How to Bridge Divides in Small Local Communities? Some Lessons We Learned at Átlátszó Erdély
by Zoltán Sipos
Investigating hyperlocal topics that affect everyone in a community is a good way to overcome biases and leave deep divisions behind.
Why should we care about who is responsible for a back country road built on a huge landslip? Is it newsworthy that the mayor of a village of 1,000 inhabitants “forgot” to mention in his wealth declaration that he had hundreds of thousands of euros in revenue from EU-subsidized land cheaply rented from the local council? Who is interested in the two women from a 500-people village who aspired to become local councilors, but couldn’t because the male majority rigged the pre-election to make their running impossible?
Usually, none of these stories will make the headlines in a national news outlet. Yet, these stories are very important for small communities: these are the kind of daily problems many people living in rural areas face and talk about. Why shouldn’t they be relevant for urban audiences based in regional or national urban centers?
The importance of responsible and detailed coverage of local topics increased, because in large parts of rural Romania there are no local media: if there are local news outlets, they usually do nothing more than copy-paste press releases. Local reporting has been replaced by local Facebook groups filled with user generated content of various quality, which is not a surprise: small communities still need to share information and to debate pressing issues.
Investigative Reporting for the Hungarian Community
Investigating hyperlocal topics is not only an obligation: it can have unexpected gains, as Átlátszó Erdély (Transparent Transylvania) recently found out. Átlátszó Erdély is the only independent, nonprofit newsroom in Romania doing investigative journalism in the public interest, focusing on the 1,2 million Hungarian community living in Transylvania.
Founded in December 2014, Átlátszó Erdély works to facilitate public debate through investigative journalism and fact-based stories about issues concerning the Transylvanian community. Átlátszó Erdély is monitoring the way public money is spent, advocating for transparency, as well as freedom of expression.
Reporting in the Hungarian community in Romania is more difficult because this community tends to be more conservative and less open to progressive ideas such as open government, accountability and media freedom. Investigative journalism does not have a long tradition in the region.
There is distrust in the Romanian state institutions, and decisions within the community institutions are usually taken informally, with little room for public scrutiny. People tend to distrust those who are openly criticizing the establishment. Many believe that unity and solidarity is the only way this community can survive in Romania, and critical voices are in fact agents of the majority looking to divide, and thus, weaken the community.
Orbán’s Influence on Hungarian Language Media from Romania
Older generations tend to watch Hungarian TV stations — both the public broadcaster and commercial television — with an editorial agenda fully controlled by the Hungarian government. The local media landscape is dominated by a large media conglomerate consisting of local and regional newspapers, on-line media, as well as local radios, financed by the Hungarian government. A smaller part of the media is supported financially by the largest Hungarian party from Romania, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), a party that is a close partner of the Hungarian government.
As most media outlets are financed as part of PR strategies of political actors, self-censorship amongst journalists is the norm rather than the exception. The influence of the Hungarian government is high, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is very popular. His party, Fidesz , secured 98% of the votes in the Hungarian community during the last Hungarian parliamentary elections. As the Hungarian government is regarded as a model for the Hungarian political establishment in Transylvania, ‘illiberal’ practices are becoming the norm.
People are very receptive to the propaganda of the Hungarian government: this is the reason why for many Hungarians living in Transylvania, the term “liberal” lost its original meaning and became the synonym for whatever contradicts the official narrative of Viktor Orbán. In this context, “liberal” means something “wrong”, “against the community” and “influence of foreign forces”.
The “Liberals” are Covering the Countryside
Átlátszó Erdély with its critical coverage quickly earned the “liberal” label. This perception is a problem because part of the readership dismisses/does not trust information published by Átlátszó Erdély. As the vast majority of the community is conservative, our readership growth is limited. Moreover, our reporting work is more difficult because some of the people we try to talk to do not trust us.
So we started thinking about breaking out from the bubble by covering local topics that can not easily be placed in the conservative-liberal dichotomy. For example, the story of a newly built road that slipped clearly affects everyone, regardless of his or her political views. It is a clear proof of the incompetence of the authorities.
A well-known local journalist who joined our team had a significant impact on our change of focus. Egyed Ufó Zoltán is living in a small village in the Hungarian-majority Szeklerland, and regularly receives tips from the community. Our team started to invest more time to talk to our sources and to build long-term relationships with them. By checking the tips they provided, we found that many of them lead to stories relevant for the community.
Stepping out of the “liberal” readership and reaching the involved communities with our investigations was also a challenge. As there is no local media that would pick up our stories, we decided to find the local or regional community Facebook groups and share the materials directly there.
We found that posting on Facebook groups, and then chatting with the readers from these groups was the best way to reach and engage those who are directly involved. To our surprise, these stories have a high number of readers: usually the entire community reads and shares the story.
By covering such local issues, we found that the public perception of Átlátszó Erdély was gradually starting to change. Instead of the dismissive comments, we started receiving an increasing number of supportive messages. A typical example would be: “I still don’t agree with you on many things, yet I also see that your work on this topic is valuable to the community.”
Another indicator that shows a positive change is the number of tips for possible stories, suggestions and advice we receive. On average, we have 1–2 messages per day from our readers. Some of the readers even offer to volunteer to seek expert advice, or to search for further information about a possible story.
Many times there is tangible impact as well: for example, the mayor of Tordaszentlászló — the one who “forgot” to mention in his wealth declaration that he had hundreds of thousands of euros in revenue from EU-subsidised land rentals — lost the local elections, at least partly because Átlátszó Erdély published the story about his unlawful income.