Policy Reporting and The “Truth First” Media Era: Talking truth in Brussels

Following the “digital first” revolution, media consumers are bombarded from information outlets. Since audience trust has eroded significantly here are several ways policy journalists can take a “truth first” approach.

The big event hadn’t happened yet. Press Club Brussels Europe felt unsettled in anticipation.

We sat on the edge of our swivel chairs listening to news anchor crosstalk in the background as Adam Thomas, executive director of the European Journalism Centre, walked us through the last decade of media evolution.

Presentation by Adam Thomas of European Journalism Centre at Press Club Brussels (Jessica Buchleitner/ European Union press visit)

As he finished, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s voice boomed abruptly from the televisions as she spoke from the United Kingdom Parliament headquarters dressed in a black suit. The United Kingdom’s forty-four year membership with the European Union was officially dissolving after a signed letter triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was handed over to European Council President Donald Tusk.

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech about Article 50 as seen from Press Club Brussels Europe. (Jessica Buchleitner/ European Union press visit)

We stood in silence as he spoke, telling Britain, “We already miss you.”

Days before on March 25, EU leaders came together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome — the document that paved the way for the joining of the European Union.

2016 gave America President Trump in a close election that left millions of Americans in shock and further revealed political and social divides splintering through communities. Now 2017 has something for the European Union that’s more than just a hybrid word — Brexit is essentially a loss of one of its most powerful economies. There’s a lot for journalists to report on after these monumental events, yet bubbling up through the turmoil is a mounting dissatisfaction and distrust towards media, particularly in the United States.

In Sept. 2016, Gallup polls revealed U.S. trust in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” sank to a new low as only 32 percent of those surveyed said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust media organizations.

As Executive Director Thomas emphasized during our European Journalism Centre press club presentation, beginning with the rise of data journalism, the past media decade molded the press landscape in various ways: evolving from “social first” models that disrupted traditional newspapers by emphasizing social media reporting to “mobile first” models where media companies optimized news delivery for the mobile experience. After those came “digital first”, which meant content could be packaged in innovative ways. Yet with the clutter of news services, publications, commentator blogs and now fake news — media consumers are struggling to discern trustworthiness bringing us to the current “truth first” era.

In the Harvard Gazette, Carlos Moedas, the European Union’s commissioner for research, science, and innovation (European Commission) said that news consumers want information to be reliable and they want to trust it more than ever, especially regarding politics, diplomacy and policy.

Outside the European Parliament building in Brussels. (Jessica Buchleitner/ European Union press visit)

So what is true about policy? First — it’s ultra-complicated. The layperson does not spend his or her time thinking about territorial integrity or constructivism. When inquiring about policy, they want to know the nuts and bolts of how decisions handed down relate to their lives and communities. They want to trust the information they receive and feel empowered by it.

EU bodies experience challenges communicating, including unifying the different voices of the EU institutions amidst polarized political views and an abundance of spoken languages (24 official). Legislative processes are also lengthy and complex, often taking months and years to cycle. Holding attention on measures for extended periods means journalists have to consistently show relevance to the public long after news trend chatter subsides.

Entrance to the Council of the European Union in Brussels (Jessica Buchleitner/ European Union press visit)

From my previous experience launching three books at the United Nations, the conclusions I drew from Thomas’ presentation to conversations with various press liaisons at my recent visit to the European Union, here are ways journalists can exude “truth first” when reporting on policy and international relations efforts:

Build policy niche audiences.
Build news verticals/streams that focus on a particular policy niche. Identifying topics of interest and building solid investigative reporting on them will sustain an audience. It could be covering how policy affects women’s rights as Women News Network (WNN) does in regard to the actions of the United Nations. Polotico’s Ryan Heath also offers Brussels Playbook to make EU happenings accessible.

Involve the audience in your newsgathering and reporting.
Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post journalist David Farenthold crowdsourced his reporting on then president-elect Donald Trump’s charitable activities by asking his readers and other journalists for help via Twitter. Involving the readership showed significant transparency and helped his audience feel they made a contribution.

Exude transparency by showing workflow iterations.
Media companies are featuring Medium blogs about their design thinking processes around content and audience development, allowing their audience to feel close to and part of iterative processes. Showing and discussing your mistakes makes you look human, therefore more trustworthy and open. 
Read: How Al Jazeera applies user centered design to win millennials.

Show your fact checking notes and citations.
Footnotes are not just for academics anymore. They are for anyone who craves accountability. In the age of fake news and heavily perceived media bias, media consumers want to see your sources and they don’t want to see them in fine print.

Break down complex policy concepts.
What exactly is “territorial integrity” and how does it apply to Ukraine? Offering digital solutions that break down complex policy information prevents media companies from losing audiences due to complicated concepts. Vox uses Cardstacks and The New York Times has a Simple Guide to the Iran Nuclear deal.

Involve think tanks in your reporting process. 
Carnegie Europe released a whitepaper by Stefan Lehne and Heather Grabbe, “How Trump Could Save EU Foreign Policy” discussing how the EU should take his rise to office as a major wake up call. Think tanks consistently research and monitor policy and are full of academics and former officials to weigh in.

Visiting Carnegie Europe to discuss the EU involvement in the Syrian War (Jessica Buchleitner/European Union press visit)

Don’t focus on what politicians say, focus on the result of their actions.
What representatives say to appease their constituents and what they actually do are equally important but it is necessary to distinguish action from talk. As media professionals it is our job to hold them accountable for what they promise and for how their actions affect the public. Focus on how measures touch the populous. You must show relevancy. This means paying close attention to the origin and literal meaning of words. In the U.S the terms “alt-right”, “populist”, “white supremacist” circulate every day. But what do they actually mean? You are not only a filter but also an explainer of information.

Presentation was by Adam Thomas of European Journalism Centre.

Jessica Buchleitner at External Action EEAS in Brussels

Jessica Buchleitner is the author of the 50 Women anthology series, which features the life stories of 50 Women from 30 countries. For six years she reported on United Nations activities and gender for Women News Network — WNN. She is currently finishing her master’s degree in Media Innovation at Northwestern University (Chicago, USA) and visited the European Union in March after releasing a book at the United Nations. Follow her on twitter: @50womenproject

Annual Brussels Press Visit for U.S. Graduate Journalism Students

The Delegation of the European Union to the United States (EUintheUS) organizes annual press visits to the EU Headquarters in Brussels for American Graduate Journalism students representing major U.S. Journalism Schools across the country. These visits give participants a better understanding of the EU and how it works, and of relations between the US and the EU. It is also an excellent opportunity to develop professional contacts and to discover the extensive range of services that the EU provides to journalists. Learn more.