Long-time resident and new Belgian Gareth Harding shares his thoughts about life in Brussels and Belgium
Journalists are attracted by power, money and conflict. So it’s hardly surprising that Brussels, the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO, is home to one of the world’s largest international press corps.
But who are these reporters, how do they work, what topics do they focus on and how do they get their information? A new report drawn up for the Council of the European Union sheds light on these questions and provides a fascinating insight into what drives journalists in the EU capital.
One of the most startling statistics is that the number of Brussels-based journalists has slumped during a decade that saw a succession of crises – economic, migrant, Brexit, Covid, Ukraine – catapult the EU onto the frontpages of the world’s newspapers. In 2020, there were 811 accredited journalists to the EU institutions - over 200 fewer than in 2013 when numbers peaked after decades of growth.
The reasons for this are that foreign correspondents are expensive, most newspapers are haemorrhaging jobs and many reporters from central and eastern Europe went home after the 2004 and 2012 waves of enlargement that saw a dozen new countries join the EU. But it is still troubling that as the EU gains more members, greater powers and a bigger budget, there are fewer journalists reporting on it from Brussels.
Another depressing finding of the study is you don’t have to wear a suit and tie to report the EU, but it certainly seems to help. 62% of Brussels correspondents are male and 38% female – pretty dismal in terms of gender balance but marginally better than two decades ago when only 28% were women.
The average age of Brussels correspondents is 45 – think Ryan Reynolds but without the glamour – and journalists spend an average of eight years reporting from the Belgian capital. This doesn’t mean they’re Europe experts however – just 20% of journalists only cover EU affairs, with 68% covering other fields - such as NATO, Belgium and the Netherlands – in addition to the European Union. Proving that Brussels is something of a one-horse town when it comes to news obsessions, seven out of 10 news organisations in Brussels focus on politics, with the second largest group made up of economic/financial outlets, representing just 5% of the total.
There is a lot of talk in academic circles about the emergence of a European public sphere. However, this is not reflected in who Brussels-based journalists report for. Only 18% of those surveyed in autumn 2021 said they served European or global audiences, with the vast majority writing for or broadcasting to national audiences.
In terms of what media predominate, newspapers are still the big beasts of the Brussels media jungle, with a quarter working for online and print editions. TV broadcasters and news agencies such as AFP and Reuters are the next biggest employers, with online only news outlets making up 13%. These figures point to a traditional approach to reporting in Brussels – only a few journalists said they focused on formats such as data visualisation and social media storytelling.
When asked what has changed in their work compared to five years ago, journalists said the use of search engines, interaction with audiences and technical skills had all increased in importance. However, two-thirds said they had less time to research stories and 45% said the credibility of journalism had decreased. Another change is the soaring number of freelancers. There were only a handful at the start of the century, but now almost 30% are without fixed employment, underlining greater insecurity and precarity in Brussels’ fourth estate.
Which media do journalists consider the most influential in Brussels? Unsurprisingly given previous polls, The Financial Times and POLITICO head the list, with 71% and 61% respectively mentioning them in their top three. Rounding out the trio of top publications is Euractiv, with 36%, followed by prestigious national publications such as Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and The Guardian.
Social media is a key source in Brussels, with over three-quarters of correspondents judging it important for reporting or producing stories. Twitter is by far the most popular platform, with 59% saying they use it “all the time” in work. However, when it comes to connecting with their sources, Brussels journalists are still old-school, depending on press briefings organised by the EU institutions for their news.
Covid has had a huge impact on what the Brussels press corps covers and how it works. The pandemic was the most popular news topic covered by journalists in 2021, closely followed by economy and finance. 43% also said Covid had led to an increased interest in EU affairs back home, although only a handful agreed this would last. The pandemic has also dramatically changed the way journalists in Brussels work, with a majority expecting that post-Covid press conferences and off-the-record briefings will be hybrid, with questions coming in-person and online from accredited media only.