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News diversity in Flanders has decreased, VUB study finds

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News diversity in Flanders is on the decline due to a concentration of media organisations in the Flemish news landscape, according to research by VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel).

The research, led by Jonathan Hendrickx of the VUB research group imec-SMIT, found that in recent years, Flemish newspapers belonging to the same media group are sharing more articles with each other, reducing readers’ access to different sources and opinions.

“News media and journalists have a social obligation to inform citizens in a critical and diverse way,” said Hendrickx.

“This allows them in turn to make well-considered decisions in the voting booth, for example. News diversity is thus linked to democracy. It is not yet a critical problem in Flanders, but vigilance is clearly still required.”

Hendrickx spent four years studying the role and dominance of the two largest Flemish media companies, DPG Media and Mediahuis, both of which came into being following large-scale mergers and takeovers that brought the number of active media companies in Flanders from nine to just five.

By doing a comparative content analysis of newspaper and online articles, observing various Flemish newsrooms, and interviewing journalists and editors, Hendrickx was able to examine to what extent articles were copied from news outlets within the same group.

The results of the study were somewhat mixed: regional newspapers and their content was scaled down most significantly at Mediahuis.

While the content (and, researchers point out, in particular articles related to politics) of the newspaper De Standaard have become marginally more diverse, at DPG Media, articles from Het Laatste Nieuws and De Morgen have become much less diverse.

“Smaller media titles are in danger of being supplanted by larger ones, which puts increasing pressure on news diversity,” said Hendrickx.

“There are, of course, market conditions to be taken into account, which necessitate and enable such synergies.”

Observations from journalists that Hendrickx interviewed revealed how the practice of recycling news content has become part of the business model and the daily operations of many media titles.

One way in which this happens is by placing different Flemish news editors in the same building in order to foster collaboration. Another way in which article recycling takes place is by big news organisations using the same publishing software for all their smaller publications, which allows them to share content across different titles.

“It is now crucial for the Flemish media to convert the savings made into further differentiation of the political, cultural and regional news in the remaining paper titles,” Hendrickx said.