7: The Fragile Interactions Between Activists and Journalists

Chapter 7 explores how activists navigate the complex world of modern journalism and cultivate meaningful connections with journalists, particularly when not actively involved in protests. It delves into the challenges activists encounter in building lasting relationships with journalists in Greece, Italy, and Spain. One significant challenge is the close alignment between legacy media and institutional politics. The chapter sheds light on how activists tackle this issue, as well as the implications it has for their interactions with journalists. Another obstacle stems from the working conditions of journalists in these countries. With many journalists working as freelancers outside traditional newsrooms, activists must adapt to these dynamics to effectively engage with the journalistic community. Finally, privacy and safeguarding personal communications emerge as a critical concern. Building on insights from Chapter 6, this chapter delves deeper into the importance of protecting privacy in activist–journalist interactions. Overall, Chapter 7 provides a glimpse into the strategies activists employ to establish and nurture connections with journalists, highlighting the unique challenges they face in the ever-evolving media landscape of Southern Europe.

Anna is an Italian freelance journalist who works in Rome. The national newspaper she works for pays her per piece. This means that if she does not write anything, she receives no money. What is worse, she may write something and still not get paid; if her piece is not published, it has been a waste of time and, more importantly, a decrease in her monthly income, which is never stable or certain. To face such uncertainty, she needs to juggle multiple jobs. Until a few years ago, she collaborated with a notorious Italian magazine, curating a blog on its website. Initially, the magazine paid her €400 per month, but this amount steadily declined; toward the end of her collaboration, she had to curate the blog for free. The magazine’s rationale behind this decision was that Anna had gained visibility thanks to the blog and that this should be enough of a payment for her. One day, she diplomatically criticized a cover page of that same magazine on her Facebook profile. A few days later, “I do not know how, but that Facebook post I published arrived on the desk of the magazine’s director, who did not like it at all and decided to close my blog.” Although Anna lost her unpaid collaboration with the magazine owing to a post on Facebook, she says she cannot do without the social media platform:

‘I often use Facebook to do an investigative report. For example, I had to do one on graduates who have converted to more practical activities: the journalist who started as a pizza maker, the philosopher as a pastry chef. So I go to my personal profile on Facebook and I ask my Facebook friends: “Does anyone know any graduates who have converted to something different?” In my work, finding and building the news, I launch pleas [and] requests for help. All journalists do it.’

For Anna, Facebook is not only a place to get information, but also an occasion to promote herself and the news pieces she publishes elsewhere. However, the promotion phase does not end with Facebook: “When I have finished writing all my articles, the second step is to always promote them using different types of communicative environments.” Anna does so through her own website and a Twitter profile. As a freelancer, this second step is crucial for her. Not having a fixed contract, hence no regular income, she needs to disseminate her pieces and build her journalistic brand to increase the chances of being hired by other media companies and having her pieces published – in other words, getting paid. However, gaining visibility through a personal website, Facebook, or Twitter requires having the time to manage all these different media channels, and time is both a precious and scarce resource for a freelance journalist:

‘I take very little care of my personal website, because I don’t have much time to do it. And there is another thing that I should do better: to also publish my pieces on Facebook or Twitter. To be honest, I publish on Facebook and Twitter whatever I write on my blogs. But I don’t do this with the necessary perseverance. I do it randomly, when I have the time to do it, when I have the energy.’

Even when journalists would prefer not to engage in such promotional activities, they still have a strong incentive to engage in personal strategies to increase their visibility when they work freelance, without a fixed contract. The degree, heterogeneity, and magnitude of these strategies may vary depending on personal choices. What remains fairly stable is the precariousness of journalists, which is closely linked to another factor: new forms of newsroom routines and the different working relationships and lifestyles of freelance journalists compared to those on permanent contracts.

Again, Anna’s case is emblematic. Since she is a freelance journalist, she almost always works outside a newsroom, something that she dislikes because it increases the distance between her and those who, instead, work inside newsrooms and in more stable positions. With newsrooms increasingly relying on freelance journalists, this distinct dichotomy between an in-group and an out-group of journalists is common in the print press as well as other news-making outlets. In this regard, literature focusing on journalists and their working conditions considers the growth of unregulated and precarious freelance journalists among the journalistic workforce as one of the main factors that determine a sharp decline in the quality of journalistic output. Despite some notable exceptions, journalism today is less about hard news and the in-depth investigation that goes with it, and more about soft, lifestyle news, with entertainment content, style and logic increasingly blending with those of journalistic information (Reinemann et al, 2012; Otto et al, 2017).

In short, Anna’s precarious working conditions and her irregular interactions with colleagues who work in the newsrooms of the national newspapers she freelances for put her in a difficult professional position. However, there is at least one aspect of her work that Anna values to a great extent: the relatively high level of freedom that she enjoys when writing her news pieces. She can cover any issue she wants to, with the angle she favours. This is not a common feature among journalists in Greece, Italy, and Spain, where the journalistic profession traditionally has strong connections with the realm of institutional politics (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). As Anna told us, the national newspaper she works for:

‘is the only newspaper where you do not receive any kind of pressure from your superiors and you can write whatever you want. You can conduct all the investigative reports you want, on anything you want. The absurd thing is that every newspaper has frightening conflicts of interest. My newspaper has no conflicts of interest. You can write investigative reports that you can hardly ever write elsewhere and this gives you absolute freedom. This is very remarkable … I feel totally free, I can really write what I want and have to say.’

