Archive for April, 2010

Brussels quarrel part of media trend?

You get a phone call. On the other end of the line is a person representing himself as a journalist. Albeit a journalist working for an interest organisation. How do you react?

The situation occurred recently in Brussels, when a part time staff member of the EU lobbywatch-NGO Corporate Europe Observatory CEO contacted Burson-Marsteller, presenting himself as a journalist working for CEO. Following the contact between CEO and Burson-Marsteller, the lobbyist organisation EPACA filed a complained with the European Commission about CEO’s behaviour, which was shortly after turned down. Se all the links below.

Now the interesting thing is, whether this is just a one-off situation, or whether it is a significant one pointing towards a new trend.

What I find striking is not so much the petty skirmish between Burson-Marsteller and CEO, but the comment of the key-figure at CEO, Olivier Hoedeman. In a press release Hoedeman states, that the CEO staff member is “a registered journalist who is employed part-time by CEO for investigative journalistic work”.

Being a journalist myself, I react with goose pimples. Each fibre resists the notion of “investigative journalistic work” pulling the cart of any one-sided interest. Be it as well-intentioned as the lobbywatchers of CEO are in their attempt to map the lobbying structures in the Brussels bubble.

Am I old-fashioned by insisting on journalistic independence?

I have seen quite some journalists, who give up their independence and work for an interest organisation. So far I have called that PR or communication jobs. I also know that journalists on a personal level often face identity questions when switching sides. At the end it is a personal choice that can be challenging and enriching and lead to great results. But is it journalism?

Now recent research about the future of journalism indicates that what happened with the CEO researcher may well have been a first sign of a new trend. The research has been done by the INSEAD business school near Paris, and looks at the future for funding what is called watchdog journalism.

The authors of the study Mark Hunter and Luk Van Wassenhove argue, that due to lack of money watchdog journalism must be expected more and more to be carried out on behalf of stakeholders. In other words on behalf of interest organisations. Such as COE or indeed Burson-Marsteller?

“Our belief is that investigative journalism will grow outside and in parallel with the (newsmedia) industry, and build a new public, before it is widely reintegrated into the industry’s standards as a central mission. (If we are wrong, and the news industry swiftly rebuilds its watchdog capacity, we will be delighted.),” the two authors write.

Indeed, there are problems with funding quality research journalism, which is one of the reasons why we are building new support structures like Journalismfund.eu, where classic editorial independence is safeguarded through a buffer between donors and recipients of working grants. Other non-profit journalism project also work with buffer-models to prevent interference and most importantly to build credibility.

The two researchers however foresee a shift in journalists’ ethics – in other words that’d then help on my goosepimples. They also foresee a shift in readers’ expectations. Instead of offering objectivity, the new interest-paid journalists will offer transparency about their aims.

A very interesting thought indeed.

Hunter and Van Wassenhove analyse the current crisis of many media, its value in terms of money, revenue and power. They observe a growth in stakeholder- and community media during the past years. And most importantly they observe a change in values: Rather than objectivity, transparency now has to sell the news. Stakeholder media target smaller audiences, they are very clear about their aims and they involve their audience by suggesting them to act. Actually there are quite a few examples mentioned, where non-profit journalism which does respect editorial independence from various views, has been rather successful. However the researcher-duo states, that few of these usually journalist-driven projects are really successful when it comes to making good revenue.

Analysing a series of examples – from French Le Canard Enchainé to Greenpeace’s research department – Hunter and Van Wassenhove give a list of suggestions on how the various experimenting groups of investigative journalists as well as how the stakeholder media can organise themselves in order to generate better revenues of their work.

Adopting the analysis of the two INSEAD researchers means to give up the highly debated notion of “objective journalism”. Or rather leaving the notion of attempted objectivity – as pure objectivity is a contradiction in terms whenever a reporter chooses one story rather than another.

The argument of Hunter and Van Wassenhove sounds plausible. It even ends with an optimistic foresight pointing towards a new wave of watchdog journalism. Encouraging.

Now let’s assume their prediction of a shift from attempted objectivity as a credibility tool for broad target groups towards transparency as a credibility and narrow target groups comes true. Transparency is indeed an essential tool for credibility, and there is room for improvement also under the current “attempted objectivity” set up. Readers can think for themselves. If they get all the information, they will be able to make their own analysis.

But let’s not pour the attempt of objectivity out with the bathing water. Just as competition in many cases can be a helpful tool, the striving for objectivity is a helpful, no, an essential tool for journalism. When striving for objectivity journalists are obliged to understand a case or a cause from several sides, not just in the way, they wish to. Thus they have to get themselves a complete picture. If this attempt is abandoned already in the research phase because the researcher neglects thoroughness because of his or her stakeholder background, the quality of the understanding and ultimately the quality of the research is at stake.

