Social European Journalism Promoting social and civic European journalism

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INTRODUCTION

A paradox

Since the European elections were first held in 1979, the level of participation in them has continually fallen. The record for the highest ever abstention was again beaten in June 2009, when only 43% of European citizens (29% of young people, aged 18 to 24) turned out to vote.
We are seeing a tremendous paradox: while the powers of the European institutions continue to grow, influencing much of national legislation and thus the daily lives of some 500 million Europeans, these Europeans during elections (which best represent the exercise of democracy), express a growing sense of alienation from their Community representatives.

Nothing is set in stone

But does this sense of alienation indicate a lack of interest in the European project? Not necessarily.
One only has to look at the high turnout of voters in the French referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, held in 2005: it attracted more than 69% of voters. The debate about Europe was a hot topic among citizens at the time. A similar thing happened in the Netherlands (63.3% of voters). If nothing else, these examples show that the lack of interest in Europe is not a foregone conclusion.
Some people wonder why people’s commitment to Europe is falling, whereas information on Europe is more widely distributed than ever, thanks in particular to the Internet. While there is plenty of information like this, it mainly consists of official communication. This communication is essential but not sufficient.Less common is European information analysed with genuine journalistic added value – a concern for pluralism, independence and clarity. This kind of European information is also hard to find. Some categories get more than extensive coverage, while others are poorly covered.
Moreover, European information is often well out of date, emerging usually once a decision has already been taken. Updates on European directives and regulations can be found with ease. But much harder to find is information before a European decision is taken. Yet this kind of information would really help citizens and associations to make their viewpoint known, ensuring they are better taken into consideration by elected representatives and decision-makers.

Keeping people better informed in 'advance'

Unless there is better information provided 'in advance' of decisions, there is a great risk that the European Union will be hijacked forever by experts and technocrats… and that the gap between it and its citizens will keep on growing. Without support, the EU could fail as a result of this, which would be a crying shame. More than ever we need an effective political EU, based on an understanding among different nations (and between them), in order to meet the great challenges facing us in the near future: ensuring social and economic prosperity, protecting the environment, cooperating with developing countries, and so on

The role of journalists

How can more civic participation be encouraged at the European level? Journalists, particularly those who work at the local and regional levels and who are therefore closest to people, have a vital role to play here.
Nobody can deny that European information is still a poor relation when it comes to information coming from journalists. The number of European correspondents in Brussels is in free-fall. At the same time, journalists working in the EU Member States at national, regional and local levels provide very little coverage of European issues, which tend to be perceived as issues related to 'foreign policy'.
The good news is that innovative projects are taking place all over the EU, in which the media (printed press, radio, TV, Internet, etc.) are fully engaged and doing well through ‘local-level European journalism’. Yet they are not well-known and are few and far between. Many of them only last a short time, as they are backed by temporary European funding.
Nevertheless, the experience resulting from these projects is very useful: it shows that audiences are not necessarily put off when the media look at Europe. This contradicts the misconception commonly held by journalists. Everything hinges on the way this subject is tackled...

Three watchwords

The watchwords for European information that really has an impact on citizens are: 'Concrete', to bring out the links between European-level decisions and daily life at local level; 'Education', to help people understand the EU's institutional political system; and 'Debate', to highlight the challenges, reveal the parameters of problems, and encourage people to commit themselves with full knowledge of facts.
The first three parts of this document focus on analysing the current situation regarding European information, in terms of these three challenges.
A fourth and final part is based on this analysis, in order to come up with concrete proposals, mainly aimed at institutions and European political decision-makers.