However, the experience Anna shared with us is not very common in Southern Europe, where not even the flourishing of new online-only news media outlets – or the more general advent of the Internet and digital media – has managed to undermine the strong links between the political and journalistic realms, as our interviews with experts in Greece, Italy, and Spain also suggest.

Drawing on these premises, this chapter examines how activists engage in the practice of sustaining connections with journalists in the quiet times of politics, that is, when they struggle more to attract the attention of news media outlets because they are not engaged in any form of public protest. Activists deal with the data stream from at least two viewpoints when it comes to their relationship with journalists. On the one hand, they need to gather data on journalists: how they work and what features characterize the news-making routines of the news organizations they work for. As Charlotte Ryan (1991) illustrated when writing about activists’ television coverage in the United States, their knowledge of how journalists write news stories, when they do it, and through which format is vital to increase the likelihood of getting media coverage from mainstream media. Gathering data on how the news-making process works is even more important today, as journalists also interact with a large number of digital media services and devices to make their work visible, connect with others, and collect data for their news pieces. On the other hand, activists aim at becoming stable data sources for journalists, and this is particularly relevant when they are not in the streets. When public protest fails to gain the attention of journalists because there isn’t any massive public disruption that they see as newsworthy in itself, activists seek to produce data about the contentious issue they care about, transforming them in ways that can be attractive to news organizations and feeding them to journalists. In a sense, then, activists and their movement organizations seek to credit themselves as reliable data sources to whom journalists will automatically refer when writing about this or that social problem.

Activists, though, face important challenges when it comes to establishing and nurturing stable connections with journalists, as we will see later in this chapter. In the next section, we will look more closely at the political parallelism between media and political systems in countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). We argue that activists have to take into serious consideration certain values that are deeply rooted in the journalistic profession as it developed in Southern European countries from its inception, with journalists frequently defending partisan viewpoints when reporting on events. In countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain, journalists frequently fight alongside specific political actors, who may even own the media organizations they work for. They thus advocate a partial view of the world or system of values, up to the point of being associated and identified with a specific political party. In countries with a high level of political parallelism, journalists do not traditionally behave as watchdogs of power who are detached from any form of political affiliation. Rather, they are like soldiers in a clear political line-up. This contextual feature of the three countries examined in this book poses a threat to activists. At the same time, however, this chapter will also show how activists try to take advantage of political parallelism without succumbing to it.

Then, we will consider the increasing precariousness that affects the journalistic profession. Today, a significant portion of journalists work freelance – hence without any stable or fixed contracts – in a media company, whether it is a newspaper, a radio, a television channel, or an online-only news website. These journalists usually do their job without ever entering the buildings where their companies’ newsrooms are located; they work from home, instead. Or they work from the tables of bars and cafeterias, equipped with no more than a laptop, a smartphone, and an Internet connection. They are often forced to work non-stop, including at weekends and overnight, to secure a decent and satisfactory salary at the end of each month. This ongoing transformation within journalism has important consequences for activists; most of the time, activists relate to this type of (precarious) journalist and this is why activists have to be fully aware of precarious journalists’ practices and routines. Activists need to know that a specific freelancer may work every night from 10 pm onwards at the table of a posh bar located close to the buildings of power in their country’s capital – just the right time and place for activists to build a fruitful relationship of mutual trust with this new type of journalist, who is becoming ever more common in the field of journalism.

Finally, we will discuss an important issue in the practice of establishing connections in the data stream: the security of data exchanges when journalists and activists interact. Although journalists have the deontological mandate to protect their sources of information, the exchange that happens through digital media can jeopardize the activists’ information. Digital data sequences are, indeed, incredibly fragile in this regard, mainly when activists operate on a sensitive issue like corruption: activists seem to know that the practice of sustaining connections needs to be performed carefully in the age of widespread digital surveillance. However, in this section, we will illustrate how both activists and journalists have a different awareness of this issue depending on the country in which they live. Overall, the issue of data security is still largely unexplored when it comes to activists engaging with journalists. For instance, we still have scarce knowledge on the way activists face digital security when, on the other side of the screen, there is not a political actor, another grassroots activist, or a lay citizen, but a journalist. We have not yet built systematic scientific knowledge of the strategies that activists imagine and then perform to secure digital communication when they relate to journalists. Moreover, if – as we have already observed in previous chapters – the Italian activists are those who care less about digital security, it is highly important to understand what happens when Italian activists relate to journalists online, in particular in comparison with their Greek and Spanish counterparts.

