As the European press reports on the refugee crisis unfolding across the continent, what lessons can the media draw from another recent event: the Eurozone crisis?
The Eurozone crisis, a complex issue with vast economic, political and social implications for all countries involved, has arguably been the most significant challenge the EU has faced since its inception.
European citizens have been required to develop informed opinions on a wide range of knotty questions on isues such as sovereign debt, restructuring and sustainability, budgetary discipline, integrating different countries' democratic mandates, the geopolitical power balance and the role of the troika - let alone on how to tackle the devastating social consequences of austerity policies.
As the European press reports on the refugee crisis unfolding across the continent, important media lessons can be drawn from another recent event: the Eurozone crisis. We spoke with a selection of journalists from mainstream European media and also the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
Naturally, European media has been reporting extensively on the crisis and its effects. Whether or not all its elaborate aspects have been given fair exposure in the press and TV is open to question. More importantly, however, is whether the media in different EU countries has been giving sufficient focus to all of these different aspects?
From country to country
A new study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University revealed that press coverage of the crisis has varied considerably from country to country.
“One of the evident characteristics of coverage across Europe is that it has been viewed through distinctly national lenses, portraying the Euro crisis within the lens of what it means within each country, and rarely considering it from a European perspective”, explains the project’s director Professor Robert G. Picard.
I spoke with a selection of journalists from mainstream media in Berlin, Brussels, Rome and London, to investigate further. Paul Mason, Economics Editor of Channel 4 News, confirms the same trend for TV coverage: “The problem we've got as broadcasters is that our remit is to our audience. The people who commission our daily reports are constantly asking: what does it mean to a mum feeding her kids at 7pm in northern England - and rightly so”.
Jan Dams, Deputy Economics Editor of the German broadsheet Die Welt agrees: “As journalists, we serve expectations. We live in a media world where you can measure every single reader on your website”.
Moreover, a lot of the sources for EU correspondents come from within their own government representation offices in Brussels, and, as such, this domestic angle is often evident in their stories. “That is why there is such a big difference between the reporting of the same story in national newspapers", says Méabh McMahon, Brussels Correspondent for France 24 TV network.
On top of that, the EU is split into different groups; the Northern group, which includes countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, who insist on belt-tightening reforms; the Eastern countries, who have spent years reforming to bring their economies in line with the Eurozone criteria and finally the former bailout countries who are keeping a very close eye on negotiations, making sure that Greece does not get a sweeter deal than they were offered.
Rome-based reporter for German newswire Deutsche Presse Agentur Alvise Armellini brings up an example of the different journalistic perspectives that McMahon talks about: “My colleagues find it very hard to picture the idea that Germany is profiting from the crisis - which is something that is widely reported in Italy” he says.
Jan Dams confirms this. He doesn’t think that this topic has been sufficiently covered in Germany. He adds: “I've been to Athens three times since January and I was shocked to see the completely different perception of Germany there”.
In some extreme cases news reporting has been based on false claims. Mehran Khalili, a British-Iranian political communications consultant and co-founder of the grassroots campaigning Omikron Project, points to a 2011 Daily Telegraph story. The newspaper claimed there were more Porsche Cayennes in Greece than taxpayers declaring incomes of more than €50000. The story exploded across mainstream news outlets including the BBC. “But it simply wasn’t true. The BBC itself debunked it. Even today it is still cited by media as fact”, he says.
Casting a fair light on the crisis
How about the wider implications of the Eurozone crisis: economic, political and social? Have these aspects been cast in a fair light by European media? The Oxford University study suggests that the crisis has been primarily presented as a financial and economic issue and not as a political issue or one where the lives of citizens and businesses are being harmed.
“Stories rarely quote average citizens, business leaders, union leaders, and spokespersons for civil society organisations. They focus instead on bankers, economists, and people such as Angela Merkel and François Hollande”, says Professor Picard.
Many journalists recognise that the social impact of the crisis is not covered sufficiently. “Markets, banks and company news drive the daily newswires and not human interest stories”, says McMahon.
Paul Mason disagrees with Professor Picard as far as the British broadcast media is concerned. Since 2011 all the main English language TV news outlets have invested hugely in contacts, fixers and local producers to enable them to plug into the Greek aspect of the Euro crisis. “Of course when it comes to covering the Brussels summits and Eurogroups, I would say in general there is closeness between the specialist journalists stationed there and the bureaucrats/politicians”, he says.
Towards better media coverage
Can the quality of media coverage be improved? Professor Picard believes that it can only improve if journalists widen how they perceive the crisis, change some of the practices they use to cover developments and reconsider the prominence they give to views aired on what is happening and its impact.
In order to make reporting more balanced, journalists should have extensive knowledge of other EU member states and understand their culture and history. They also need to extend their sources: “You always see the same group of commentators being quoted in media”, adds Méabh McMahon.
News consumers need to do their homework too; they need to look at media with much more scrutiny, stresses Mehran Khalili: “Be aware that all news reporting has a view, however subtle it may be, and don’t think that a debate is balanced because other views are present in media coverage”.
But there is some cause for optimism. It is remarkable how the crisis has, in fact, increased the reporting on EU affairs and that there is now a market mechanism pushing up the quality of EU coverage. For example, Alvise Armellini says “Italian media are creating new journalist positions in Brussels. They know that they need to cover the issue and they need to do it well”.
Paul Mason, who recently published a book on the rapidly evolving ‘information economy’, argues that digital technology and social networks can contribute to the development of a more Europeanised public sphere. “There is already a Europe-wide public sphere in social media,” he asserts.
Mason brings up the example of the massive traction that the #ThisIsACoup hashtag gathered on Twitter, as the Eurozone leaders were negotiating the terms of the third bailout deal for Greece: “The mass of people recognised the theft of sovereignty that was going on - and they barely needed the mainstream press to make it happen”.
As far as traditional media is concerned, the Oxford University study confirms the emergence of a small European sphere in public consideration of the crisis-related issues.
Overall, the coverage portrayed those issues as "broader and more complex than merely the actions of individual countries." This is a small step in the right direction for better and more balanced media coverage.