University of Bucharest
With established political parties and institutions facing a crisis of confidence, Romanians seem to be taking it upon themselves to solve the country’s problems with the help of mainstream newsrooms and independent journalistic projects. Yet trust in news overall has dropped by 7 percentage points since 2018 – the effect of a perfect storm that hit Romanian media amid an intense election period.
Romanian newsrooms are underfinanced, overworked, and vulnerable to economic and political pressures. This is not an ideal position in a year when the country took the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and is going through a series of important elections.
At European level, the Romanian government faced intense criticism on anti-corruption and justice issues. The response domestically from leaders of the ruling coalition has been to step up anti-European and populist rhetoric, including encouraging conspiracy theories. The targets have been the so-called ‘parallel state’, which is purportedly run by secret services, and uses the judicial system to decimate the political elite, , the banking system, George Soros, and foreign investors – which are supposedly trying to impoverish Romania in order to subjugate it.
These themes were widely covered by polarised newsrooms, often with inflamed vocabulary and varying degrees of outrage, though some newsrooms tried to maintain balance. The National Audiovisual Council took timid steps to try to keep TV stations in line with legislation, but they did not prove effective.
The top two media brands, which are widely followed by the digital public both online and offline, are a generalist TV channel, ProTV, and an all-news television, Digi 24. They are both part of publicly traded companies, on NASDAQ and on the Romanian stock exchange, respectively. Both newsrooms tried to keep balance in covering breaking news and investigative reporting. ProTV, especially, leveraged its mass-market approach to support public information campaigns on health, environmental, and other public issues. Thanks to this support, the project for the first paediatric oncology hospital in Romania managed to raise all the funds needed for its completion.
Balanced coverage helped some other media brands retain their audiences. This is the case with foreign-owned radio station Europa FM, with public radio Radio România Actualități (RRA), and with three strong online Romanian-owned brands, HotNews, Adevărul, and Ziarul Financiar. Other brands, that have carried more polarised coverage in supporting or criticising the government, showed a decline in declared usage, of up to 10 percentage points in the past three years: Antena 1, Antena 3, and România TV (pro-government), and Realitatea TV (anti-government). Two journalists from both sides of the divide played a prominent role as candidates in elections for the 2019 European Parliament.
Meanwhile public television, TVR, and public radio, RRA, continue to struggle to remain relevant to audiences – taking positions 5 and 11 in the list of most used offline brands – despite their stable finances. In 2018, for every €4 spent on advertising in Romania, €1 was matched from the public budget for the public service media. Concern about editorial independence in the face of political pressure has affected their credibility and limited their appeal. The president of public television, for example, was recorded criticising a journalist for being too aggressive with a politician from the ruling coalition.1
In parallel, Libertatea, a mass-market print title owned by the Swiss Ringier group, has been gradually changing its editorial positions ahead of elections. Its new investigative team uses social media to promote stories and has succeeded in sparking important debates. Facebook remains a significant gateway for access to news (68% of the digital public), and is regularly used to generate support for civic campaigns.
The decline of 7 percentage points in ‘trust in news overall’, is not due to a lack of public support for journalists. It may be the effect of a perfect storm of adverse conditions. Politicians are attacking journalists on a constant basis while the ruling coalition is adopting legislative changes which damage the judicial system but which are hard to explain to the general audience. Street demonstrations and protests, which had gone on for two years, decreased meaning a drop in people’s sense of urgency which had kept interest in the news alive. And last but not least, Romanian newsrooms maintained their tradition of attacking each other in order to position themselves. As usual, these attacks become more intense before elections and thus affect the general trust in journalism.2
TV and online remain the most important news sources in Romania with declared printed newspaper consumption (19%) amongst the lowest in our survey. The smartphone (71% weekly use) has overtaken computers this year as the most important access point for digital news.
Declining trust in the news puts Romania at the lower end of our international survey. Increased polarisation and rising political attacks on journalists are part of the explanation. The most trusted brands try to offer the most balanced picture on politics while more partisan brands tend to rate lower in general, though not with regular users of those brands.
- Dragoș Pătraru, 3 May 2018, ‘A message on the Freedom of Speech Day: Get your Paws off the Public Television’, https://patraru.ro/2018/05/03/un-mesaj-de-ziua-libertatii-de-exprimare-jos-labele-de-pe-tvr/ ↩
- Initiative, 2018, Media Fact Book Romania, p. 24, www.mediafactbook.ro/public/files/MFB2018.pdf ↩