Hunter & van Wassenhove: Disruptive News Technologies – Stakeholder Media and the Future of Watchdog Journalism Business Models.

The CEO-EPACA case:

17. March 2010, EPACA complaint to the European Commission

23. March 2010, EUobserver article

29. March 2010, European Commission decision

30. March 2010, Corporate Europe Observatory

31. March 2010, EPACA comment on Commission decision

No Comments

Funding quality journalism

If journalists have a good idea for an investigative story but lack time or money to carry out the research, they can apply for funding. A new call for proposals now is open at Journalismfund.eu. This time including a new option for covering European affairs stories.

The next round for proposals to apply for a research grant from Journalismfund.eu is now open. The overall amount to be distributed this time will be € 25.000, the deadline for applications is June 14th 2010 at 12 o’clock noon.

Journalismfund.eu is among the pioneers when it comes to alternative funding for investigative journalism in Europe, it has been active since the autumn of 2008 and is affiliated to the equally non-profit Belgian Pascal Decroos Fund with more than a decades experience in distribution of research grants to journalists.

Journalismfund.eu is thus part of a movement these years to develop alternative funding for investigative and innovative research journalism.

Journalismfund.eu has had some very interesting applications, two of them are already published, one unveiled slive-like working conditions of trafficked workers, and one unveiled dodgy business schemes involving several countries.

The new features for for this application are another step in the development of the best practice for this model of research grants for journalistic research. The development of Journalismfund.eu and the research grants are supported by the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation and the Open Society Media Program aswell as via the Fonds Pascal Decroos by the government of Flanders in Belgium.

Note: The author of this blog is a freelance-journalist and actively involved in developping Journalismfund.eu.

No Comments

Risking eight days in jail

A Danish journalists risks a fine of 5000 Danish Crowns (€ 670) or eight days in jail, because he wants to protect information obtained from sources. The decision to fine the journalist, if he did  not witness in a court case, was appealed to the Danish High Court (Højesteret), where it is currently pending.

Morten Frich works for one of Denmark’s large dailies Berlingske Tidende and last year won the most important Danish journalism award for unveiling shortcomings in the Danish Police.

Since then he has been covering an ongoing fight between criminal gangs and was recently called to witness in a case involving a former gang-member, who now is a principal witness.

In this case the name of one source appears to be known, as one of the articles of Frich is presented as an interview with the principal witness. However the court wishes to obtain further details of information, which Morten Frichs denies to give, as they could reveal his source or sources.

“Just because a source is mentioned, there still are many things in the relation between a journalist and a source that need to be protected. The court attempts to bypass the protection of source, which is serious, as we thus risk that sources stop talking in these very important cases,” says chairperson of the Danish Union of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, to Berlingske Tidende.

Morten Frich in his articles described, how the detention facilities for the principal witness are much worse than for gang members, and how the ex-gang witness is suffering from that.

In the decision by the court Vestre Landsret the law safeguarding protection of journalists’ sources when witnessing in court cases is mentioned (Retsplejeloven article 172). The wording explicitely mentions, that journalists and editors are not obliged to mention, who are their sources. However the law also states, that this protection only can be applied if the source is not identified.

Read more about protection of journalists’ sources in Europe: European Federation of Journalists, Privacy International, University Ghent

No Comments

60 seconds and more

A while ago I was asked to give classes about EU-journalism at a journalism school in Belgium. “Do remember to tell them, why the EU is so boring,” the coordinator joked. But since when has power been boring?

Still that is one overriding perception. EU? Boring. Avoid even mentioning the word, journalists are advised by editors and others. On newsy sites EU coverage simply does not give clicks by readers – at least that’s the prejudice.

So what to do?

In Flanders a journalist organisation asks citizens to take cameras and go filming the EU. “Whereis.eu is an online competition that challenges everybody to make a movie of 60 seconds about the European Union. What does the EU mean to you? What impact does it have on your daily life? And maybe your one-minute movie will appear on the International Film Festival of Flanders in Ghent,” according to the website waaris.eu.  And there is the tempting option to win up to €2500.

It’ll be interesting to see, how the camera-generation will solve that task.

But the Flemish journalists are not the only ones struggling to find a way of telling the story about this powerful thing called the EU. The European Parliament currently is asked to look at a draft that aims at building a European public sphere put forward by the Danish liberal MEP Morten Løkkegaard. The draft has already stirred a lively debate in Denmark. Thus confirming Løkkegaards assumption, that the national public sphere functions nicely – contrary to the European one.

The stir was caused by one well-placed article published by Løkkegaard and two other Danish MEPs Christel Schaldemose and Emilie Turunen, in the large Danish daily Berlingske Tidende under the headline “TV has to take the EU seriously”. The EP draft supports the idea of stronger obligations for public service broadcasters to cover European affairs and an EU-financed but independent team of high level journalists covering EU affairs in Brussels.

