Improving the European Public Space

April 24, 2014 • Specialist Journalism • by

Stephan Russ-Mohl outlines some of the major initiatives needed urgently in the media if the currently discredited ‘European Project’ is to be revived.

Should this article just be a series of empty pages? Because let’s face it, there is no real European public sphere and no real European journalism. In the era of social media, of blogs and discussion forums some internet gurus argue that a European public sphere can exist without European journalism. Some prophets of digitalisation have been promising for years that publics can develop in democracies without professional journalism selecting, checking and investigating the news for its citizens (e.g. Jarvis 2013).

However, empirical studies do not support their arguments. Though ‘citizen journalists’ can and do tweet first eye-witness pictures of catastrophes around the globe, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have not replaced the mainstream media; rather they provide additional platforms adding resonance to news reports.

Even with the internet, the public sphere is largely created by journalism, that is, journalists are still the major gatekeepers of public communication. If whistleblowers such as Julian Assange or Edward Snowden want to attract worldwide attention for their specific causes, they cooperate in the US with The New York Times or the Washington Post and in Europe with the Guardian, Der Spiegel as well as with Le Monde and El Pais.

Crisis of trust in the EU

The crisis of trust into which the European Union has been slithering during the last years (Petersen 2013), has probably been triggered by the mainstream media’s coverage. Those who have not yet given up Europe as a project should try to explain how and why:

  • governments in EU countries do not respect laws and agreements which they have generated themselves (e.g. Maastricht criteria for public debt management);
  • the public finances in half of Europe spiraled out of control and that a euro bailout fund which is not solidly financed continues to endanger the economic stability of Europe;
  • the EU is regulating the bend of bananas and other shapes for fruit and vegetables to the very last detail, but in spite of its mania for regulation (‘Regulierungswahn’, see Enzensberger 2010) in many countries it is failing to implement the principles of democracy and the rule of law against obvious abuse of power;
  • corrupt mafia practices are spreading across Europe – instead of an ‘export of stability’, an ‘import of instabilities’ is either looming or already taking place (Nonnenmacher 2005);
  • along with all this, professional norms in journalism and in the media are overruled, and the power of media barons who abuse their power for political gain, is growing (Kus et al. 2013).

As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2013) points out, all this leads to an impression that the ‘Project Europe’ is close to failure due to mismanagement: ‘As an economically defined community of prosperity Europe has reached its limits.’ There are two ways for the project to come back to life. Through the political system and through the area of media and culture.

  • First and foremost, the democratic deficit at the European level needs to be reduced: The powers of the executive branch and the bureaucracy are growing, while parliamentary control and citizen participation is ineffective.
  • Second, a well-functioning fourth estate, an independent, informed and non-partisan journalism is lacking – a journalism which has the resources needed to engage in investigation (Marconi 2011) and which accompanies the ‘European Project’ with a benevolent and, nevertheless, critical eye.

The first issue has been widely discussed (Grimm 1992; Verheugen 2005; Wohlgemuth 2007; Enzensberger 2010; Schmidt 2010; Frey 2012; Neyer 2013); the second has received little attention so far: this is the matter this article seeks to address.

Another symptom of the failure of journalism

It’s hard to imagine another capital city with more accredited journalists than Brussels (Marconi 2011) but, nonetheless, the number of reporters in the city shrunk dramatically during the last years (Castle 2010). The number of foreign bureaus in Brussels has been cut and the remaining ‘lone warrior’ journalists in Brussels cannot keep up with the supremacy of the EU bureaucracy and the highly professional lobbying and PR activities.. It’s another symptom of the failure of journalism.

Even if correspondents in Brussels manage to dig out an important story, there is the real danger that the shrunken and under-pressure newsrooms at home do not recognise its relevance. Just one German example: in the fall of 2009, when the Treaty of Lisbon became effective, the news magazine Der Spiegel devoted about as much space to the reforms of the EU which affect all of us as to the economic policies of Belarus and to a currency reform in North Korea, according to a content analysis (Petersen 2013).

This may have changed in the aftermath of the Eurozone financial crisis, but the overall reporting conditions across the EU have deteriorated drastically. The journalism cultures which have emerged at the level of the European national states are all endangered by de-professionalisation, and growing job insecurity for journalists (Schnedler 2013). The reading publics are migrating in large numbers to the internet, and there they tend to be unwilling to pay for journalism. Financing high quality journalism by advertising no longer works either. The advertising industry wants to reach its target groups without spreading losses, and sites such as Facebook and Google can provide audience targeting which is hard to match (Russ-Mohl 2009, 2013).

