes the perceived hypocrisy of the European Union as a body that opted to be deliberately detached in its handling of the Catalonian crisis, yet highly interventionist when critiquing the Polish government's plans to remove a significant portion of trees in the Białowieża Forest (which has allegedly been colonised by the spruce bark beetle).

In addition to critiquing the European Union, public television channels have run a number of tickers targeting the opposition party (Civic Platform) and resistance movements. Examples of these include "Civic Platform unhappy about Poland's rising global importance", "Civic Platform uses Hitler-like propaganda methods" or even "The faces of court reform opposition are defenders of paedophiles and deadbeat parents".

Some of the tickers accompanied visuals of opposition politicians, adding a subversive, silent commentary to the words being spoken (for instance, an opposition party member speaking in parliament was sarcastically addressed by the ticker as someone who "organised an anti-Polish resolution – and now intends to judge the Polish government").

Alongside these critiques, public television has praised the ruling party and government policy in tickers such as "The world is in awe of the Polish economy" or "The united right-wing government established Poland's prominent global position".

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Screenshot: TVP Info, November 11 2017. The main ticker says “Warsaw: The great patriots’ march”.

Public television has praised the ruling party and government policy in tickers such as "The world is in awe of the Polish economy" or "The united right-wing government established Poland's prominent global position".

Studying these tickers

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Screenshot: TVN24, November 11, 2017. The main ticker says “Nationalists’ march on the streets of Warsaw”.In our study[1] of tickers, we looked at two Polish television news stations on Independence Day 2017 (November 11).  Our comparative analysis of a total of 8,760 crawls revealed stark differences in subject, tone and nuance between the public TVP Info channel and the privately owned TVN24. This was reflected in the ideological leaning of the tickers, which was significantly more pro-government on TVP Info, but also reflected in particular approach to voice, visibility and representation.

Editorial content was significant in the tickers of both stations (11 per cent in TVN24 and 7 per cent in TVP Info), but perhaps more salient here is the subtle editorial manner in which certain politicians' voices were legitimised over others.

For instance, TVP Info quoted Poland's President Andrzej Duda in 17 per cent of their tickers and the Law and Justice ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczynski in 45 per cent of their tickers. This is a rather astounding statistic, especially if we consider that that 45 per cent translated into over nine hours of screen time on the day and concerned someone who had no formal government role at the time.

TVN24, by contrast, quoted both politicians only in a combined 6 per cent of their crawls.

Non-quote mentions of politicians tell a similar story, with Kaczynski dominating the tickers on public television, while being almost absent on TVN24. Tickers regarding Donald Tusk (the former prime minister and co-founder of the Civic Platform, who is currently President of the European Council) were closer in volume across the two stations (with 47 tickers in TVN24 and 32 tickers in TVP Info), but their tone differed: in TVN24, 28 Tusk-related tickers were positive or neutral and 2 were critical or antagonistic. In TVP Info the situation was reversed: 7 tickers were positive or neutral while 23 were critical or antagonistic. There was no common vocabulary; the events were seemingly parallel and mutually unrecognisable.

The Warsaw independence march on November 11 was a similarly divisive affair. Viewers of TVP Info were presented with depictions of an unequivocally "great patriot holiday", while those watching TVN24 saw tickers characterising the march as an unquestionably "nationalist" or "fascist" endeavour. There was no common vocabulary; the events were seemingly parallel and mutually unrecognisable. Alternative gatherings on the day were mentioned only in passing, and only by TVN24.

And so, two portraits of Poland emerge from coverage by the public TVP Info and the privately owned TVN24. The strongly partisan media discourse, which was a particular feature of public media, continues to divide Poles, and the lack of fair and balanced coverage leaves little space for dialogue. In the aftermath of the recent local elections in Poland, the challenge of fostering vibrant and fair public media remains of no little significance for European politics, media and society.

[1] This study was led by Dr Rafal Zaborowski and funded by the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. Thank you to researchers Olivia Drost, Filip Adamowicz and Anna Skowera, whose hard work on the project was invaluable.

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