Publication: October 2019
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Authors: Carlos MENDEZ, Vasiliki TRIGA, John BACHTLER, Costas DJOUVAS, Fernando MENDEZ, Sebastian STIER

This study evaluates the visibility and communication of cohesion policy in online media and the effectiveness of communication activities. A mixed methods approach is employed to investigate the coverage, representation and user perceptions of cohesion policy in online media, including quantitative text mining techniques, as well as more qualitative approaches based on framing analysis and expert interviews. The research draws on a database of 60,000 online news articles in ten Member States and over 100,000 reader comments. It also analysed social media – over 11,000 Facebook posts and over five million tweets on Twitter – and 13,000 EU press releases.

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The visibility of cohesion policy in online news media stories is relatively low, with many references to the policy being little more than an acknowledgement of their contribution to projects. Cohesion policy is more visible in national media, but regional and local media are more likely to provide some depth to their coverage at the project level.

The tone of news media coverage is generally positive, particularly so in regional/local media. News stories tend to be framed around the socio-economic consequences of the funds in terms of economic development, jobs, infrastructure and social inclusion. Institutional bargaining is a very dominant theme, with stories giving prominence to the reform of the Multiannual Financial Framework.

There are significant differences across countries in visibility, tone, framing and bias. Member States with higher levels of cohesion policy funding tend to have greater visibility and more positive tone. The proportion of bias (or myths) in cohesion policy news stories is less variable and relatively low (7 percent of stories). Most of the myths propagated in online news are about fraud, mismanagement and the lack of added value. News stories with myths are most prevalent in some (though not all) of the net payer countries.

Turning to social media, the visibility of facebook posts on cohesion policy by EU institutions, European political parties and interests groups is relatively low, constituting 6 percent of their total facebook activity. Of these, almost 60 percent are by DG REGIO followed (a long way behind) by the CPMR and Commissioner for Regional Policy. Most FB posts are neutral in tone, providing factual information, although DG REGIO posts are generally more positive than posts by other actors.

The visibility of cohesion policy in Twitter is low among the 2019 European Parliament election candidates relative to their overall Twitter activity and in terms of frequency. Around 15 percent of the candidates with a Twitter account tweeted about cohesion policy during the period January-June 2019, on average 3 times, and generally in positive terms. DG REGIO produced the largest number of tweets followed by ‘EU influencers’ (typically journalists, EU officials and academics) and interest groups. The tone was overwhelmingly positive, significantly more so than for the EP candidates. Public discussion about cohesion policy are relatively low key but often lively in terms of politicisation and sentiment.

Cohesion policy is well represented in European Commission press releases relative to other EU policy domains, but less so in the press activity of other EU institutions and political parties. Overall, press releases from EU institutions tend to focus on socio-economic issues, whereas the political parties are more likely to frame their press releases in terms of power issues (institutional bargaining, empowerment, conditionality etc.).

The main conclusion is that the communication of cohesion policy in online media has been weak in recent years, despite the increased political priority placed on communication by EU institutions. Media coverage is often shallow, with limited depth of understanding or analysis and there is little appreciation of the role of the EU or wider impact of the policy.

A key precondition for greater visibility and better communication is greater citizen engagement in the policy, particularly at the programming stage. The main recommendation of this study is the need to promote a citizen-centred approach to programming through democratic innovations, including the piloting of participatory budgeting. The European Parliament should strive to ensure that the public have a real say on what is funded in their local area by one of the largest and most visible areas of EU expenditure impacting on their daily lives.

Link to the full Study: http://bit.ly/629-196

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