Activists and the political ties of journalists

As we have also illustrated in Chapter 3, political parallelism remains a relevant feature in activists’ general understanding of how journalists are linked to the realm of institutional politics. Activists, indeed, can identify the political leaning of journalists, usually at first sight. Indeed, Southern European journalists are usually well aware of their partisanship. They do not believe journalism means providing neutral and – as much as possible – objective information to citizens. It instead entails taking a side: fighting for that political component of society they support. It is no coincidence that Simone, one of the Italian journalists we interviewed, stressed his political belonging to and partisan role in society, owing to his belief that “partisanship is an ambivalent concept. It can be used both in negative-derogatory terms and in terms of being and belonging to a part, and taking the side of a specific part is the first way to be political in life, as it is in journalism”. Such a specific understanding of what partisanship and journalism are leads Simone to think and assume that, as a journalist, he is doing and has to do a partisan job. For him, strong partisanship is a natural consequence and inner characteristic of his professional identity as a journalist.

Following this mindset, Simone has a privileged and direct, daily connection with certain political actors, while others fall completely out of his network. Furthermore, working for a well-known printed newspaper, he is a reliable and influential point of reference for many grassroots organizations sharing his political views, attitudes, and values. More than a simple gatekeeper of information and a news provider, Simone is perceived as a political actor, one able to strongly affect the political elaboration of the politically closest activists he interacts with. As he revealed to us,

‘No one tells me what to say. I was the one who contributed to and formulated a course of action for a social movement … The possibility that a newspaper like mine gives you is to stay inside the social movements, to discuss things with them, to give back to social movements as much as possible … to guide them. To make them understand the news and what happens in their community. But writing for my newspaper also allows me to affect the keywords and frames that social movements adopt, and even their general political purposes.’

As his words denote, Simone does not act as the mere megaphone of certain grassroots organizations; he is also part of them. He has daily, intense contact with activists, up to the point of being one of their most prominent figures with strong material as well as symbolic power within different grassroots organizations. This is particularly true in the case of those legacy media that openly follow a specific political line, and that at times develop a strong relationship with those movement organizations that share a similar political alignment, hence becoming ‘sympathetic media’ for activists (Mattoni, 2012, 2017a).

This very deep-rooted interconnection between journalists and political actors also emerged during our interviews with Greek and Spanish activists. Even in these Southern European countries, activists know very well what the rules of the game are and how the entrenched bond between media and politics works and is materially and symbolically structured. They know how helpful it is to have a ‘very close friend’ in a journalistic newsroom, regardless of whether they work in older media companies or new online-only media outlets. This friendship can have different forms, causes, and levels of intensity. There are journalists with whom activists share a specific view of the world (Ceron and Splendore, 2018) and others with whom they nurture a historical relationship of friendship because they have known them since their school days or met them in those informal events so important for networking tasks – relaxing moments that end with a beer in a pub talking about anything but politics until three in the morning. In this second case, a geographical factor enters into action. These types of connections can be built only when political and media actors share the same geography of power, that is, the same physical places of power (usually a country’s capital city). Activists perceive and know this aspect rather well, in particular when they live outside the so-called bubbles (that is Rome, Madrid, or Athens) and feel excluded by them. Ruben, a Spanish activist who lives in Barcelona and, therefore, outside the “Madrid bubble”, explains what not living in Madrid means for his movement organization:

‘There is something called the M-30, which is the Madrid ring road. The M-30 should not be studied at the urban level, nor should it be studied geographically. It must be studied at the psychiatric level. It’s an M-30 syndrome. So, we really shouldn’t use an expression like “national level” or “state level”. We should rather use an expression like the “Madrid Level”. And the people that appear on TV and that we have to watch in the whole of Spain are all people from Madrid. And they only talk to each other, too. Such people only talk to newspaper editors, … a specific newspaper editor only talks to parliamentary leaders, while the rest of the country is getting the country going. These kinds of relations would be understandable in a country like France, because Paris is very big, but Madrid is not that big. Spain is not Madrid.’

At the same time, Miranda, an activist who is based in Madrid, made the following suggestion:

‘I suppose that if you are outside Madrid then you feel some isolation because we are in the center … The way I get information and spread information is what I have been doing all these years, so I know people and people know me. If I go to Barcelona, for example, I know people, but not so many people, that’s true.’

She is well aware of the importance of staying very close to the centres of power, even in the era of ubiquitous communication and the progressive digitalization of society. Indeed, if being out of this bubble equals exclusion, being in it means a higher chance for a grassroots organization to establish fruitful connections with media actors and (hopefully) reach positive media coverage. In line with Ruben’s and Miranda’s words, the case of the following Greek activist also attests to the importance of living, operating, and campaigning in the capital city of his country. As Ivan told us,

‘there are people that we know, because they work with media that are closer to our political views. So we know them, we find them everywhere; they might even contact us if they want to create something. Some of them are also part of our political organization, I mean, the general political organization, … others may be closer, you know. So this is … I think it’s obvious.’

These last three interview extracts raise a relevant consideration: the blend between media and politics in Southern European countries is well structured also at the grassroots level, hence not only at an institutional one. It implies that the interconnections between political parties and the main national news media outlets, both in their older and newer digital formats, do not embrace the whole phenomenon of political parallelism in a certain country alone. Indeed, activists are conscious of how their respective national media system works, so they know that they live in countries in which political parallelism is one of the main structural forces shaping the relationships between political and media actors; they act accordingly, although this becomes difficult when, for example, they operate far from the centres of power in which those close relationships take place. Therefore, they may try to exploit the structural dynamics of journalism to gain the media coverage they harshly strive for as well as to become data sources that are stabler and considered reliable also because of the connections they have managed to establish with a given journalist.