1 CREATING THE CONDITIONS FOR PLURALIST INFORMATION, NECESSARY FOR A TRUE EUROPEAN DEBATE

1.1 Limitations of traditional sources of European information

1.1.1 EUROPEAN INSTITUTIONAL COMMUNICATION

The main European political institutions are guided in their work by very diverse situations. They focus on the quantity of information produced, sometimes compromising on quality and the relevance of content.
It is also worth underlining that they do communication, which is perfectly legitimate and absolutely necessary. But this communication should not be confused with journalistic information work, which is adapted for the needs of citizens and is done in an independent and critical way by journalists who add value. Moreover each institution's communication is organised in very different ways and according to very different rules.
The European Parliament produces vast amounts of raw information (every little debate is covered by a report published in several languages) but struggles to communicate this. Parliamentarians could act as vital relays between European and local levels; but they are often disconnected from their electors, as a result of their physical distance from home. Moreover, they are only in their jobs for a short time at the European Parliament, which further complicates the ability to create a structured long-term dialogue with citizens.
The European Commission does a lot of communication, which has become increasingly professional in recent years. But this communication is also increasingly formatted, prepared and shaped by spokespeople (there are around a hundred!) and the communication units in each Directorate-General. The former European Commissioner in charge of communication, Margot Wallström, tried to set up some small innovations aimed at making communication more conversational and concrete. But most of her initiatives have come to nothing. In light of the first proposals from her successor, Commissioner Viviane Reding, the open door appears to be closing again. Reding's communication plan is moving towards ever stricter control of European communicators, such as journalists and citizens: spokespeople follow an autocue, crisis communication is done by text message, Commissioners' press relations are being 'personalised', blogs and social networks are continuously monitored in order to make 'instant denials' of the comments of web-users, and so on.
The Council of the Union European, the body representing the Member States (made up of national ministers), started out as a rather indistinct institution, but is becoming increasingly transparent. However this transparency is not yet perfect, particularly when the Council plays its legislative role. The Council of course has a press officer, just as the European Parliament does. The results of votes and, when there is a codecision, the final deliberations, are made public. But the upstream decision-making process is not at all clear. On the subject of the Council, we are reminded that the Member States are not powerless and 'disconnected' from European policies, since they play a key role in the decision-making process.

1.1.2 NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS MAKE POOR AMBASSADORS

When a national policy faces public opinion's disapproval, there is a great temptation among governments to lay the blame on 'Brussels', as a result of which citizens are misdirected against their will.
Yet this idea – 'it's the fault of Brussels' – is wrong and discourages people.
It is wrong because the term 'Brussels' gives the impression that every European institution (Parliament, Commission, Council) is responsible, whereas each of them has its own function and defends its own positions.
It is discouraging because it leads people to think that the Member States have no influence on European decisions, whereas national governments are at the centre of the European decision-making machine.
This incomplete vision, 'it's the fault of Brussels', tends to scare people off from engaging in European debates. It therefore hampers democracy.

1.1.3. EVER SMALLER NUMBERS OF CORRESPONDENTS

Journalists covering the EU are traditionally correspondents based in Brussels. But their numbers are falling. According to the International Press Association, there were 847 in February 2010, compared to 1,300 in 2005. However, as of the end of 2010, there has been a slight increase in the number of correspondents to around 1,000. Is this increase sustainable or just temporary, linked to the financial crisis in the EU? Besides the correspondents, very few journalists working at the national and local levels have any training on the way the European institutions work or on practical ways of covering European information.
Correspondents do an important job and call on a rich variety of information sources. But they are often pushed for time and their publishers are always calling for quick news and less in-depth articles.
European correspondents in Brussels are also under growing and sometimes excessive pressure from communicators, especially the European Commission. For example the 'Midday Briefing', a key and vital tool, is one of the few places where journalists are still free to ask the questions they want and with no time limitations. However, during these daily briefings, the speeches made by the Commission spokespeople are becoming increasingly formatted and controlled.
In many cases, correspondents find themselves isolated from their national and regional editors – who set limits to and compartmentalise European information, without leaving sufficient breathing space for the local dimension.
So European information is mainly in decline and is more about explaining European decisions than stimulating debate.

1.2 Unequal access to European information

There is a huge amount of European information available, produced either by journalists or simply disseminated by the official institutions.
But the problem is that this information is not accessed equally by everyone. In the centres of big European cities, educated elites enjoy wider access to European information, just as they have more access to political information in general, which tends to exclude poorer populations and peripheral regions. This is the case in Brussels and Strasbourg, with poorer areas located just a few kilometres from the institutions being more isolated from the EU than the centres of London or Paris.
This unequal access to 'daily' European information also stems from a difference in people's basic knowledge of the European institutions and the rights associated with European citizenship. In that respect, the 'Standard Eurobarometer' opinion poll n°73, published in August 2010, is very revealing. People with few educational qualifications, who fit into the low income socio-professional category and who struggle to pay their bills, are also the ones who are less aware of their rights as European citizens.

