European citizens and the media – Does communication enhance participation?
07.05.2014 | Berlin
Motivating Europeans to Get Involved
By Dorothea Grassmann
Citizens throughout Europe are not regarded as strong supporters of the institutional framework of the European Union. In academic and political discussions it is argued that there is a lack of interest in European affairs, a lack of knowledge about the European Union, and a very low level of participation in debates on European issues and in European elections. What role do the media play in (de-)activating citizens' interest in European issues? What role does politics play in strengthening citizens' identification with Europe and fostering political engagement? What are citizens looking for, and is there a European audience to reach out to?
The conference "European Citizens and the Media – Does communication enhance participation?", held by ifa and Deutsche Welle at the representation of the European Commission in Berlin on 7 May 2014, focussed on various ways in which actors in the media and in politics could transform citizen's lack of interest in Europe into political engagement on European issues.
"When it gets close to me", Uwe Hasebrink, audience researcher, Hans-Bredow-Institut
Who is the European citizen? How can his media usage be characterised? Uwe Hasebrink, an audience researcher at the Hans-Bredow-Institut, points out that interest in certain topics and media formats follows a general pattern of human behaviour. "The cultural proximity of ’when it gets close to me’ is a very important motive for the user when he is determining whether information is relevant or not, and also when he is considering whether the content relates to his personal life." The authenticity of information and the way it is presented, according to Hasebrink, also plays an important role, along with the elements of glamour and celebrity. With regard to formats, he concludes: "The user prefers a combination of entertainment and information."
Media coverage on Europe
The European Union provides its citizens with information via a wide range of media channels and broadcasters, such as Euronews, EurActiv, Arte, Deutsche Welle and RAI as well as citizen media. Among the latter, for example, Publixsphere and Youth4Media Network offer information on European issues in a variety of formats, and also provide opportunities to participate in their programmes.. Why is there still such a lack of interest in Europe? Is there a lack of information on European issues? Do the media choose the wrong formats or topics?
"Common sense tells us that the more you communicate, the more interest you generate, but that is a myth. The opposite is true", argues Hans-Juerg Trenz from the University of Copenhagen. Wojciech Szymanski, a journalist at Polskie Radio, confirms Hasebrink's observation on cultural proximity: "The Polish people do not see what influence the European Union has on their daily life". Therefore it is necessary to develop media formats that take as their starting point the interests of their audiences, where they are. Natalie Sarcic-Todd from EurActiv suggests blending national and European issues in one format to get through to audiences and overcome their apathy.
"A lot of debates shown on TV are framed in boring formats, and full of rhetorical blather and PR-talk", adds Steffen Meyer, a freelance journalist and blogger. "What we need are entertaining formats, like the Daily Show in the USA".
"The narrative of Europe as a peace project does not work for my generation", Steffen Meyer, freelance journalist
Steffen Meyer traces the lack of interest in European issues back to an outdated narrative that is communicated by actors in politics and the media. "I did not experience war and borders in Europe. Therefore the narrative of Europe as a peace project does not work for my generation." Bernd Riegert of Deutsche Welle's Brussels bureau argues that the fact that 28 countries decided that they want to work together on certain issues provides enough of a narrative. Beyond that, speakers at the conference emphasise the importance of a charismatic EU president. "We lack a president like Jacques Delors – someone who conveys the European idea with authenticity and enthusiasm", Meyer says.
"There is no European audience", Claudio Cappon, president of RAI World
It is not the task of the media to generate interest in European issues and to sell European politics to European citizens. The role of the media can only be to provide information, emphasises Olaf Bruns of Euronews. But since the audience sets the agenda, the media focus on regional and national politics. Do we need European media to get Europeans involved? "There is no European audience", says RAI World president Claudio Cappon. Therefore, for him, employing European media formats would not work as a means of motivating citizens to get involved. But to bring European citizens closer together, according to Cappon, other European media formats should be developed to dispel stereotypes across borders within Europe.