3. Corruption and corruption scandals

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Corruption, as a very salient and unobtrusive issue, serves as a good indicator of mass media influence, as people have no other way of knowing about corruption stories if it is now through the news.

Before moving forward, it is essential to define what is considered “corruption” for the scope of the present research. As Villoria & Jiménez (2012) mention, hundreds of pages are dedicated to analyzing the term without a consensus about what the term exactly means. Therefore, we will draw from Villoria and Jiménez to set a definition that can be used in this dissertation: corruption is considered the abuse of power with direct or indirect benefit by non-compliance with legal norms.

Like any criminal activity, corruption is difficult to detect, given its nature, since those engaged in corruption activities try to keep them as hidden as possible. This issue is the first problem researchers face when measuring corruption or the level/degree of corruption within a country. The second problem is the definition of what is considered corrupt activities, as this is open to multiple interpretations since “even in the most settled societies its meaning is open to dispute, manipulation, and change. Distinctions between ‘public’ and ‘private’ can be difficult to draw (Jowitt, 1983; Wedel, 2001), particularly in the midst of a process of liberalization and privatization.” (Johnston, 2005, p. 11). For this research, I have used a broad definition to cover all types of corrupt activities in Spain that fit.


Not all the corruption stories or cases are publicly known. Even when the cases are published by the press but are not covered across the media ecosystem, they might not become scandals. A series of circumstances and variables shape how they are disseminated, framed, and perceived by society and filter if they would reach the public agenda. Scandal can be defined as “the intense public communication about a real or imagined defect that is by consensus condemned, and that meets universal indignation or outrage” (Esser & Hartung, 2004, p. 1041). It is important to stress here that the cause of the indignation might be real or not, but the critical question is if it receives enough attention, usually measured by the intensity of news coverage or by the response to the scandal. In a similar definition, Just & Crigler (2019, p. 34) state that scandals are “actions or events that transgress values, norms, or moral expectations, which are often hidden, and when revealed elicit strong negative reactions (such as anger, shock, disgust, outrage) in the public”. Hondrich (1989) stated that the scandal involves the misbehavior of elite persons, their discovery, and public outrage. There are also “second-order” scandals when the protagonist tries to conceal the transgression that originated the scandal (Thompson, 2000).

An issue or story reaches the level of scandal when enough public and media pay attention to it. A well-known obnoxious action that is not shared broadly across the media ecosystem, or at least that is not shared by some part of it, can cause indignation in certain people but not reach the level of scandal.

Scandals depend on the social and political context within which they develop, and their development depends much more on this context than on the severity of the illegal behavior; the context –including the quality of the democratic state and the free and independent press of a country– defines how that violation of norms is transformed, or not, into a theme of public debate (Mancini, 2019). According to Entman (2012, p. 7) “whether scandals erupt, spread and persist depends far more on the skill of the partisan competitors and on the norms and the incentives governing news production than on the degree and nature of the official’s offense”. Just and Crigler (2019) state that scandals are more likely to be published in polarized and partisan political contexts, as opposing parties, news media, and journalists are interested in bringing the case into the light.

Regarding corruption scandals, on which the present research focuses, they represent, according to The Routledge Companion to Media and Scandal (Tumber & Waisbord, 2019), a particular subtopic or type of scandals, along with those related to sex, financial, power, and military. More specifically, Mancini (2019) proposes a typology to classify corruption scandals in three non-exclusive categories, according to why they erupt and are brought to light by news media: corruption scandals can be (a) market-driven, (b) “custodians of conscience”, and (c) politically oriented. Mancini also says that there are no pure scandals of one type, i.e., they are usually combined, with one category prevailing over the others. For example, one scandal can be a combination of watchdog journalism ideas (b) and a business competitive logic (a). The way scandals are created provides an insight into the media system from which they emerge.

Sikorski (2018) examined 78 studies on the effects of political scandals via a meta-analysis that revealed that most of them originated in North America and Europe, and the journals where they were published were related to political science and psychology. In contrasts, communication journals were only a tiny part of them. The two central outcome variables analyzed were the evaluation of politicians and the consequences at the time of voting, moderated by the characteristics of the candidate, their behavior, prior attitudes, context, and type of scandal.