When newsrooms have to cut their budgets, they tend to hit foreign correspondents first. Brussels is further away than the capital of their own country and the local church tower. Even if specific events and issues mean that news organisations have to report more than they used to on the EU and on European neighboring countries, the quality of coverage certainly has not improved. In fact, the eurozone crisis appears to have spawned a new nationalism across Europe, with clichés and stereotypes bursting through the media in a way we would not have considered possible a few years ago – for example, the prejudices about the ‘lazy and criminal’ Greeks and Italians, or the comparisons in southern European media of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Nazi leaders.

Failure of few attempts to set up distinctly European media

The few attempts to establish media with a European voice instead of the voices of the nation states have failed. Robert Maxwell’s The European, publications such as Lettre international and Le monde diplomatique, TV programmes like Euronews and Eurosport certainly cannot be seen as success stories. The few print media such as GEO, Gala or Auto-Bild which are translated into several languages and adapted to the national readerships are not creating a pan-European media sector. The narrow market of internationally geared newspapers in Europe is – with the exceptions of the Guardian and Financial Times – dominated by American brands like USA Today, Wall Street Journal Europe and the International Herald Tribune (Russ-Mohl 2003), now rebranded the International New York Times.

Instead of a pan-European journalism we still have many different journalism cultures in Europe. To understand the diversity of these media systems better, a glance at the annual rankings of press freedom (e.g. Reporters without Borders 2014) and at several recent comparative research projects might help (Sievert 1998; Hallin/Mancini 2005; Hanitzsch et al 2010; Anagnostou et al. 2010; Fengler/Eberwein 2014). In the press freedom ranking, Northern and Central European countries such as Finland (rank 1), Netherlands (2) and Norway (3) occupy traditionally the top positions, Southern and South-eastern EU members such as Italy (49), Hungary (rank 64) Greece (99) and Bulgaria (100) are at the bottom of the European league. The comparative research projects show that most of the other variables which help to measure the qualities of media systems and journalism cultures oscillate strongly from country to country.

Thus, journalism in Europe has remained a remarkably diverse and ‘local’ venture. Frequently it takes place within one language area, but national states also make a difference: for example, the German, Swiss and Austrian journalism cultures differ significantly from each other. To create a European journalism and thus a European public sphere may well be a futile project and a counterproductive one at that.
Strategy for a pan-European media

This, however, does not mean that everything should stay as it is. To the contrary, each strategy which wants to support the ‘European Project’ needs to start with the communicators in Europe. Only if journalists and other media practitioners share a common and open-minded pro-European attitude will the pan-European project continue to flourish for the next 50 years. Even if this may sound unrealistic, we need in Europe urgently

  • more journalists who are willing to look beyond local and national boundaries, who speak at least two or three European languages, who feel at home rather in two than in just one European country and who help to reduce prejudices, instead of reinforcing stereotypes;
  • more journalists who are well versed in the workings and aims of the European Union, in particular in the jungle of its administration in Brussels and the upstream lobbying activities there;
  • professional minimum standards, i.e. well-trained journalists who respect these norms, who fight for press freedom and who know that press freedom goes along with media accountability and with well-functioning self-control systems in the long run (Fengler et al. 2014); and
  • more enlightening journalistic coverage of media and journalism – which should also help media professionals learn from each other across language barriers and cultural borders.

In journalism training and mid-career programmes, language barriers often make it hard to give journalists a chance to look beyond national boundaries. Nonetheless, thanks to the Erasmus programmes and other exchanges, international cooperation among some journalism schools is increasing. European thinking and common European minimal standards of journalistic professionalism could best be developed in institutional environments where young journalists and media researchers would get together to exchange ideas and to reflect about their profession as well as about Europe’s future, for example

  • in European fellowship programs for journalists (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University; European Journalism Fellowships, FU Berlin);
  • in European mid-career training facilities (European Journalism Centre in Maastricht) and European universities – though such offers are still a drop in the ocean. In particular, it is surprising why European universities such as the Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder  do not offer programmes targeting future journalists. The European University in Florence has recently started two projects related to journalism: a monitor which observes how media pluralism is developing in Europe, and – together with the Central European University in Budapest – a midcareer program for journalists.
  • in comparative journalism research which has expanded significantly during the last years and should still be further enhanced, i.e. by interdisciplinary European Doctoral Schools in media research.