1.3 Industrialisation of information and the sidelining of political information

1.3.1 LACK OF A CLEAR DEFINITION OF MEDIA PLURALISM

Traditionally, there is a distinction between 'external pluralism' for the media, which means a plurality of media ownership structures, and 'internal pluralism', meaning the information pluralism delivered by these media.
Internal pluralism in our view is linked to two conditions: ensuring a diversity of political opinions and viewpoints in the media (i.e. political pluralism) and ensuring that the same media have an expression space for the different cultures that make up society (cultural pluralism).
The Council of Europe has always been highly active in the field of media pluralism, although it does not have any legal or decision-making powers in this field.
In the EU, things are different. The requirement to develop strong media groups at pan-European level, in order to challenge the growing might of the US and Japan in the sector, has made it harder to offer full protection to any pluralism at national level. Which is why the Member States themselves have drawn up legislation, with widely varying results.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights clearly guarantees media pluralism, in its article 11. Yet this pluralism is above all conceived as external pluralism, in response to the obsession to avoid state monopolies or to limit the economic concentration of private interests.
However external pluralism alone cannot guarantee internal pluralism. In the general television market for example, experience has even shown that the competition created by a plurality of players has still resulted in some content redundancy.
It is also worth noting that the anti-concentration rules, which vary greatly from Member State to Member State, are apparently incapable of effectively guaranteeing this plurality of ownership structures.
An illusion of pluralism is created by the multiplicity of titles and information media, such as the growing segmentation of thematic offerings. Yet the concentration of media ownership among a limited number of owners and the rationalisation of work associated with purely economic objectives are leading to homogenised editorial content. Increasingly formatted and stereotypical, this content prevents any meeting of the diversity of political opinions and cultural expressions.

1.3.2. NO CULTURAL EXCEPTION FOR THE FINANCIAL CRISIS

The international financial crisis has led to a drop in advertising revenue. The media are cutting their costs, which often results in staff cuts. There are fewer and fewer employed journalists, who are being replaced by freelance journalists with little job security. There is a great temptation to simply 'copy-paste' press releases from agencies, to deliver raw information immediately without first looking at it with a critical and analytical eye, and without putting it into context for readers. This problem is further compounded by multi-ownership, which leads to all the titles in a media group publishing the same article but with different headlines.
The media are viewed as an industry like any other. Their use value (pluralism and forming opinion) then comes up against their exchange value (economic function), which has far greater influence in the balance of power.
This can be seen in the well-known comments of Patrick Le Lay, chairman and managing director of the French channel TF1, which were published in the newspaper Le Monde in July 2004: "There are many ways to debate television. But from a business perspective, we should be realistic: in essence, it is the job of TF1 to help Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product. (…) What we sell to Coca-Cola is the time available to the human mind.”
Against that background, only a robust public service and the development of community-based media would seem to be capable of turning the situation around. And that day still seems a long way off.

1.4 Public service caught up in a twin struggle for its economic and institutional independence

The funding for public service media varies significantly, depending on the situation in each of the 27 Member States. The additional Protocol of the EU's Amsterdam Treaty gives legitimacy to public funding of the media, but says that the Member States alone have the competence to define the public service missions and their funding, while complying with European rules on state aid.
Notwithstanding the diverse situations in each state, it is clear today that the licence fee is being debated throughout Europe, both within governments and among the people.
Given the multitude of programmes freely available on the Internet and the private media's new commercial policy, with pay-as-you-go subscriptions, and the ability to pay only for what one uses, Europeans are becoming less and less comfortable with the idea of a licence fee. However, a ruling by the European Court of Human rights (case of Faccio v. Italy) has reaffirmed that the licence fee is a contribution from everyone to the common public service, rather than a payment for receiving a particular channel.
Be that as it may, these contributions are still fairly small. While the public service media traditionally top them up through revenue raised from commercial activities (advertising, sponsoring, commercial operation of programmes), they benefit increasingly from funds granted by the state. These funds come from taxes on the revenue of broadcasters and telecommunication operators.
This development is of course a way for the public media to ensure their content’s independence, when faced with advertisers and the power of audience ratings.
Without doubt, the ratings race has pushed public service media to follow the private media, which has resulted in a drop in quality. The private media have therefore often accused them of unfair competition. While there is some truth in this, it is worth noting that the top 20 European media companies only include three public corporations (BBC, ARD and RAI).
On the other hand, this trend for funding to come mainly from the state gives rise to some concerns about a growing dependence on national governments. And we are right to be concerned, because in many of these states the licence fee is already no longer collected directly by public broadcasters, and sharing ‘according to the needs’ of each broadcaster is also no longer determined by an independent body.
Given all the above, it is high time to rethink the funding conditions and checks on the independence of public service media.