However, political parallelism very often works as a constraining structure that does not favour social movements. If seen from a broader perspective, high levels of political parallelism imply that other kinds of political actors, such as elected officials or professional lobbyists, also exert an influence over journalists, regularly surpassing activists thanks to the greater symbolic and political resources they can rely on. More than benefiting from the potential of political parallelism to influence how and how often different media outlets cover their political stances, grassroots organizations are more frequently silenced by it (Prentoulis and Kyriakidou, 2019). Although political parallelism remains a debated subject of scientific inquiry (van der Pas et al, 2017; Nechushtai, 2018), the ongoing processes of digitalization and datafication in our societies do not appear to have weakened the closely interconnected relationship between media and politics. While scholarly literature is still investigating the extent to which digital media currently influence the role and characteristics of political parallelism (Mattoni and Ceccobelli, 2018), our interviews strongly indicate that, rather than diminishing political parallelism, digital media are actually reinforcing the entrenched links between media and politics in Greece, Italy, and Spain. According to Flavio, an Italian digital entrepreneur and expert in the field of political communication in Italy, digital media:

‘Revealed [political parallelism]. This specific type of parallelism was quite evident to political and media insiders. It was not evident to the general public. The Internet has unveiled it; it has unveiled it to the general public. It has unveiled the fact that there is a mixture between these two worlds, [these] somehow also unhealthy [worlds], which leads publishers to develop an interest in politics, publishers to develop an interest in some fields of the economy, and journalists to basically lend themselves to this type of media coverage and support of interests.’

Adrian, an activist based in Spain, also asserted that: “we don’t make any difference between printed newspapers and digital newspapers, but we make a difference between ‘friends-media’, which are normally the more radical projects, and mainstream media”.

The main difference in the interconnections between media and politics is not to be located at the level of digital versus paper, or mainstream versus new online-only news media. Rather, it is still at the level of “friend vs non-friend” news media, to use Adrian’s words. There are media outlets in which it makes sense to invest time and energy if one wants to build a relationship of trust. In other cases, this would imply nothing more than a waste of time. The reason lies in the fact that, when there is a high level of political parallelism, newsworthiness is not the only criterion shaping news-making processes. Instead, it is the source that produces potential news, like someone with whom journalists share a specific political view of the world. As Agata, an Italian activist working on corruption, told us during her interview, “depending on what the position and the tendency of a given media outlet are, their interest in our issues is consequently different. We try to communicate to the whole range of media, but we have realized that some newspapers are more receptive to what we communicate and who we are, others far less”.

What activists say is not newsworthy per se. At times, it is newsworthy only for specific media outlets, but again, this does not appear to be a novelty for Southern European social movements. Greek, Italian, and Spanish activists are conscious of the fact that specific information they produce may be transformed into a news item, hence in visibility, only by a specific portion of a national press sector: the news portals that are ideologically close to their world views. Still, this is only the first challenge they have to face when approaching journalists; the second one is the increasing precariousness of the profession of journalism in the present day. A topic we discuss in the next section.

Activists and the increasing precariousness within journalism

As we have already suggested earlier, activists need to face another serious challenge when trying to establish a fruitful and long-standing relationship of mutual trust with journalists: the increasing level of precariousness affecting the field of journalism. This is not a minor challenge, since it requires a complete and substantial reconsideration and adaptation of their strategies aimed at establishing and then maintaining meaningful and relevant connections with journalists. The high level of precariousness that journalists experience within their job has, in fact, deep and significant effects on their daily professional as well as private life, including how they relate to technological innovations such as digital media: for example, the much more intense use of social media by freelancers for purposes of personal branding (Hedman and Djerf-Pierre, 2013). The history of journalism is deeply tied to precariousness (Örnebring, 2020), and journalism in non-Western countries suffers from a widespread precariousness in the overall work context of journalism (Matthews and Onyemaobi, 2020). However, according to recent studies on journalism in Western countries, newsrooms that in the past decade revolved around a permanent journalistic workforce today increasingly count on the work of temporary journalists, who often work as external freelancers or on short-term contracts for newspapers and other news media outlets (Deuze, 2007). Such working conditions have an impact on the content that journalists are willing and able to produce; thus, they may avoid writing pieces that could have legal consequences or focus on quickly produced stories rather than on investigative journalism (Hayes and Silke, 2019). Furthermore, recent research conducted in Italy (Casula, 2021) and Spain (Marín-Sanchiz et al, 2021) suggests that this situation has led to increased uncertainty among the journalistic workforce. There is a progressive increase in the number of freelance journalists who make up the entire workforce of contemporary media outlets. Owing to different, mostly systemic factors (Paulussen, 2012; Ekdale et al, 2014), nowadays the majority of media companies – both online and offline – employ freelancers who cover a significant part, if not the entirety, of the whole newsroom (Gollmitzer, 2014; Örnebring and Conill, 2016).

