Why Participatory Democracy is the great absentee in the Media? Some takeaways from journalists

Making Participatory Democracy truly work is a challenge, and the Eumans know something about it. It is very much about information. The Right to Information is something that every and each citizen has, to be informed on their political rights and on what is happening in the public sphere. 

We often point out how institutional communication is lacking in terms of keeping citizens informed on their political rights to participate in politics, as is the case for the European Citizens’ Initiative – a tool barely known by EU citizens. That’s why we demanded – and still demand! – to the European Commission “Equal Dignity for Participatory Democracy”. But media communication also plays a fundamental role in allowing participatory democracy to truly function. After all, knowledge is civic power. We discussed this topic during the 4th meeting of the Council on Participatory Democracy.  

The media is more and more broadly acknowledged as a major player in fostering citizens participation, as suggests the title of a conference held at the French-speaking Brussels’ Parliament on October 20th: “Participatory Democracy puts the media to the test!”. As Brussels’ first “Citizens Deliberative Commission” is getting closer – a citizens’ assembly composed of 15 deputies and 45 citizens chosen through sortition– the French-speaking Brussels’ Parliament gathered together journalists and academics to debate the media’s reporting approach to such democratic innovations. Facilitated by Ricardo Gutiérrez (lecturer at ULB), the debate was fuelled by journalists from different types of media platforms, who engaged in a two hour long discussion on the quintessence of journalism as a profession, and the challenges and constraints when reporting on democratic innovations.

According to the 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, citizens are concerned by disinformation and they see journalists as the 3rd largest source of it (14%), just behind national politicians (30%) and ordinary citizens (18%). This highlights a notable level of frustration and dissatisfaction. Participants pointed out different potential reasons: from the general feeling of complicity between politicians and journalists who might feel the pressure to be “grateful and kind” to those who provide them with information, to the delegitimization game politicians and journalists play when blaming each other. The responsibility is shared.

Chasing the click and the buzz by showcasing conflict only helps lose credibility on both sides and disregards readers’ intelligence, says Renaud Maes, Editor in Chief at Revue Nouvelle. Allegedly boring technical issues do raise interest and foster debate, and they should be back to the centre of media coverage. In order to regain legitimacy, Maes suggests open “participatory media spaces” for media outlets to transparently explain the creation and methods of their work.

On the other hand, RTBF journalist Rachel Crivellaro highlighted how most politicians make their own communication through social media, bypassing the media and their role to put politics into perspective. They agreed on the need for more investigative journalism to go more in-depth, beyond the catchy phrase and the buzz, which is the ultimate goal of a journalist.

On the challenge of covering democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies, all journalists admitted that their respective newsrooms were discussing the issue. UCL Louvain political scientist Reuchamp identified as problematic the triangle between politicians, journalist and citizens, since the latter are a non-traditional actor for media interest. Furthermore, the three-dimensional nature of participatory processes, namely the institutional, interactional and substantial elements, challenge the attractiveness of the process. Accordingly, such processes are not institutionalised enough. The new type of relations and interactions are different from traditional ones, and the substance for media coverage only comes with the result at the end of the process. He concludes suggesting three best practices for journalists: to observe the process, to describe it and then to explain its technicalities.

As for the journalists in the room, they focused on the practical sides of the job, from formats to issues of space limits, but also the challenge on citizens’ familiarity with media practices. Magalie Plovie (President of the French-speaking Brussels’ Parliament) highlighted the difficulty of guaranteeing citizens’ anonymity and the challenge it poses to the standards of media coverage. According to La Libre political journalist Alice Dive, it is difficult “to sell participatory democracy”, as it is secondary to more buzzy topics. She noted additionally that the fight for more space makes it difficult to go-in-depth, besides the need to reiterate the basics of the deliberative process for readers’ comprehension. Crivellaro agreed on the pressure of the “dictatorship of space” and suggested to explore new formats, like the trending podcast, as a way to deep dive beyond space limits. Maes, on the other hand, called for a complementarity between different formats. It emerged that journalists’ proactive responsibility and individual interest in choosing their angle are key. However, Crivellaro suggested that the job itself will not change much and that there’s exaggerated social pressure on media to make such processes successful, when on the contrary it is not their job. 

No matter how one puts it, it seems clear that reporting on democratic innovations will be challenging for the media, which lack the proper means and support needed to produce quality information. Of course, the debate on the role of the media for the functioning of participatory democracy is not over yet, so stay tuned not to miss our upcoming activities on this issue!