1.5 Insufficient recognition of community-based media

A European Parliament non-legislative resolution, dated 25 September 2008, recognises the importance of the role of community-based media in safeguarding information pluralism in the EU. The parliamentarians said that these media are a separate sector – because of their local rooting, the responsibility they have to the community they serve, as well as their social and cultural support. These media therefore need to be differentiated from commercial media and should be protected.
We agree with that assessment. The community-based media allow for dissident voices to be heard, which encourages political debate. But they also enable the representation and expression of minorities, who are traditionally given no space (unless it is stereotypical) in the mainstream media.
So what we are seeing is the gradual professional development of these media, which cleverly combine the structural participation of citizens in the media and a guarantee of journalistic ethics by calling on professionals.
Nevertheless, the legal recognition of community-based media today varies greatly from Member State to Member State. They tend only to have limited access to TV broadcasting frequencies. Their funding is still fragile and often does not cover the cost of their web development activities –even though these activities are less costly than radio broadcasting.
They are still also largely under-informed about the community funding which they could claim (ERDF, ESF, lifelong learning, etc.)

1.6 Lack of long-term vision for European financial aid for European journalism

The European Commission develops support programmes for the practice of European journalism, by granting occasional and time-limited financial support to European productions or programmes. But this is just a drop in the ocean. The procedures are very burdensome and the eligibility criteria do not encourage the latest initiatives. With long-term funding, these projects die away as fast as they are created. Moreover, direct and occasional financial support of this kind again raises the question of exploitation, whether deliberate or not, of journalists.
The European Commission representations to the Member States, through their financial support initiatives for European information, increasingly try to take into account the local media, and the journalists working at a local or regional level. But what is the impact of these initiatives? Sadly, there have been no studies to assess these less central initiatives in each Member State and on a Commission level.
The Europe Direct network, which has longer term support from the Commission, has around 500 local information centres for the ‘general public’, managed by bodies that are independent of the Commission. Since each centre has its own networks, this organisation could disseminate European information widely. But they are only allocated minimal funding. And although some of them organise initiatives for local journalists, these initiatives tend to be few and far between, due to a lack of coordination.
When Margot Wallström was European Commissioner in charge of communication, she tried to encourage some new approaches. The most notable of these involved support for European information exchange networks managed by the operators – the media themselves. The idea behind this was to replace the occasional support granted directly to journalists to cover Europe and to counter the risk of having only a short-lived impact and the risk of exploitation. To that end, support was given to Euranet, the European radio network which even today only enjoys limited success.
Unfortunately, the interesting initiatives that came under Margot Wallström never had enough time to find their way into any real applications. And one problem still has not been solved: the belief that at the European level the gap between people and the institutions is mainly the result of a lack of communication (yet there is plenty of this), rather than a lack of information (there really is a lack of this). Yet for measures to be effective, they must be based on a sound analysis right from the start.
The programmes on Europe that are broadcast in the audiovisual sector are often delivered as turnkey productions by the agency which has produced them for the institutions.
TV is clearly a European information channel. But because it is solely developed internally and is broadcast on the Internet, this channel has a limited public audience.

2 BACK TO BASICS: TRAINING IN ORDER TO INFORM BETTER AND KEEP ONESELF INFORMED

2.1 Journalist Training: a lot of work Is needed

2.1.1 JOURNALISM IS A PROFESSION

Nowadays, the web’s interactivity enables anyone to make instant comments from their home on press articles, to sign five petitions in less than five minutes, and to keep their own blog. This participation or individual reaction to web content has its pluses and minuses, which are not covered in this debate.
Yet it seems a bit of an exaggeration to call this trend ‘citizen journalism’. Because unlike community-based media, this is not real structural participation in the media.
This method is more interactive than participative, sometimes resulting more in a juxtaposition of opinions (typically emotional) than a meeting or a well-argued dialogue. Furthermore, it is often not written with regard to the ethical rules of the journalist profession.

