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Ready to Scream?

A survey of media coverage in the run-up to the May European elections shows balkanization, partiality, and failure to engage.

by Peter Gross 12 July 2019

An initial analysis of Central and East European and Baltic media output during the European Parliament campaigns paints a picture that has more in common with Edvard Munch’s The Scream than with a reassuring Churchillian “V for Victory” image.

 

According to Euroflections, a collection of academic reflections on the 2019 elections, published in Sweden last month, the media of 11 Central and East European and Baltic countries were far from stellar contributors to either Europeanization or to continent-wide dialogue and debate on shared issues.

 

On the contrary, it appears that the media variously represented, misrepresented, selectively ignored, and fueled disagreements on pan-European subjects, from climate change to immigration and refugees and the EU’s democratic deficit. In addition, they privileged national issues –  including corruption and Brexit (and other possible exits from the union) – over pan-European questions.

 

The balkanization of media output did not stop there, but strayed into the range of confusing, propagandizing, and proselytizing voters on behalf of specific political movements or ideological positions.

 

Such fragmentation and partisanship remind us once again that media freedom is hampered not only by deliberately fabricated political and systemic obstacles. The media also hamper themselves, through their own professional deficiencies.

 

In Slovenia, the media aimed for “drama” and audience ratings, which meant dropping environmental issues from the agenda and focusing instead on European parliamentarians’ salaries, local issues, and “traditional topics that spice up every national or local level election,” according to Tomaz Dezelan and Nina Vombergar, writing in Euroflections.

 

Despite action by organizations like the EU’s East StratCom – which monitors Russian information warfare and other deceptions, alongside major social media – “fake news” in various guises penetrated the region.

 

Consequently, Slovak public discourse, to give one example, encompassed EU myths including the alleged “dictatorship of Brussels,” propagated by websites and radical media, observed Olga Gyarfasova.

 

In a chapter about fake news, Christian Nounkeu observed that, as part of the portrayal of a collapsing EU with untrustworthy institutions, Bulgarians were told that “the outer border of Europe is a colander.” Lithuanians were warned that Europe “imposes same sex marriage.” Meanwhile, Poles were threatened with the EU’s alleged desire to interfere in Polish justice.

 

In fact, noted Beata Klimkiewicz and Agnieszka Szymanska in their article, a 2019 survey by Poland's Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) found that 80 percent of its respondents said it was difficult to work out the truth of issues, thanks to the media covering them in significantly different ways.

 

Although the issue of EU membership does not divide Poles, there are political splits that “cut across ideological choices and beliefs,” partly as a result of conflicting media narratives in favor of, or against, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), according to Klimkiewicz and Szymanska.

 

The same was more or less true in Romania. A 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that anti-European conspiracy theories pushed by the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) faced resistance by a growing number of Romanians who are fed up with corruption and the questionable justice system.

 

These issues were the main foci of “polarized” print, broadcast, and digital newsrooms, often with inflamed vocabulary and varying degrees of outrage. The PSD, which had won 16 of Romania’s 32 European Parliament seats in the previous election, only managed to retain eight.

 

In Croatia, the election clearly demonstrated the problem of “forging a public connection in a polarized party environment with cynical media and voters that top the list of news avoiders in Europe,” wrote Zrinjka Perusko, noting that polarized, disengaged or, simply missing media coverage of the EU campaign prevented voters from connecting with the union.

 

Although it is true that turnout for the elections was over 50 percent – which is an improvement on the 43 percent who voted in 2014 – the level still did not reach the record 63 percent voter turnout at the first EU elections in 1979. Whether increased turnout in 2019 was prompted by Europe-wide crisis or growing Europeanization remains to be seen.

 

Suffice it to say, the national media of these 11 countries appear to have failed their national electorates. “Many voters are quite ill-informed about the EU and most of its policies,” observed Jesper Stromback in Euroflections.

 

Thirty years after shaking off the yoke of communism, the media should have done much better. Ready to scream?

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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