Ideas factory: 6 ideas for innovative EU journalism

Simple questions often make you think. Example: What is missing in EU journalism?

This article was originally published on my blog kosmopolito.org on Mar 12, 2015.

What sort of innovative journalistic products do we need that would innovate and improve reporting about the EU? Forget business models and organisational restraints for a moment — here are 6 ideas that would change the way we report the EU:

1. Cross-border and collaborative journalism

This is a no-brainer. The EU is about cross border issues. Reporting EU issues needs to go cross-border. However, this is not only about decision making processes (stories that take into account politics in Berlin and Paris are part of the reporting mix already); it is also about the effects of EU laws in different countries. For example: How did France and Italy transpose a certain directive — as opposed to Germany? What sort of effects can be observed? Is it working? And if not, why is it not working? This can get pretty complex so you would need teams of journalists from different countries that look into specific issues possibly teaming up with regulatory experts. Of course there are some promising examples of collaborative, cross-border journalism in Europe (see here or here) — but this can only be the beginning. Cross-border journalism is also about networking and finding ways to cooperate with journalists from across Europe in order to develop joint story ideas. Not everything needs to be as explosive and high profile as Lux Leaks or Swiss Leaks — smaller projects involving only 2 journalists from two countries may already be enough for a good cross-border story!

2. Explanatory journalism

I think journalists need to realise that they are dealing with a readership that suffers from a severe EU knowledge deficit. Lots of people are interested in EU topics — but most of thm don’t have that much background knowledge when it comes EU decision making. A few years ago, Jay Rosen had a very interesting idea that is worth revisiting. The idea was simple: Readers ask journalists to explain complex issues. He thought about the sort of answers one cannot easily find on google, wikipedia or reddit. Especially in a EU context this idea could work: EU procedures are often complex, EU-related wikipedia articles are not always up-to date, EU websites are often confusing and full of EU jargon — but many articles about the EU take a lot of things for granted. So why not invest time in formats that simply explain EU issues? Forget the long analysis pieces, 600 words may be enough to explain something. This could be a nice daily column in any newspaper, a good TV/ radio format or a useful online resource. It could also be used as a tool to facilitate a conversation between readers and journalists about what kind of EU issues need to be explained.

3. Podcasts

Producing a podcast is not rocket science. Podcasts are relatively easy to produce, the equipment needed is cheap and publishing it via itunes or other subscription services is simple and effective. Brussels seems to be a largely podcast-free zone. Many people like podcasts because it is something you don’t need to read. You can listen to it on the way to work or during a stroll through the park in your lunch break. However, a great podcast needs a bit of planning, good contacts — and a good moderator. Here are a few ideas what sort of podcasts could make sense in a EU environment:

  • BXL version of Slate’s Political Gabfest or another podcast with an interesting mix of interviews and debates. Needs a good moderator and a good concept.
  • “EU Today” ( quick overview of the daily EU agenda: 10 minutes, published at 8am)
  • “The week in trade/agriculture/digital/foreign policy”: think tanks and associations could start producing weekly podcasts with interviews or summaries of what has happened in their respective policy area.
  • Interview podcasts can be produced by anyone: journalists, think tanks, PA agencies. There are so many events in Brussels everyday: grab one of those speakers and do a 10 minutes interview. Publish it. Done. As I said, it’s not rocket science!
  • ‘Explain me this’ — a podcast that answers one question about EU affairs (see above)

4. Policy journalism

EU decision making takes a bit of time. The same applies for good EU journalism. Especially when it is about legislative developments. Journalism that focuses on policy processes needs to develop a ‘memory’ which is often lost in the 24h news cycles. How to do this? A simple addition to any online publication would be some sort timeline that puts an article into context: What policy area? Where exactly is the file in the legislative procedure? Who are the main actors? What has happened so far regarding this initiative? What will happen over the next few months? And don’t forget to link to original proposals, legislative texts and position papers (this is something that should be a standard by now — especially in online journalism…)

Another simple example how journalists could provide more context is to describe different positions. Who is lobbying? What do those lobbyists want? What does the NGO community want? Thumbs of Europe are doing a similar thing: short overviews of the main positions of relevant sectoral interests. This could easily be used in policy oriented journalism.