Fernández-Vázquez et al. (2016) classified corruption cases in their analysis of the 2011 municipal elections in Spain according to whether the activity of the corrupt person increased or decreased the municipality’s welfare. They found that electoral punishment was greater if citizens did not benefit, even indirectly, from the corrupt acts. A politician that personally enriches himself by misusing public funds, for example, through a land rezoning, would be more likely to be punished at an election than if the municipality’s people benefited from the operation.

Welfare DecreasingWelfare Enhancing
Fraud in procurement Embezzlement Illegal hiring of municipal personnel BlackmailLicensing construction on non-developable land Licensing construction in environmentally protected areas
Table 3: Rooting Out Corruption or Rooting for Corruption? The Heterogeneous Electoral Consequences of Scandals. Adapted from original in (Fernández-Vázquez et al., 2016)

Costas-Pérez et al. (2012) used a news database built from news related to urban corruption scandals in municipalities during the 2003 and 2007 municipal elections in Spain to investigate whether their number and outcome –whether it remained as only a scandal in the news media or whether it was investigated, led to one or more accusations, or resulted in a conviction– affected the loss of votes of the incumbent mayor in the next elections. They found that mayors implicated in corruption scandals were exposed to a loss of almost 4% vote share. The negative effect of cases that receive extensive media coverage increased the loss to 9%, and in those cases where a judicial investigation affected the mayor, the loss of votes reached 14%. Thus, they showed that the role of the press and the judiciary as complementary institutions when it comes to fighting and punishing corruption, but that perhaps they are less influential than people think. They controlled for the electoral popularity of mayors, a factor that can skew the impact of corruption scandals on their voting share. They also found that regional and national news coverage of the scandals had a more significant impact than coverage from local newspapers, suggesting local coverage might be less credible. They also observed that the reduction in votes was not enough to affect their chances of re-election. In this sense, Costas-Pérez (2014) concluded in a subsequent investigation that scandals increased the probability that citizens would abstain, especially in those municipalities where corruption is a recurring event.

Esser and Hartung (2004) analyzed and compared types of political scandals in Germany. They reviewed the German research literature on scandals to outline a theory of scandal as a socially constructed communication pattern. Drawing from Hondrich (1989), Esser and Hartung (2004) studied how scandals are selected in two stages. In the first step, “the mass media decide whether a grievance that is made known to them is published or not. Reasons not to publish include absence of news value, lack of willingness to grind someone else’s axe, loyalty toward the person or group that misbehaved, and saving the material for later use or for exerting pressure” (p. 1042). In the second step, the public decides “whether outrage is appropriate or inadequate” (Ibid.). They list some of the motives for suggesting the existence of scandals: sincere outrage, desire to harm someone (a rival politician or a person to confront), or look for personal gain of prestige or money. They also classify the scandal by the type of the denouncer, i.e. whether she (a) is opposed to the political system; (b) is a politician from another party; (c) is a rival in her own party or organization; (d) belongs to the mass media.

Esser and Hartung also analyzed the role of the mass media in the birth and development of a scandal, distinguishing three steps:

  • First, the news media outlet provides the space for the denouncer to suggest the scandal publicly.
  • Then, the media ecosystem reacts to the scandal and moves from merely suggested to a fully developed scandal. If nothing happens, that is, if no other media follow the lead of the first publication, the issue fails to achieve the status of scandal.
  • Third, for the people involved in the scandal, it is very complicated to determine the real impact of the story, i.e., the real extent of outrage in the public. The offender might assume that the mass media coverage is a proxy of public outrage.

There are some cases where the break of the story and lead does not come from the news media but from the organized civil society, like in the case of the “Tarjetas Black” scandal (Levi & Salgado, 2018), where the 15MpaRato initiative, arising from the Xnet initiative, was able to get the case to trial and convict the defendants1.

Figure 50: False leak on El Mundo front page on 2014-10-28. See original front page on kiosko.net.

