Civic engagement and media dynamics: Insights from journalists in Ireland and the United Kingdom

By Carlos Mendez, Virginia Arena and Katarzyna Piskorek

The relationship between public trust, participation and the media is critical in the contemporary democratic landscape. Rapid advances in technology coupled with shifts in socio-political and media contexts in different countries have intensified this relationship. This blog compares media perspectives on these issues in Ireland and the UK with a particular focus on participatory governance instruments. It draws on interviews with journalists carried out in 2022 as part of the EU-funded DEMOTEC project, which investigates the role of democratic innovations in fostering more engaged and informed citizen involvement in territorial development policies.

Trust, Civic Participation and the Media

In the UK, journalists express growing concern regarding declining trust and civic engagement, attributed to factors such as under-representation, institutional unresponsiveness, political illiteracy, and limited engagement opportunities. Irish journalists identify less with a democratic crisis but point to democratic discontent linked to the behaviour of political figures, the rise of misinformation and fake news, and the global economic downturn.

The role of media in these trends is contentious. While some UK journalists blame social media’s adverse effects and dwindling resources in journalism, others hold public institutions responsible. Irish journalists downplay the media’s role in civic disaffection, though they acknowledge the challenges posed by the deluge of digital content and platforms.

The media’s perspective on participatory governance and budgeting

The narrative around democratic tools like participatory budgeting is mixed. While some journalists view democratic instruments promoting citizen engagement as valuable and efficient, others perceive them as symbolic gestures plagued by poor implementation. In Ireland, centralised politics and unsuccessful or limited experiences with participatory budgeting are perceived to stifle progress, although there are positive experiences with other democratic tools such as citizen juries. The UK journalists underscore the need for transparent rules for PB, long-term institutionalisation, and media involvement.

Stories on participatory democracy are seen as potentially newsworthy, especially at the local level, in both countries. However, there are also challenges such as time constraints, declining trust in journalism, and varying public interest in the topic. Journalists in both countries advocate for neutrality and impartiality, aiming to observe, listen, and report without bias.

Newsworthiness and coverge of PB

PB’s intrinsic news value is recongised in both counries. A blend of human-interest narratives and factual accounts can draw public interest in PB events, especially when the impact of the events is salient. UK journalists warn that public interest may lean towards controversies, which could undermine the credibility of PB. The ongoing structural decline in local media, where PB stories might gain most traction, presents a challenge in both countries.

Diverse PB coverage strategies are proposed. In the UK, journalists suggest visual storytelling, comparison with traditional budget allocation processes, personal human interest stories, exploring the impact of digitalization on participatory democracy, and highlighting the relationships formed during PB events. In Ireland, journalists advised focusing on a comprehensive explanation of the process, presenting diverse viewpoints, rigorous fact-checking, ascertaining public interest, and highlighting the potential for community impact. The superficiality of PB coverage is a concern in the UK, with the challenge of simplifying complex processes without losing reader engagement. In Ireland, the infrequency of PB events and resource constraints complicate efforts to cover the democratic practice in depth.

PB reporting challenges in the UK include dilemmas concerning participant recruitment and their privacy, time and resource limitations, holding decision-makers accountable, portraying PB events as exciting and innovative, and the reality that PB events do not usually qualify as ‘breaking news’. The challenges in Ireland included the need for careful explanation of the PB process, and as in the UK, resource constraints.

Ensuring accountability in reporting

Accountability concerns are also prominent. UK and Irish journalists express unease about perceived political accountability deficits, notably at the local government level. While journalists in Ireland distance themselves and their profession from contributing to this shortfall, some stress the need for more demanding scrutiny of politicians. UK journalists have divided opinions: some believe the media, particularly large media conglomerates, exacerbate the lack accountability, while others argue for journalists’ pivotal role in bolstering accountability.

To increase accountability, Irish journalists suggest enhancing local government powers, ensuring media funding remains independent from political parties, reviewing existing regulations on defamation, privacy, and data protection. The UK journalists prioritise elevating local journalism and ownership, upholding principles of transparency and championing freedom of information and speech.

Journalists from both countries recognize the importance of media coverage in driving public interest and participation in PB events. They underscore the need for greater investment in time, resources, and innovative storytelling techniques to enhance the quality and impact of such coverage.

Conclusion

The media landscape in the UK and Ireland have distinct challenges and opportunities to cultivate trust, civic participation, and accountability. Journalists in both countries recognise the potential of participatory democratic innovations like participatory budgeting and underscore the media’s important role in highlighting these initiatives. However, opinions vary on their effectiveness and and coverage. There is a shared understanding of the media’s role in shaping the democratic process, raising the newsworthiness of democratic initiatives and their ultimate success. However, numerous challenges persist from maintaining public interest to managing limited resources. There is consensus on the need for bettter political accountability in both countries and varied solutions are prposed pointing to the need for context-specific strategies to address these challenges and need for innovative solutions.

This blog draws on research by Carlos Mendez, Virginia Arena and Katarzyna Piskorek under the EU project DEMOTEC – Democratising Territorial Cohesion: Experimenting with deliberative citizen engagement and participatory budgeting in European regional and urban policies. 

Share this news item...

Twitter
LinkedIn
Facebook
Email
WhatsApp