2.1.2 FROM GREAT NON-SPECIALISTS TO ULTRA-SPECIALISTS... WHERE ARE JOURNALISTS TODAY?

When covering specialist subjects, editorial staff often have to deal with two opposing options, both biased:

  • Firstly, the belief that a journalist can cover any subject, when called on to rewrite facts and opinions. Yet journalistic analysis calls for at least some knowledge. Due to a lack of time and for reasons of safety, ‘copy-pasting’ is a common practice.
  • Secondly, the search for highly specialised participants (e.g. with deep knowledge of economics), yet who may not know enough about journalistic practice.

Both of these options can hamper the real journalistic work of analysing, comparing and writing up information for general audiences, with a view to helping people make up their own minds and choices.
Without meaning to, the media therefore disseminate and focus on certain terms, such as political involvement. And although terms like these may go largely unnoticed, they still have an impact on people’s awareness of issues. One example is the notion of ‘market’. Personified and worshipped, the market is presented as an autonomous and essential actor. But what is missing are questions about the market’s legitimacy and structures, the actors behind the market.

2.1.3 FEW JOURNALISM SCHOOLS OFFER TRAINING ON EUROPE

The European Journalism Training Association (EJTA) brings together more than 50 schools from 23 different countries, and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010. But only a minority of them include European journalism in their course modules.
There are examples of networking work experience between schools that do not offer such courses, such as Micro-Europa, the recent European grouping of web radios produced by journalism students. Through this grouping, the work of students involves linking local information to related European issues. The students also share information about the situations they face on the ground in their countries, regions and local areas. The network offers concrete experience of the practice of local-level European journalism and the practice of European citizenship.
Micro-Europa and other similar initiatives are useful testing grounds for alternative methods. But it should be said that these innovative initiatives depend largely on the budgetary priorities of school management and the dedication of a few teachers who invest time and effort in supporting them.

2.1.4 FURTHER EDUCATION FOR JOURNALISTS: AN AREA IN NEED OF HELP

A study by Christine Leteinturier, published by the 'Institut Français de journalistes français à l’aube de l’an 2000: profils et parcours’, showed that in 1999 only 12% of those who held the profession’s identity card in France were graduates of the eight French schools that were recognised at the time.
These figures have since changed. However, the profession remains open, which means that the question of further education for journalism – and especially European journalism – needs to be seriously addressed.
A number of journalism schools now invest in further education in European journalism. But they are not always easy to find.
The European Journalism Centre(EJC) welcomes journalists from Brussels and organises seminars for them on the different aspects of work in the institutions. These seminars provide journalists with very useful content and working networks. However, it remains to be seen how this content will be covered and how it can be disseminated in local information.

2.2 Training citizens: the three challenges for basic education

In broader terms, this raises the question about the place of Europe in basic education: primary, secondary, and higher.
Schools face three interrelated challenges in this area:

  • offering lively and practical courses on institutional Europe;
  • stimulating active citizenship;
  • encouraging intercultural meetings and horizontal European integration.

2.2.1 OFFERING LIVELY AND PRACTICAL COURSES ON INSTITUTIONAL EUROPE

Europe as a subject is a huge gap in school programmes. Often limited to courses on history, geography or civics, the construction of Europe and its institutions is presented as something that just happened, almost by itself. Teachers have not been trained to cover the topic in any other ways. Some innovative teaching material on Europe has been developed, but only ‘outside’ of the public education system – in community initiatives financed by the European Commission’s DG Education and Culture or in representations of the Commission.
Schools could move away from their comfort zone and static teaching model, by tackling Europe and all its debates as a subject. They could envisage Europe as an evolving political community. If this were to happen, Europe could be taught in every school course, thus encouraging the intercultural exchange areas that are so essential for the construction of a European identity.
Any new approach to Europe in schools will require a new approach to teaching as a whole. This would place civic education at the heart of such teaching.