The journalists who participated in our study frequently reflected on the various difficulties they face in their lives: in particular, the daily struggle to do their job at their best, especially when working in a condition of precarity. Some of the journalists we talked with explained to us that their condition of precariousness has a direct, negative effect on how they practice their profession on a daily basis. We are referring to their perennial search for pieces allowing them to collect that minimum amount of money they need to make ends meet. At times, they argued, this translates into their conscious choice to lower the level of professionalism of their work, an effect of the precariousness of journalism that has already been identified in existing research on this topic (Standing, 2011; Lee-Wright, 2012, Cohen et al, 2019), even though this does not appear to be recurrent and common behaviour among the group of journalists we engaged with. Indeed, during our interviews with journalists, we were told that it can happen that journalists translate and paraphrase newspaper articles from international outlets, only half-heartedly mentioning their source of information.

At the same time, journalists’ perpetual and inescapable state of precariousness means that they offer a 24/7 availability to any potential source, which puts them in the position to then propose their piece to different, sometimes multiple, media outlets. Most of the time, this occurs thanks to a specific technological device: their smartphone. It is therefore the norm that precarious journalists do not have a clear-cut division between their private and professional identities, owing also to the lack of a physical distinction between the two. Most of the time, the home is the office of precarious journalists. Mario, another Italian precarious journalist, confirmed this substantial overlap between his professional and private life in his work as a freelance journalist: “I mostly work from home. I call people from home, I write my pieces from home, I propose my pieces from home.”

Given that journalism is taking a turn in this direction and a significant amount of journalists are embodying this type of daily routine, the increasing precariousness affecting journalism is becoming more than a challenge for activists, who are well aware of the changes occurring in the field of journalism. For instance, the following words of Federico, an Italian unionist mainly operating in a small Italian city, reveal full awareness of the state of journalism in his country, a perception that also emerged from our interviews with activists in Greece and Spain:

‘Today there are a lot of young people who want to do this job, who are exploited in a crazy way, who live in a condition of absolute precariousness without having any certainty for the future. So what do they do? They try to collect news and pieces of information as much as possible, even poorly in terms of the quality of information. They write to get those €25 per piece, which is what some newspapers pay them for their work. These young journalists very often write incorrect things in their pieces, just to make a scoop. This is when things go wrong.’

In their effort to build and then maintain trustful and long-lasting connections with journalists, activists need to enter into contact with this specific routine of precarious journalists. As the extracts from the interviews with Anna and Mario indicate, theirs is a daily routine that foresees total availability, which is often guaranteed by the continuous and constant recourse to the smartphone as a crucial work tool – one that some journalists even prefer to face-to-face forms of communication. Overloaded by an incessant and voracious hunt for new pieces, precarious journalists usually consider physical encounters a simple waste of time that can be easily replaced by a phone call, an email, a message on WhatsApp, and so forth.

To conclude, other than political parallelism, activists also have to deal with a second challenge: the increasing precariousness that is transforming the daily life of a significant portion of journalists. This challenge forces activists to adapt to the messy and chaotic routine suffered by precarious journalists and develop a strategy to obtain what they need: media visibility. Before looking into the concrete strategies that activists employ so as to tackle these two challenges, let us first zoom in on a third and final challenge that activists encounter when trying to establish fruitful and meaningful connections with journalists: data security.

The hidden threats of digital media: data security

In our investigation, we have identified a third challenge that strongly shapes the daily interactions between journalists and activists: the level of attention that both devote to securing their communication, in particular when it is mediated by a particular device or digital platform. In fact, when engaging with each other, activists and journalists may feel the need to take precautions. At times, third parties are keen to get access to the information they exchange, and some technological devices and/or media-related services that they decide to employ do not give them the desired level of security. However, activists and journalists should both know how to avoid third parties jumping secretly into their conversations. When digital security is at stake, they work as a unique chain in which no single link can function as a weak point. If, while engaging digitally with journalists, activists take precautions to make this communication secure but their counterparts do not, then all their efforts may be in vain. A third party that wishes to spy on activists’ communication could simply exploit the weak link in their digital communication – in this hypothetical case, journalists who do not care about digital security – without leaving any traces. This entails that when a communicative exchange between activists and journalists occurs it is not enough to consider how the former face and master the issue of digital security. It is also fundamental to take into due consideration whether and eventually how the other link in this chain, namely journalists, behave in order to avoid unwelcome guests secretly accessing the content of this communication.

In Chapter 5 devoted to the practice of political organizing, we have already paid special attention to the notions of security and surveillance as perceived and experienced by activists when sustaining other practices. We have pointed out that Italian, Spanish, and Greek activists do not approach those topics in the same way, as the following extracts from interviews with Nestor and Photios from Greece, and Marcos from Spain – all journalists – mirror the positions of Greek and Spanish activists that we have already identified:

‘[The level of security] depends on the level of the query that I have to do. If it’s an ordinary query … I call: “hey, how was that case closed? Was it filed?” Well, you can [then] do it. If it is more sensitive, [I send] an audio [message] by Signal. A self-destruct audio and they answer you. And if it is something very delicate: “We meet at 5 pm in the neighbourhood”.’