The online Danish journalist magazine Journalisten.dk already at 8.10 am published a news story quoting the article of the three MEPs under a headline claiming, that Danish public service broadcasters would be “forced” to cover the EU more. National public sphere of debate when it gets up early.

Later the same day Morten Løkkegaard appeared in a radio report covering media questions on national public radio DR  explaining and defending the draft.

Most interesting for a Brussels audience is probably the drafts suggestion to find EU funding for the Brussels based team of journalists covering European affairs. They should have a contract of editorial independence and the team should consist of an elite of top-level journalists, Løkkegaard explained on Danish Radio. “This is both provocation and experiment from my side,” the MEP explained. “It would be a fantastic step ahead, if they dare do it,” he said.

But creating a European Public Sphere also consists of a lot of small steps, Løkkegaard admits. The next steps for his draft report will be a committee vote expected on June 2nd and a plenary vote expected on July 5th.

, , , , , , , ,

No Comments

Forbidden fruit

Let me tell you a story from Northern Jutland, a Danish province between North Sea and Baltic Sea – when you go to the beach of Skagen you can see the two Seas meet.

Now why a story from Northern Jutland, when this blog-post really is about a recent seminar  held by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros? The Brussels buzz word is best practice. Or simply a good and maybe surprising experience.

Some years ago, an informal network of journalists and officials in that Northern part of Denmark got together to address questions of transparency. They were united by the commitment to good administrative and democratic practice. And not least they were committed to finding pragmatic solutions that simply would make life easier for everybody involved.

Journalists had been eager to get more information from the regional authorities, politicians and officials feared more work. However they agreed on a pilot project, where the list of all in- and outgoing mail would be available online.

What I find striking was the positive amazement, with which politicians evaluated the project.

“In the beginning we were reluctant,” remembers Orla Hav,  today a Danish MP for the Social Democrats and at the time of the pilot project leader of the Region of Northern Jutland.

“We were sceptical. I think it’s always like that for decision makers. When suddenly you enable someone to ask you questions, you do let go of some power,” he observers. Also there were considerations, whether the pilot project would cost a lot of extra work.

The work load turned out not to be a problem at all – the mail had to be dealt with and archived anyway, and now it was done electronically.

But more importantly: The regional decision makers and the journalists stopped fighting about documents and started talking politics.

“Seen from the point of view of a politician, it was helpful not to be met with suspicion that we were withholding information. We could talk about the cases instead of the access, so we moved ahead to a political discussion,” he remembers.

Still today the region of Northern Jutland publishes in- and outgoing mail in a searchable, online database. The content of the letters is not disclosed, but they are registered and a contact person in the administration is mentioned including name and e-mail.

In Brussels a similar model exists too: The representation of Norway – across the road from the European Commission on Rue Froissart – publishes open mail lists and has done so since 2005. At home Norway is preparing a model, which will grant electronic access to all documents following to the usual access to document rules.

Transparency problems are “by far the most common” issue, the Ombudsman has to address. Last years’ report told that 36 percent of his cases concerned “refusal of information or documents”.

I know that transparency is a difficult thing in the EU administration – simply because there is such a strong clash of administrative cultures.

In the Nordic countries we have a deeply rooted tradition that – of course – the public has a right to know what our government and our regional and local authorities do. After all we keep them running with our tax-money to fulfil the tasks, we have delegated to them. In other countries of the EU freedom of information is hardly known at all. Officials are educated to protect the administration from intrusive public curiosity.

Both traditions have their history, and of course if an official is educated in one tradition or the other, this will have an effect on how she or he administrates the EU legislation on access to documents. Yet – we do have a regulation on access to documents. This means, that we have to overcome the individual misunderstandings or lacking knowledge that may still hamper the fulfilment of the regulation. It is embarrassing that still far too many cases on the desk of the European Ombudsman concern transparency and access to documents and information.

For his seminar the Ombudsman had invited an interesting panel. It was an honour to sit next to Maros Sevcovic, the vice president of the European Commission, and to share the panel with Pat Cox, the former president of the European Parliament. Also small businesses were represented and the NGO world, I was on the panel to speak about journalists’ needs.

On the way out of the seminar, Pat Cox compared, jokingly, the struggle for documents to the longing for forbidden fruit. Forbidden fruit that so often seem so much more tempting just because they are forbidden.

Indeed it is a typical reaction among journalists: If information is hidden away, we believe there must be a reason to hide it – in other words we smell a good story. Good journalistic stories include conflict. But wouldn’t it be a great signal to avoid conflict stories about lacking transparency? Instead we then could focus on the political playing field and on the content of policies!

Let’s stop fighting about information. That’ll allow journalists to focus on politics and on real problems, that are in the mutual interest to be addressed.

No Comments