Opinion polls often show that people feel that ‘Brussels’ is far away. The question is whether a different sort of journalism could change this. Articles that explain the policy process (on a daily basis — not only once in a blue moon!), timelines that put things in perspective, clear descriptions of different interests, creating ‘policy memory’ among readers are a few simple tools that could make a difference. On a related note: ‘Giving context’ does not necessarily mean ‘adding an opinion’. Just report what’s going on — and let the reader decide what to think of it.

5. Legislative footprints: Amendments, lobbyists, diplomats

Investigative EU journalism needs resources, cross-border approaches and innovative ideas. The aim should be to find the ‘legislative footprint’ in EU law: who is influencing what and when? One example could be ‘monitoring MEP amendments’. This might sound cumbersome for journalists but after all, this is one the main jobs of MEPs. The process is relatively open — so why are we not paying closer attention? For example, look at reports like this. A local journalist could start tracking the activity of a local MEP. An investigative journalist could compare amendments with position papers by lobbyists or NGOs. It seems that only special interest blogs look at these sort of things and come up with posts like this. Finding amendments however takes time — you need to dig into pdfs in the ‘work in progress’ section of the EP website, look for specific legislative initiatives/MEPs or know some helpful assistant in the EP. Developing a nice interface that allows searches across MEP names, legislative proposals, committees etc might be an interesting project for another hackathon. For the time being, you can also use VoteWatch which monitors the activity of MEPs — including amendments and voting records. Of course the problem here is the Council, the process how member states influence EU law is still not transparent enough. We actually need Lobbyplag type projects for all major policy initiatives — only then governments will stop saying one thing in Brussels and something else back home.

6. Data journalism

Data journalism is more than infographics. It’s a way to discover stories in unlikely places, and tell new stories. (need inspiration? Click here, here, here, here, here) Innovative EU journalism may be well advised to team up with EU hackathons or develop more links with the tech community. There seem to be plenty of opportunities — from scraping off data from one of the biggest websites in the world (europa.eu) to using Eurostat data to its full extent. One of the biggest challenge will be to combine datasets from different countries. One of the questions may be how to connect opendata movements across Europe to develop data that can be accessed by journalists — and is useful for political journalism.

Bonus idea I: EU journalism ≠ foreign policy reporting

Newspapers / broadcasters in Europe should stop reporting *all* EU issues as ‘foreign policy’ (or to put it differently: war in Ukraine = foreign policy, copyright reform = not foreign policy) The single market is not foreign policy. Brussels is also not ‘the other’, maybe it is more like a political suburb of your national capital. (ok, possibly not the greatest analogy) Anyway, the point is that EU politics should be treated like normal domestic politics. This has nothing to do with ideology but with a different reporting mindset that will allow journalist to look for stories — and not only cover press conferences after summits. Most of what happens in Brussels is not *that* different from national politics when it comes to power, interests and processes. Yes, there are procedural differences — but at the end of the day it is normal politics.

Bonus idea II: Opinion vs Reporting

One of the basic principles of journalism is the strict separation between opinion and reporting. However, this line has been blurred and online journalism is part of the problem. Click bait strategies, the idea that ‘providing context’ means ‘giving an opinion’ and the use of misleading language has resulted in a situation in which political journalism is more about confirming opinions than factual reporting. We may also need to revisit our assessment of what exactly is newsworthy in EU politics: good journalism is also about accountability, we need to develop a political memory for EU decision making and give readers the chance to make up their mind about certain issues. It’s ‘back to basics’ for EU journalism: providing a regular, factual service to readers may be more important than opinionated commentary. It is questionable whether the future of political journalism really lies in the desperate attempt to find sexy headlines and in the belief that a more ‘tabloid’ approach to news would be a good way to reconnect people with politics.

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