‘I do not use WhatsApp. Instead, Signal is a heavily cryptographic instant messaging application. It is the only one that Snowden himself recommends. It is best practice for someone being in journalism to deploy best practice, always. The point is that even Snowden uses Signal in order to communicate. I do not really use it, because nowadays I do not have the actual need to communicate with someone in such a heavily crypto way, because I do not do a lot of investigative reporting nowadays. But there is this tool that I do have, on my phone and computer, just in case I need to securely communicate with someone.’

‘When I want a lot of privacy, I don’t use any device. I remove the battery, and I prefer contacts like that, without mobiles. Sometimes I do stuff that could be dangerous. You should take precautions, but without exaggerating.’

By contrast, Italian journalists never mentioned instant-messaging apps like Signal in their interviews. Furthermore, when asked about privacy and surveillance, they answered saying things like “we will make something up”, highlighting the lack of a structured and well-established behavioural routine when dealing with sensitive sources and information that was therefore replaced by improvisation. The following interview extract is a perfect example of how, according to our interviewees, Italian journalists approach issues of surveillance and digital security. When asked how he would handle a cryptographic message received from an anonymous source, Mario gave this reply: “I have a good friend who is an engineer. I call him and I use him to decipher anything. We can do it. We leave nothing behind: nothing is left aside. If things are interesting, we get them. We find the way.”

Regardless of the will to solve a problem that is very complex for a journalist with no familiarity at all with cryptographic language, Mario makes unpredictable circumstances guiding him. He does not follow a set of well-rooted and established norms, rules, and routine practices, and his training as a journalist did not involve any updates on the issue of digital security, as the fact that he deals with sensitive sources would require. Displaying the same attitudes that we found among activists, the Italian journalists we interviewed also hardly care about surveillance, approaching it differently compared to their Spanish and Greek counterparts.

What, then, does this imply for the practice of sustaining connections related to the daily exchanges of information between activists and journalists? How does the fear of being spied on by an external actor affect the concrete daily choices of both journalists and activists when they need to enter into contact with each other and maintain a technology-mediated relationship of trust? Although these seem to be relevant concerns, the activists and journalists who participated in our study did not seem to engage too much with them. Even in the case of activists and journalists working on sensitive issues such as corruption, for whom we expected that the fear of surveillance would have been a constant and pressing concern, we rarely encountered cases of people defending themselves in any way against potential leaks within their technology-mediated conversations. As we have already made clear in previous chapters, differences across countries do occur, with Greece and Spain being much more advanced than Italy when it comes to data security. However, as a general trend, there is a lack of attention.

In some cases, this lack of attention seems to lead down dangerous roads. For instance, as we learn from our interviews, when high-risk subjects (for example pentiti di mafia, that is former members of the Italian mafia who collaborate with police authorities) contact journalists via Facebook Messenger and then give them very sensitive information that could put them, their beloved ones, and the police forces watching over their safety in serious personal danger. As Carla, a freelance journalist working on Italian mafia and corruption revealed to us,

‘I was contacted by some pentiti di mafia on Facebook. They contacted me autonomously. I couldn’t believe it. One with an anonymous identity, under a protection program: nobody has to know where they are! And he wanted to do an interview, with his name and all. It seemed crazy to me.’

As we have already mentioned, exceptions occur, but only among Greek and Spanish journalists. Even in those cases, the exceptions are not caused by systemic and structural choices and factors, such as established norms and rules within journalism or within the single journalistic organization in which journalists are employed (McGregor and Watkins, 2016); it is more the result of a single and, therefore, episodic personal approach. Thanks to a bottom-up demand for digital security, for example by different grassroots movement organizations that journalists regularly relate to, those technology-mediated conversations could escape surveillance also in Greece, Italy, and Spain. Activists may be those who sensitize journalists to issues of data security, refusing to communicate with them if not in very secure and safe digital environments. However, journalists may respond by no longer caring about the topics that the activists want them to cover, which leads to a lack of visibility for activists. Pressured to communicate via instant messaging apps such as Signal or through email systems with higher level of encryption, journalists could react with a sort of ‘How boring!’ or ‘This is too complicated!’ attitude, consequently deciding to devote their (limited) time and attention to different political actors.

In sum, along with enduring political parallelism and the increasing precariousness of journalism, the issue of digital security also poses a significant and pressing challenge for activists when they are working hard to activate and then keep alive relevant and meaningful connections with journalists. The next section discusses some of the concrete strategies that activists have employed in Greece, Italy, and Spain to face these challenges in an attempt to develop stable connections with journalists in the three countries.

Activists’ concrete strategies for establishing connections with journalists

Before discussing how activists deal with political parallelism and the pervasive precariousness of the journalistic profession, it is worth remembering that activists have never been an influential or eminent source for journalists (Gitlin, 1980; Gamson and Wolfsfeld, 1993). An official declaration of a grassroots organization is rarely covered by mainstream media, even in the case of those media outlets closer to its political views. Activists have never had the same level of newsworthiness as a political party, a party leader, or even a simple parliamentarian. To merely play the game of political parallelism has never been enough for them, nor is it in the present. Furthermore, if it is true that precarious journalists – rather than traditional ones – may be much more predisposed to deal with activists in an attempt to collect interesting and newsworthy stories to then transform them into paid pieces, this is valid also for other social, economic, and political actors with more resources and a better organization, which may easily attract the attention of precarious journalists.

