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The fourth estate? media, frames and political behaviour towards the EU in comparative perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MEDPOL (The fourth estate? media, frames and political behaviour towards the EU in comparative perspective)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-09-30

MEDPOL’s aim was twofold: a) to investigate how media coverage of the EU has evolved since the 1990s, and b) to assess the impact of news content and frames on political attitudes and behaviour towards the EU in Italy, Portugal, Spain and France. The project uses a mixed methods approach grounded on agenda-setting and framing theories.
Findings help improving our understanding of how narrative (and public perceptions) about the EU emerge and evolve. MEDPOL contributes to the diffusion of content and discourse analysis methods, including dictionary-based and unsupervised machine learning techniques, as well as the use of quantitative/qualitative methods and interdisciplinary approaches devoted to understand the role of the media as a political actor. MEDPOL has contributed to the development of a methodology of data collection and analysis that can be adapted to other cases (countries or other news outlets provided that textual data is accessible. A sample of the data as well as the codes that allow for its analysis are made available for research (non-profit) purposes so other scholars and students can practice and develop data analysis skills. We hope that they will be encouraged to look at other cases and under explored countries. MEDPOL also sheds light on how media coverage - most notably the strong emphasis on conflict frame and negative reporting - may be contributing to distrust in political institutions and in the media itself.
The work performed along the duration of the project included collection of newspaper articles from the selected outlets. The textual data has been obtained via newspapers’ online archives or manually collected from Factiva News database. Data was analysed using R free software environment for statistical computing and graphics. This process has allowed us to identify major trends in EU coverage most notably:

- Visibility of EU issues;
- Policy topics associated to the EU;
- Polarity (positive or negative tone) of coverage;
- Main frames (conflict, competition, morality, economic impact) associated with EU reporting;
- Metaphors used to describe the EU;
- Coverage of the various crises Europe has gone through over the last twenty years.

Main findings:
• EU receives little visibility in the media and tends to be reported negatively. News’ titles have more negative language then the body of text;
• Conflict frame prevails;
• The EU is regarded as an intergovernmental actor and economic power, but as a weak and contradictory normative power;
• Crises – Brexit, Eurozone, refugees – significantly increase EU coverage;
• Coverage of Brexit negotiations and the mutalization of sovereign debt have led to a more positive and cohesive image of the EU;

Coverage of European affairs has a strong intergovernmental character. The texts focus predominantly on the EU’s economic dimension and, to a lesser extent, on the capacity of the EU to send market and environmental standards.
The EU still receives relatively little attention from the media and is usually viewed through negative lenses. Events such as EU Council meetings and European Parliament (EP) elections increase coverage of EU politics but are seen from an almost exclusively national perspective. Conflict framing and emphasis on divergences between member states, or between states and EU institutions are also recurrent in newspapers analysed, most notably in the French case. Nevertheless, coverage becomes more positive whenever the EU can be opposed to another actor, as seen at specific events such as the negotiation around the Kyoto protocol, competition between Boeing and Airbus and following the ‘Brexit’ referendum.
The tone of the coverage is largely determined by the newspapers’ editorial line and the country rather than the political leaning of the outlet. The result of UK referendum allowed for the EU to be seen as one consistent and cohesive actor, whose positions were vocalised the European Commission's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and member states’ leaders. The analysis reinforces Jean Monnet’s assertion that “Europe will be forged in crisis.” Coverage was prompted by events such as the Eurozone crisis followed by the massive arrival of refugees in 2015, the result of the Brexit referendum (2016) and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Eurozone crisis has reinforced the intergovernmental dimension of the EU as well as its image of an economic (sometimes 'strict' and 'inflexible') actor. The conflict frame marked by opposition of Germany-led northern countries and the southern ones subject to ‘draconian’ policies dictated by Germany and the Troika. Qualitative analysis of sampled articles confirms the predominance of conflict frame and indicates a highly emotional coverage of the Eurozone crisis marked by analogies with natural disasters (“edge of the abyss”, “earthquake”), namely in the Italian press. Spanish and Portuguese coverage, on the other hand, tended to use more disease metaphors when referring to the crisis, therefore referring to austerity measures as “bitter medicines” to discipline states. These frames do not imply, however, full support for these measures. Coverage of centre-left outlets have frequently stressed the strict character of the strict technocratic measures “imposed” by the EU, while centre-right newspapers tend to cover (also) the disciplinary character.

Dissemination events included
• Hybrid workshop where master and PhD students as well as junior scholars have presented their work on different aspects of the relationship between the media and the EU, and engaged with 30 Sciences Po Master students in European affairs;
• Virtual round table with six early career and established scholars based in Portugal, France, Italy and Austria, with a view of proposing an academic panel at a European conference in 2022.
The main contribution of the project concerns the application of textual data analysis techniques to study and understand how narratives about the EU and European integration are constructed, and why certain narratives and frames prevail to the detriment of other "stories" and "myths". Data analysis techniques can and should be used more extensively to understand such processes. The project, indicates an appetite among students to master these techniques.
Unsupervised machine learning techniques - that is, inductive approaches that allow for the identification of topics and classification of narratives without necessarily sticking to pre-determined categories has proved particularly useful to analyse long-term trends in political communication and narrative construction.
The material generated by MEDPOL are useful for both educational and research purposes, and may also be presented to journalists and media organisations as a means to promote awareness of the potential impact of different types of coverage and framing of European integration; they may also be used to increase journalists' awareness and knowledge of EU legislative and policy-making processes, and to promote data science journalism in general.
Further actions related to MEDPOL include - but are not limited to: a) teaching of undergraduate and graduate interdisciplinary courses of 'Media, Politics and European Integration' and 'Discourses on European Integration'; b) research panels at european-level conferences; c) future peer-reviewed publications; d) future outreach activities within MSCAS framework.
Polarity scores
Datase descriptive statistics (overview): distribution of collected data over time per outlet
EU-related terms in news articles' title over time
Coverage of crises over time: share of articles containing the term "crisis"/"crises" in the title