EU Cohesion policy in the spotlight
Studies show that the media report more negatively than positively on the European Union (EU). This ‘negativity bias’ is often used by journalists to attract audiences, but can also reduce public support for the EU. In this study, we explored media coverage of EU Cohesion policy – the largest EU investment policy for reducing economic, social and territorial inequalities. Our findings show that, in contrast to studies of EU news in general, media coverage of Cohesion Policy is positive in tone overall, especially in regional news sources.
To analyse media coverage of Cohesion policy across different territorial levels, we focused on the cases of the Spain, the United Kingdom (UK) and Transnational media. Spain and the UK are useful comparative cases because they share important similarities and differences relating to our study objectives. First, they are large countries with devolved political institutions and significant regional autonomy. This implies that there are a strong regional media presence and decision-making responsibility for Cohesion policy. Both countries have received substantial EU funding historically, albeit more so in Spain, increasing the visibility of funding. Turning to differences, Spain is a net beneficiary from the EU budget with pro-EU public attitudes, while the UK is a net payer country with relatively high Eurosceptic public opinion. Finally, transnational media sources were also analysed because they tend to focus on EU-related matters in a more consistent manner than the national media covering issues that concern all Member States.
Over 4,000 news articles on Cohesion Policy were gathered over the 2010-2017 period and analysed through computational text analysis techniques. Sentiment analysis was used to determine the tone of the stories by matching the content to lists of words and phrases with positive and negative connotations; and topic modelling to identify the dominant topics by identifying clusters of similar words across the stories.
We found that the tone of news coverage was significantly more positive than negative or neutral in all cases. The relatively high positive coverage for the UK is striking, given that it is a Eurosceptic country that has now formally left the EU. The positivity can be partly explained by Brexit. Following Brexit, there was a significant increase in positive sentiment in news stories covering EU Cohesion policy compared to the pre-Brexit period. We also investigated whether there were differences between national and regional media sources. We found that there was indeed an association. The regional sources in both Spain and the UK were less likely to contain negative tone, as shown in the article’s statistical analysis.
Analysis of the topics covered in Cohesion Policy news stories provides further insight into the tone. For each of the cases, nine coherent topics were identified which clustered around two distinct types. The first type of topics related to the EU’s thematic objectives for Cohesion policy (e.g. low-carbon economy; research, development and innovation; employment, training and entrepreneurship). These topics generally had the lowest negative tone scores, as shown in Figure 2.
The second type of topics identified clustered around topics connected to political conflicts and were more negative in tone. This included broader EU affairs, primarily the Eurozone crisis and the Migration crisis as well as EU budgetary politics related to issues such as conditionality (e.g., debates about linking regional funding to respect for EU democratic values).
The results of our analysis have direct policy implications. First, unlike much of the media coverage of EU institutions and elections, the tone of EU Cohesion policy news is generally positive. The implication is that efforts to improve Cohesion policy communication could contribute to raising public awareness of the benefits of the EU in citizens’ daily lives and help to reconnect with citizens. Second, computational text analysis provides a cost-efficient method for EU and national policymakers to monitor and evaluate media coverage across territorial levels, allowing the development of targeted media strategies and campaigns to raise awareness of Cohesion policy and its achievements.
This blog post draws on the JCMS article, ‘EU Cohesion Policy under the Media Spotlight: Exploring Territorial and Temporal Patterns in News Coverage and Tone.’
Acknowledgements: The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the COHESIFY project, Grant Agreement No. 693127.
Dr Carlos Mendez is Principal Research Fellow at the European Policies Research Centre, University of Strathclyde.
Dr Fernando Mendez is Senior Researcher, Senior Researcher, Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau, University of Zürich.
Dr Vasiliki Triga is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication and Internet Studies, Cyprus University of Technology
Dr Juan Miguel Carrascosa is a Research Associate at the Department of Communication and Internet Studies, Cyprus University of Technology