However, it is precisely the combination of these two challenges that makes activists look for the most effective activities for maintaining links with journalists. As our interviewees point out, these activities – when taken together – usually represent an intense, non-stop, and professional public relations ensemble of interactions, which are sometimes performed regardless of political parallelism. A good example comes from the interview with Miranda, the Spanish activist with whom we opened the previous chapter. Miranda knows very well that journalists nowadays have a routine characterized by a shortage of time and work overload owing to the pressing demand to produce a higher amount of news on a daily basis. Again, this appears to be particularly true for precarious journalists, who are rarely willing to leave their work desk to grasp that piece of information they could collect more easily, cheaply, and enjoyably in front of their computer screen. As Miranda said,

‘When you say “I want to do a press conference”, some of them say “really?” So what we do is to say “a breakfast conference”. We invite them to have breakfast with us and then they feel like, “ok”. Because [if] they do not want to come, they say something like “send me your press release, send me your audio, if you want, send me an email, a video, and that’s it. I don’t need to go”.’

It goes without saying that political parallelism is no more than a starting point (in this case, Miranda and the journalists sharing a similar political view of the world), after which something more has to occur: giving the journalists “ready-made news”, thus making them work a minimum amount of time. In other words, activists must make the necessary efforts so that journalists do not waste time, thus supporting their will not to leave their work desk.

These skills are detached from the relational and political dynamics that result from operating in a country with a high level of political parallelism. They are, instead, more related to news management and inside lobbying activities, as we have already pointed out in the previous chapter. What activists have to do is to (also) lobby their journalists. Yet, having friends in journalistic newsrooms is not enough for them to gain media coverage, especially a positive one. Activists also have to cuddle them, so to speak, as they try to do with their supporters and sympathizers. Jorge explicitly mentioned doing this during our chat:

‘Sometimes we have these kinds of meetings when we find out that some journalist is coming, and he or she starts to say: “I really like what you guys do”, and so on. So we start building a personal relationship with that person. And then sometimes I call in an informal way to take a coffee or something, in order to talk about us or what we are doing, and so on. But this is an informal level, rather than a very strategic and planned thing.’

Nevertheless, even though activists like Miranda or Jorge engage in activities that, in principle, may sustain the creation and management of meaningful connections with journalists, they sometimes fail to obtain the desired result. For instance, they end up wasting all the time they invested in constructing and cultivating those relations with journalists, failing to transform these into better, continuous, and likely positive media coverage in the media outlets that activists want to be aired on. Occasionally, all their efforts result in nothing more than a huge failure.

In other cases, though, the practice of sustaining connections takes another direction, as the case of Papios demonstrates. Papios is a leading member of a Greek grassroots association defending the rights of journalists. For this reason, he knows and has very close contact with hundreds of journalists. More than just former colleagues, these journalists are personal friends to him. Talking about his current role as an activist with a professional background in journalism, Papios highlighted the importance of having relations that transcend work-related practices and that are ingrained in the sphere of friendship. There are, in fact, some cases in which media coverage of his grassroots organization is highly necessary. What happens is that Papios just takes his phone and directly calls one of his journalist friends, asking for a personal favour: “It’s personal. These are colleagues who worked together for 20, 30, 40 years. We know each other.”

However, the depth, frequency, and strategic power of these relations of friendship with journalists are not the norm for the activists we interviewed in Greece, Italy, and Spain. Other than Papios, only very few activists admitted that they can play the card of friendship when engaging in the practice of sustaining connections with journalists. Conversely, the opposite happens if we look at our interviews with institutional actors; for them, to have more than one close friend in journalism seems to be very normal. Two good examples are those of Mauricio, a regional Spanish parliamentarian, and Dimitria, a member of a Greek government agency, who described their relationship with certain journalists in these terms:

‘Sometimes I exchange messages with journalists who are closest at times; sometimes we have a more friendly relationship. They are friends rather than journalists.’

‘[B]ecause my previous job was at the Ministry of Economy, I have a group of people that I know very well, so I contacted them. They are my friends now. So I asked them to come to the presentation.’

What these extracts tell us, albeit indirectly, is that friendships between political institutional actors and journalists seldom blossom and flourish in front of a digital screen. It is more a matter of connections that individuals usually obtain at a young age – for example by going to the same high school – or by attending those very informal and sometimes even exclusive groups and events that require physical presence. Activists often lack or cannot rely on this kind of personal background or daily routine.

That said, even though activists cannot exploit their personal friendship with journalists, sometimes they nonetheless succeed in getting what they need from this relationship. They do so through a do ut des mechanism: they exchange favours with journalists. This is the case of Adrian, who described how he builds a connection with the press in the following way:

‘[W]e know that if we really want our videos to go viral, it is better to put them on two specific news media outlets at the national level. In other cases, they come to us and they ask us for help in researching something, because they know that we are closely connected to different people. So it always goes in both directions. We therefore go to them and ask them for favours, in terms of disseminating our stuff, or they come to us and ask for something. It’s a two-sided relationship.’

