What is the role of journalists in participatory processes, like participatory budgets? What do journalists need for reporting on participatory budgeting in a qualified manner? And how can municipalities support qualified media coverage?
The following observations are based on Michelle Ruesch’s experiences with participatory budgeting processes in Germany.
a) What is the role of journalists in participatory (budgeting) processes?
Journalists can fulfil five core functions in the context of participatory budgeting processes:
1. Agenda-setting and mobilisation
First of all, journalists play a central role for publicity. An event that is not covered by the media does not attract people’s attention. That also counts for participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting processes that are only mentioned in a small notice on a newspaper’s last page will hardly make it into public discussion. That means, that journalists can help participatory processes to attain public visibility. Without visibility, participatory processes are doomed to fail.
2. Public opinion formation on the process
Not only the extent of media coverage is important - the kind of coverage also plays an important role. Citizens will hardly consider participatory budgeting processes as successful, which are covered in a very critical or negative way by the media. Thus, few people will want to engage in a process, which evokes negative connotations in public discussion.
3. Critical review of the process (watchdogs)
Even if critical reporting can harm participatory processes, it is very important. Like in other political processes, the media act as a “forth power” alongside the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The media have an important control function. They scrutinize politics and administration, and for example denounce lacks of transparency.
It is important though, not to be overly critical, and above all, to make meaningful comparisons. Only qualified journalists can interpret participation statistics properly, and can produce a critical and at the same time fair review of the process.
4. Information transfer and “translating” expert knowledge
Another important role of journalists is to convey expert information on the topic. While administrative staff often struggle to give a comprehensible account of their complex expert knowledge, this is one of the main competences of journalists. By processing information provided by the municipality’s administration, for instance by creating appealing visualisations, journalists can strongly support participatory budgeting processes. This function could be extended in the future.
5. Demanding accountability and feedback
Journalists play an important role not only during the information and participation phases. Also during the accountability phase, journalists are to a large extent responsible for information on decision-making reaching the public. It can also be helpful if journalists critically enquire, when information on the outcome of the participation phase will be provided. In practice however, this is often forgotten. Not only policy makers, but also the media tend to consider participatory budgeting processes to be completed after the end of the active participation phase. A detailed account on what happened with the results of the participatory process is not often provided.
Knowing the functions that journalists can fulfil in the context of participatory budgeting processes, induces the following two questions: What do journalists need, in order to give an informed report on participatory budgeting processes? And what can municipalities do, to ensure a more qualified reporting?
b) How can municipalities support an active and positive engagement of journalists during the process?
It is essential, to engage and educate journalists early on in the process. Inconsiderate comparisons of participation and population statistics result from journalists having little experience with participatory processes, especially with online-based processes. They need information, for instance on participatory processes in other cities, and on goals, limits and chances of participatory budgeting, in order to form their opinion, and not to rely on individual opinions.
In addition to providing journalists with sufficient information, transparency and openness are essential. Municipalities should incorporate critical media feedback in a constructive way – especially since the media also mirror tendencies and opinions within society.
c) How can journalists support participatory budgeting processes?
Obviously, journalists should not become advertisers for municipalities. Independent, critical journalism is one of the foundations of democracy. Still, journalists should be aware, that overly critical reporting can stifle attempts towards public participation at the very beginning. It is important to understand that participatory budgeting processes are still being developed, and that journalists can help in a constructive way to shape new forms of participation, and more transparent policy-making.
For journalists it is furthermore essential, to not only rely on what others write or say. If for instance a mayor expresses his or her disappointment with the numbers of people involved in a participatory process, one should not automatically conclude that participation was too low. Rather, journalists should critically investigate such statements.
Of course, the statements made above do not only apply to conventional, professional journalists, but also to bloggers, citizen journalists, and other disseminators. All of these should critically evaluate their own role. This also applies to the editorial staff of buergerhaushalt.org.