Hendrickx: “News media and journalists have a social obligation to inform citizens in a critical and diverse way. 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.”
Under the supervision of promotors Prof Dr Pieter Ballon and Dr Heritiana Ranaivoson (imec-SMIT), Hendrickx spent four years studying the role and dominance of the two largest Flemish media companies, DPG Media and Mediahuis. Both companies came into being after large-scale mergers and takeovers, reducing the number of media companies active in Flanders from nine to five. In his research, Hendrickx focused on the direct and indirect consequences of media concentration and synergies within the merged companies on news production and content diversity. The results were obtained through comparative content analysis of newspaper and online articles , observation of newsrooms and interviews with journalists, sub-editors and editors-in-chief. For this purpose, he analysed more than 1 million articles and 100 working days of journalists at both media groups between 2017 and 2020. The content analysis looked at how many articles were copied by the same group and thus to what extent there is still sufficient diversity in reporting.
Regional recycling & physical proximity
The results of the study are mixed. For example, it appears that regional newspaper titles and their content have been scaled down the most at Mediahuis. At the same time, the content and especially the political news of the national newspaper De Standaard have become marginally more diverse. At DPG Media, articles from Het Laatste Nieuws and De Morgen have become much less diverse. Here, a clear focus was put on Het Laatste Nieuws as the largest news brand and more resources and people were made available for it.
Observations among journalists revealed how the practice of recycling news content has become part of the business model and the daily operations of media titles. For example, in recent years, various Flemish news editors have been placed in the same building to facilitate collaborations. Furthermore, they use the same software to publish articles, which allows for content sharing across different titles, and editors have implicit rules about whether they are allowed to copy articles or sources.
“Smaller media titles are in danger of being supplanted by larger ones, which puts increasing pressure on news diversity,” says Hendrickx. “There are, of course, market conditions to be taken into account, which necessitate and enable such synergies. 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.”
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