2.2.2. STIMULATING ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP

Nowadays, citizenship is mainly viewed as something static: simply a list of rights and duties, rather than a dynamic process involving the ‘joint construction’ of the world we all live in. For the latter to happen, schools should examine their relationship to knowledge. A Belgian study by the APED (Appel Pour une École Démocratique) carried out in 2008, ‘Seront-ils des citoyens critiques?’ (Will they be critical citizens?), underlined the very poor knowledge of general culture among young people leaving secondary schools – even among those who had achieved good academic results (subjects such as the environment and sustainable development, understanding the economy and social issues, understanding North-South relations, history, etc.).
Schools should also change their relationship to power. For example they could encourage pupils to get involved in community life, by making sure pupils are represented in decision-making processes that concern them.

2.2.3. ENCOURAGING INTERCULTURAL MEETINGS AND HORIZONTAL EUROPEAN INTEGRATION

Exchanges are the best way to stimulate young people’s interest in culture.
To that end, one of the avenues now being explored is mobility. Many European mobility programmes (Comenius for primary and secondary education, Erasmus for higher education, Leonardo Da Vinci for vocational education, and Grundvig for adult education) are partial answers to this challenge.
But there can be no denying that Erasmus for example is still mainly reserved for privileged young people. The programme often results in students having little real contact with their social surroundings.
As for teaching mobility, this is much less common and rarely encouraged.
Besides mobility, the development of networking cooperation should be encouraged between school institutions and with the outside world – especially the network of community associations.

3 MAKING EUROPEAN INFORMATION A REALITY: INNOVATIVE RELATIONS BETWEEN JOURNALISTS AND EUROPEAN NGO

3.1 Why the European NGOs?

Rather than speaking about ‘European NGOs’, we could have used the term ‘civil society organisations’. However the term ‘civil society’ is rather vague, because each country and European institution has a different definition of it. But an assessment of the distribution between political, social and civil dialogue at the European level shows that organised civil society is more represented by non-profit associations, by non-market organisations in the social and solidarity-based economy, and by mutual insurance companies and NGOs than it is by unions and political parties.
We do not deny the value for journalists of getting lots of information from companies, professional organisations and unions. But in this analysis of the ‘mutually advantageous’ relationships that may arise between journalists and civil society, we have chosen to use the more limited definition of civil dialogue. Moreover, within that definition, we have kept the term ‘NGOs – non-governmental organisations’ (an English-language term) because it is widely understood throughout Europe.

3.2 The growing political role of European NGOs

For several decades, NGOs have played an increasingly important role in society, and this strong trend can be seen throughout Europe. They bring together tens of thousands of citizens and generally work to defend the public’s interest. They tend to work towards non-commercial goals and cover an increasingly wide range of areas. For example, only 30 years ago, the environment barely figured on political agendas. Today, there is an ever-growing number of active and effective NGOs focused on the protection of the environment.
The EU institutions have taken note of these changes. The Treaty of Lisbon aims to encourage structured dialogue with the representatives of civil society. Over recent years, the European Commission has improved and strengthened its consultation methods at every level (on a mainly sectoral basis) with civil society organisations. Or perhaps we should say, NGOs.
That said, the European Commission seeks dialogue with European and non-national organisations. This has resulted in a European structuring of NGOs and the establishment of offices in Brussels. These European NGOs, numbering around a thousand, represent more or less 20% (in terms of employees and the number of structures) of the lobbying strike force in Brussels and Strasbourg (the large European lobbying battalions representing the big business sector). Unlike the European social partners, NGOs are not truly ‘integrated’ in the European decision-making process. But they do wield increasing influence on the institutions.
The European NGOs do not officially represent citizens. They cannot take the place of their elected representatives. However, unions and employers’ organisations represent their members. The European NGOs are not ‘unions’ for citizens.
In Brussels, these European NGOs join forces in major groups, working on specific themes: the environment, consumer protection, fight against racism, social action, development cooperation, etc. Some receive European funding to help them coordinate their work at the European level. For them, this involves highlighting European viewpoints, which can be a tricky task – given the 23 languages spoken, the diverse situations from country to country, and often very limited funds.
The daily task for these European NGOs, which are associated with the decision-making process and are consulted by the European institutions, is to analyse European legislative drafts. The NGOs examine them in light of their sectoral concerns and the relevance for citizens, whose viewpoints they try to convey, and they develop positions that throw new light on official European drafts (sometimes this light will strongly contradict the legislative drafts). NGOs are the link between the European and political dimension and the true situation. In their own way and within their specific role, these European NGOs are faced by a challenge not unlike that facing journalists: avoiding jargon, getting the message across, underlining where the various aspects of a contradiction lie, shedding light on and giving concrete expression to challenges, and so on.

