Live From Brussels, A Study of the Brussels Press Corps
By Prof. Dr. Sophie Lecheler, University of Vienna
This study aims to shed light on the composition, work environment and individual-level perceptions of EU correspondents. Two data sources, the interinstitutional accreditation database and an online survey, were used to provide a deeper understanding of journalistic life in Brussels, and of the role the EU institutions play in it.
The accreditation database shows the diversity of media types, geography and work experience present within the Brussels press corps. In this respect, the press corps based
in Brussels is a fair representation of the EU, geographically speaking, and of its diversity in terms of media landscape. The survey has also enabled a closer look at the issue. Its results show not only who Brussels journalists are, but how they work, and how they see their relationship with the EU institutions changing as a result of larger societal challenges such as digitalisation and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the key findings are the following:
- For many journalists, a position in Brussels is a temporary, mid-career posting. In addition, a sizeable proportion of pan- European media and news agencies is represented within the press corps. However, most journalists work for national media and produce their coverage for national audiences. The findings also show that many journalists are in a way generalists: they cover EU affairs, but are also very often asked to cover other foreign or domestic affairs (e.g. NATO, Belgium). In fact, only about 20% of journalists in the 2021 survey sample cover EU affairs only and a majority cover both EU and other foreign affairs (68%).
- The Brussels press corps is still characterised by a gender imbalance, and in 2020 only 37% of journalists accredited to the EU institutions were female. However, this imbalance has improved over time. In 2002, the first year for which we have data available, 28% were female.
- Reporting on the EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the agendas of many Brussels journalists over the past two years. In addition to COVID-19, however, many EU journalists focus on traditional EU-related issues. These issues cover such areas as the economy, migration and external relations. When reporting on them, journalists tend to focus on conflict and responsibility.
- When asked about the output of their work, Brussels journalists participating in the 2021 survey indicated they remain focused on the “classic” formats of reporting. Accordingly, they only seldom work directly on technological innovations, such as data visualisation or social media stories.
- Nevertheless, journalists agree that their working conditions over the last 5 years have overall been impacted by increasing demands to acquire technical skills and to engage with their audiences directly.
- EU-wide news media focused on EU affairs only and media from English-speaking countries with an international reach are seen as playing a considerable role as “agenda setters” in Brussels. However, the national media and home market they are serving remain important to journalists.
- About half of the correspondents participating in the survey believe that social media are important when reporting or producing stories related to EU affairs. Among the various platforms available, Twitter is largely seen as the most important one, and information gathered on Twitter is considered the most credible compared to that found on other platforms.
- Brussels correspondents rely on press services provided by the EU institutions. The 2021 survey also shows that they attach significant importance to official events and communication activities organised by all three main EU institutions. Here, off-the-record briefings are seen as the most valuable sources of information. Other formats such as press conferences also remain popular.
- Brussels correspondents believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in EU affairs. However, they do not expect this trend to last beyond the pandemic. Their assessment of the EU institutions’ adaptation to the situation is positive. The expectation is that hybrid press activities will become the norm in the future, but a very large majority of Brussels journalists expect access to these hybrid formats to be limited to EU-accredited media only. Should this not be the case, they expect this would have a negative impact on the size of the Brussels press corps and on the quality of the coverage of EU affairs. Moreover, they think that it would not have a significant positive impact on the quantity of coverage.
As regards the Council’s media products, the survey shows they are relevant and valued by journalists. In particular, press releases and background briefs are the most frequently used.