Scandals can be based on real corruption cases/crimes or may be made-up, i.e. invented by the political parties or news organizations to harm rival parties. For example, the case of Xavier Trias, Mayor of Barcelona between 2011 and 2015, who suffered an interested and false leak about the existence in Switzerland of a bank account owned by him within the so-called Operation Catalonia, a campaign against the independence movement orchestrated from the Ministry of Interior under the mandate of the minister Jorge Fernández Díaz, which reached the front page of the newspaper El Mundo (Fig. 50)2.

In summary, scandals are intense communication processes involving important parts of the news media ecosystem that condemn the transgression of real or fake norms by people with societal power, such as politicians or celebrities. The production of a scandal is more dependent on the socio-political situation and the protagonist’s position of power than on the severity of the illegal behavior. The analysis of corruption scandals provides an excellent opportunity for researchers to analyze the impact of news media on the public agenda, as information almost comes exclusively from the mainstream media.

1Among them, Rodrigo de Rato y Figaredo, the ex-managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and president of Bankia.

2In 2017, Trias, however, was involved in the Paradise Papers scandal that showed that he had a family company in the British Virgin Islands, a well-known tax haven (Escudero, 2017).

Bilbiography of this chapter #

Costas-Pérez, E. (2014). Political Corruption and Voter Turnout: Mobilization or Disaffection?

Costas-Pérez, E., Solé-Ollé, A., & Sorribas-Navarro, P. (2012). Corruption scandals, voter information, and accountability. European Journal of Political Economy, 28(4), 469–484. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2012.05.007

Entman, R. M. (2012). Scandal and Silence. Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct. Cambridge: Polity Press. https://books.google.com/books/about/Scandal_and_Silence.html?id=-CCrHe8WuFcC

Escudero, J. (2017, November 8). Cómo hemos investigado en El Confidencial y La Sexta la conexión “offshore” de los Trias. elconfidencial.com. https://www.elconfidencial.com/economia/paradise-papers/2017-11-08/papeles-paraiso-investigacion-trias-el-confidencial-la-sexta_1473165/

Esser, F., & Hartung, U. (2004). Nazis, Pollution, and no Sex: Political Scandals as a Reflection of Political Culture in Germany. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(8), 1040–1071. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764203262277

Fernández-Vázquez, P., Barberá, P., & Rivero, G. (2016). Rooting Out Corruption or Rooting for Corruption? The Heterogeneous Electoral Consequences of Scandals. Political Science Research and Methods, 4(2), 379–397. https://doi.org/10.1017/psrm.2015.8

Hondrich, K. O. (1989). Skandalmärkte und Skandalkultur. In M. Haller, H.-J. Hoffmann-Nowotny, & W. Zapf (Eds.), Kultur und Gesellschaft: Verhandlungen des 24. Deutschen Soziologentags, des 11. Österreichischen Soziologentags und des 8. Kongresses der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Zürich 1988 (pp. 575–586). Campus Verl.

Johnston, M. (2005). Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Jowitt, K. (1983). Soviet Neotraditionalism: The political corruption of a Leninist regime. Soviet Studies, 35(3), 275–297. https://doi.org/10.1080/09668138308411481

Just, M. R., & Crigler, A. N. (2019). Media coverage of political scandals: Effects of personalization and potential for democratic reforms. In The routledge companion to media and scandal. Routledge.

Levi, S., & Salgado, S. (2018). Votar y cobrar: La impunidad como forma de gobierno. Capitán Swing Libros.

Mancini, P. (2019). Corruption scandals and the media system. In The routledge companion to media and scandal. Routledge.

Sikorski, C. von. (2018). Political Scandals as a Democratic Challenge. The Aftermath of Political Scandals: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Communication, 12(0), Article 0.

Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal: Power and visibility in the media age. Polity Press.

Tumber, H., & Waisbord, S. (2019). Media and scandal. In The routledge companion to media and scandal. Routledge.

Villoria, M., & Jiménez, F. (2012). La corrupción en España (2004-2010): Datos, percepción y efectos / Corruption in Spain (2004-2010): Data, Perception and Consequences. Reis, 138, 109–134.

Wedel, J. R. (2001). Corruption and organized crime in post-communist states: New ways of manifesting old patterns. 7(1), 3–61.