3.3 New relations between journalists and NGOs would benefit NGOs

NGOs are increasingly organised when it comes to passing on information they have picked up in the field. But they find it more difficult to convey European information to citizens, including to their own members. Yet much of their communication effort is focused on internal information and raising awareness at the local level. In this exchange of ideas, the technical information on the challenges of European politics often falls through the cracks. This is due to a desire to satisfy busy people, in other words to raise awareness of the environmental, economic, political and social issues.
Most NGOs do not have dedicated employees for press relations.
NGOs struggle to communicate their information: even if journalists are interested, their editors may often be more reticent. NGOs cannot match the firepower of the private sector. For example, in an international negotiation on climate change, Volkswagen’s press conference on its latest car model will take priority over a conference organised by an NGO.
The reality is that local journalists are unfamiliar with European NGOs active in Brussels, because they themselves are not based there. They have little knowledge of the complexity of the projects that NGOs work on: they simply know an NGO for its activities or because of its reputation.
NGOs have the impression that they can only interest journalists through their position as activists, which means NGOs feel they have to ‘create a newsworthy event’.

3.4 New relations between journalists and NGOs would benefit journalists

For journalists seeking to add a European dimension to their news, NGOs are precious sources of relevant information. NGOs help journalists to explain how the European political dimension has an impact on people’s lives. Through these European NGOs, journalists can obtain (though of course they need to be careful not to become instruments for the NGOs) highly valuable information – enabling them to provide the desired added value. This can help to improve people’s understanding of (and increase their involvement in) European issues. In other words, this information from NGOs facilitates the dissemination of news, while making matters more concrete and stimulating debate. Field journalists can call on European NGOs to find facts, figures, and original views and critical viewpoints on official positions.
European NGOs based in Brussels have multilingual offices. They are structures representative of national organisations. In the national organisations, a field journalist – depending on his or her areas of interest – will benefit from identifying the ‘person in charge of European missions’, i.e. the person in Brussels who acts as link between the country and the European arena. By calling on that person, the journalist working in a specific country can obtain early information on a European aspect and do this in their mother tongue. They can also get valuable advice on ways to find out more about a subject by addressing other information sources – starting with the office of the European NGO, which is in direct contact with the institutions. He or she will also find useful contacts to identify ‘good policies’ and ‘good practices’ in other European countries and regions.
Indeed, ‘getting Europe into the local news’ is not just about explaining European policies and legislation (top-down) or passing on viewpoints to the institutions and elected European representatives (bottom-up). Adding colour to news with a European brush also means showing people (and helping them to understand) key events in other countries, by establishing comparisons, learning from other practices and policies, and better understanding others (horizontality). The EU (at least ideally) also means implementing the principle of ‘1 + 1 = 3’, promoting a vision of solidarity between peoples and territory, and showing the concrete benefits of interculturality. The EU’s motto is ‘United in diversity’.
The European NGOs and the NGOs in each Member State have their own communication means: papers, sites, magazines, etc. Over recent years, there has been a tendency for these communication means to become more professional. To ensure the quality of these publications, NGOs are increasingly taking on professional journalists, who have been trained in journalism schools. In many cases, these communication means have become true information means. They have therefore joined an emerging trend in various parts of Europe, shaking up the traditional media world.
For this reason, community-based media are also creating professional employment and social opportunities for talented journalists. That in itself is a good thing.
The traditional media – radio, television, newspapers – are also fast evolving. They are under growing commercial pressure. The status of journalists employed by traditional media is becoming less and less secure, sometimes resulting in a drop in quality in their output. So one could say that the traditional media are becoming more open to communication and that the new community-based media are becoming more open to information. To promote European, social and civic journalism, the NGOs could use their own media to become leading players.

Text author: IHECS and its partners.
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Contact: esther.durin@galilee.be