It may be argued that this is an elitist programme. However, the European project has always been enhanced by elites. Journalism in Europe is generally in a downward spiral, and such initiatives might help to reverse the decline. One of the challenges for European policy is to deal with the increasing economic and power concentration in the media sector which is endangering diversity and competition. Another challenge is to create ‘infrastructures’, which means: initiatives and institutions all over Europe which will strengthen the professional foundations of journalism in Europe under increasingly difficult economic conditions. To create this effect, the EU might impose on itself the rule that for each euro it spends on advertising or in PR for the EU – including the manipulation of surveys (Kühn 2012), it puts at least two euros into a fund to finance such infrastructures. This would help journalism to improve and it would reduce the EU’s spending of taxpayers’ money for self -promotion to an acceptable level.

However, it would be naive to expect too much from the institutions of the EU. Without the engagement of the civil society, without private foundations, without idealism and the willingness to self-exploitation of opinion leaders (such as journalists and media researchers) we will not succeed in building the new Europe. Last not least, we need to create networks which work across language and cultural barriers.
Crucial role of the European Journalism Observatory

The European Journalism Observatory (EJO) (of which I am a director) is an example of one such project. The EJO helps journalists, media managers, academics and other people interested in media find their around the rapidly digitalizing and converging media scene. It observes trends in journalism and in media research. It builds bridges between the different journalism cultures across Europe and the US and between media researchers and practitioners, and contributes to the improvement of quality in journalism and to a better understanding of the media by the public.

The project started ten years ago at the University of Lugano in Switzerland. The EJO has become a network of partner institutes in ten European languages and 13 countries– among them the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism at the University of Dortmund and Turiba University in Riga, the University of Wroclaw and the University of Tirana. The internet has become a key place for the professional exchange of information and the EJO has defined itself from the first moment as an online platform. With its own websites (, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts, it is not only distributing its own articles in ten languages, it is also aggregating relevant information and linking its users to other interesting websites. The editors of each language version decide which texts will be translated into their own language sites.

Its vision is to expand its multilingual platform and to make relevant insights and results from journalism and media research accessible to media practitioners. Each country-site focuses on its own journalism culture, but also translates texts from partner sites, giving its readers an overview of the European media scene. This is one of the most inexpensive platforms that provide journalists access to relevant information and that encourages media practitioners to reflect on their professions. The archive function helps create a resource that easily sits alongside more expensive products offering a similar service.

Most of the money for the project is coming from a country which is not an EU member. However, Europe could learn a lot about constructive cooperation across language barriers from this country –Switzerland. The foundation of the Corriere del Ticino, the largest regional subscription newspaper of Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, has supported EJO since it was founded in 2004. The Swiss National Science Foundation has provided seed money for six Eastern European EJO websites from 2011 to 2013 and continues to finance partially EJO’s activities in Switzerland. The Stiftung Presse-Haus NRZ and the Robert Bosch Stiftung are the main German supporters of the project, along with a number of other foundations. However, looking at its funding sources, EJO is still far away of being a truly European project.

Creating a new European space about journalism

Nevertheless, it is a first step, to create a ‘European public space’ about journalism and about the media – at least for journalists, media managers, media researchers and other media experts, and last not least for the next generation of professionals in these fields. There is also some hope that research funding agencies will change their policy and create more incentives for researchers to cooperate in similar dissemination projects: Whoever receives public funding for research projects should also be obliged to let the public access the research results. If a researcher applies for a new project, funding bodies should accept that if the results of his or her earlier research have been published across three columns in a respected newspaper like the Guardian or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that is as significant as a publication in a peer reviewed journals which will be read only by a small, highly specialised target group of fellow researchers. Otherwise many research results will continue to get dusty in library shelves or disappear in web depositories, instead of being publicly accessible and yielding fruits for practitioners.

Neither a European journalism nor a European public sphere will develop from these activities alone. However, if the EJO network continues to flourish and if further funding can be assured, it might help improve communication among communicators across Europe. Similar platforms might also help to make better use of research results in other areas, diffuse ‘best practices’ and to implement professional minimal standards across language barriers.

In particular, the social networks offer untapped communication opportunities for European initiatives and institutions. The communication among journalists as well as between media researchers and media practitioners can be improved if more information exchange takes place. In the long run, we could hope to create a diverse, multifaceted ‘European journalism culture’ which would rival the best of American journalism.

There are storms ahead for journalism in Europe and for the EU, but an increase of multi-lingual, multi-faceted communication between journalists, researchers, and other opinion leaders may help us all survive the worst of the weather.

This article was updated on 12 May 2014 to include details of new projects at the European University in Florence.

An earlier version of this article  first appeared  in the journal of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Gegenworte – Hefte für den Disput über Wissen, Heft Nr. 30/2013.

Photo credit: Spyros Papaspyropoulos / Flickr Cc


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