Reporting the EU: Boring and Complicated?

October 22, 2014 • Specialist Journalism • by

Journalism covers the European Union well – for the elite. Global newspapers, wire services, specialist magazines, websites and think tanks, as well as the information published by the EU institutions themselves, are well informed and often critical. But according to a new report, the general public is less well served.

Reporting the EU, by John Lloyd and Cristina Marconi, found that news desks believe their audiences find stories about Brussels too boring and technical. They think Brussels lacks sufficient drama, or well-known personalities to make good copy, especially for TV journalists. Popular newspapers rarely have a permanent correspondent in Brussels.

The report, published this week by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford, reveals that recent EU crises have made reporting Brussels more exciting and more central to the news agendas. However, many journalists, even EU specialists, have struggled to understand the nature of the crisis in the Eurozone, and in Europe generally. The complexity of the financial and monetary crisis, and the mechanisms developed to deal with it, were beyond the expertise of many reporters.

The report also notes that most news organisations covering the EU concentrate on what its proposals, debates and decisions mean for their readers or viewers.  The EU is less often covered as a centre of European power, more often as an adjunct to national politics. Global news organisations are usually the exceptions.

Lloyd and Marconi, who interviewed journalists and EU officials for their research, found that most Brussels-based reporters believe that as more Eurosceptic parties are represented at the EU it will become increasingly interesting to cover. John Lloyd, RISJ Senior Research Fellow and a contributing editor to the Financial Times, and a co-author, said: ‘We are on the brink of a fascinating time for journalism from Brussels. Politicians have been elected who have a reputation for being outspoken and populist, keen on starting controversies and using abrasive language. This sort of fare is bread and butter for journalists struggling to engage their readers with stories about the EU.”

Yet, despite this optimism there is evidence the press corps in Brussels is getting smaller. This has a negative impact on those states most affected by the recent Eurozone crisis, such as Greece.

As their numbers decline, the Brussels press corps is also growing increasingly sceptical and detached. The report’s authors note that in the first decades of the EU the journalism was largely admiring. Journalists shared a belief in the ideals and ambitions to forge ‘an ever closer union’: this was true, in the first period, of the UK as well. However since the 1980s, the reporting has grown more negative and the euro crisis made it more critical.

Strongly Eurosceptic reporting is still a minority, and is still dominated by the UK – a tradition set in the 1980s by, above all, The Sun when edited by Kelvin MacKenzie, and the Daily Telegraph when its EU correspondent was Boris Johnson, presently Mayor of London. However critical voices – including from those in favour of greater integration – are much more in evidence now:  many correspondents report that their audiences at home are more sceptical, even hostile, to the European project.

The journalists interviewed for the report gave the EU’s press service mixed reviews. Most of the press officers are seen as well informed – but they are also thought to be defensive in the face of criticism, and over ‘ideological’ about the EU’s mission.

Cristina Marconi, a freelance journalist who covered Brussels for Italian newspapers, said that it was important that journalists continued to report, and question, the EU: “The European Union is powerful, multi-national and has been and remains the centre for aspiration, challenge, the embedding and spreading of democratic governance – as well as sceptical polemic, charges of failure and weak leadership. It’s the perfect place for a journalism that holds its power to account.”

pic credit: European Union 2011 PE-EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari

 

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