This interview extract allows us to highlight a final feature that describes how activists create, handle, and nurture their connections with journalists. Adrian does not mention any journalist or personal contact in a specific newsroom; he just refers to a whole media organization. This suggests that he does not exchange favours with specific journalists, but with an entire press company. We consider this point relevant because, based on all the interviews we collected and thinking of the Italian freelance journalists with which we opened this chapter, we believe that what Adrian described in his interview is more an exception than the norm. Activists tend to relate to single journalists, not to whole newsrooms. When they rely on do ut des mechanisms, there is almost always a specific journalist involved. As Ruben, another Spanish activist, explicitly reported during his interview, “to be honest, we try to have contacts with journalists rather than with entire media organizations”. Journalists work ever more as lone wolves. Hence, it is much easier for activists to relate to a single individual that they trust and can engage with every day, rather than to entire newsrooms. Their relationship is therefore a personal one, with all the pros and cons that come along with it. On the one side, building on one-to-one interactions, such personal relationships nurture a connection based on mutual trust. On the other side, though, depending too much on personal relationships seems to be a strong limit, especially if we consider the uncertain working conditions of precarious journalists: if the latter ceased to be employed in the news media organization through which activists aim to get media coverage, their movement organizations would no longer be able to maintain their role as valuable data sources within that news media organization.

Considered under different aspects, the challenges resulting from, on the one hand, the enduring high level of political parallelism that still affects Greece, Italy, and Spain and, on the other hand, the increasing precariousness within journalism combine in determining what strategies activists employ to win these challenges. The third challenge that we have reflected upon is related to how activists and journalists engage with each other when it comes to securing one’s digital communication. These actors seem to be surrounded by a specific and unique socio-technological context, mainly linked to the country they live in, that somehow influences their daily choices on whether and how to interact with each other. However, overall, journalists rarely seem to guide activists toward digital security. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Italian journalists intervening to protect their sources when the latter – be they activists or not – use digital media in a very naïve and, most of all, insecure manner (as in the aforementioned case of Carla, who has to deal with pentiti di mafia on Facebook Messenger). However, as a general trend, it seems that the practice of creating and nurturing fruitful connections with journalists does not add anything new when it comes to understanding how activists deal with digital security, compared to what we have highlighted in previous chapters: Southern European activists generally underestimate how digital security works, and those activists who do pay attention to it usually come either from Spain or Greece. It is the contextual background in which activists operate that seems to advise them to take digital security seriously. Other factors, such as that relating to specific media actors like journalists, do not seem to play a role in this regard.

Unlike the former two challenges that activists face when engaging with journalists to create and then nurture meaningful connections with them, activists seem to behave much more passively when it comes to digital security. Our interviewees appear unable to even only grasp the potential threats behind exchanging sensitive information via digital media, and this is true for both the activists and other actors they interact with, such as journalists. In fact, only one exception emerged from our interviews: a movement organization that represents a national point of reference when it comes to digital security. In the words of Marcos, a Spanish journalist who regularly relates to this grassroots organization so as to protect his communication from potential third-party intrusions:

‘We are very close to people who come from the world of hackers, and who periodically update us on security and privacy on the Internet. And, in fact, when a new person enters our newsroom, we give them the dossier on how to secure their communications. And we also do updates. Sometimes, those people alert us and say: “Hey, there’s a problem here, be careful with it”.’

Although this is an exceptional case, the strategy that these activists employ is to create a personal, but also general and diffused, media environment in which each link in the chain – journalists included – will at least be aware of the potential threats of communicating through digital media. This strategy is aimed at spreading good practices that not only widen the awareness of how digital media work but also successfully deal with the related challenge of digital security. The fact that this specific Spanish movement organization is openly and directly involved in digital security matters further supports the finding that, as a general trend, the Southern European activists we interviewed tend to relate to the digital as if no threats whatsoever are implied in it. Compared to the challenges of political parallelism and journalists’ precariousness, that of digital security still seems to be largely underestimated. As a direct consequence, activists fail to transform the challenge of digital security into a potential opportunity. This happens not because they are unable to do so, but simply because they have not yet recognized the issue of securing their digital communication as a challenge. In other words, they lack a strategy because they lack awareness, which therefore makes this challenge a potential and serious threat to them, but one that they neither see nor acknowledge as such.

Conclusion

This chapter has focused on the daily interactions between activists and journalists. The latter are vital media actors for the former since they allow them to perform the practice of gaining visibility much more efficiently. That is why activists need to establish deep, meaningful, and long-lasting connections with journalists. However, in Southern Europe, this nowadays happens in a context in which journalism is still firmly anchored in one of its historical roots, namely political parallelism. Furthermore, journalists experience an increasing level of precariousness that usually translates into a profound transformation of the concrete actions and daily routine that journalists perform in order to collect, elaborate, and then produce the news. Finally, the widespread availability of digital media for journalists and activists alike brings along potential threats, such as a data security breach in the digitally mediated interactions between activists and journalists.

With regard to the challenges resulting from the pervasive presence of political parallelism in Greece, Italy, and Spain, combined with the progressive precariousness of journalism in these three Southern European countries, activists face several difficulties in finding the right strategies to perform at best the practice of establishing connections with journalists. It is no coincidence, then, that the practice of sustaining connections with journalists demands very heterogeneous strategic moves: for instance, trying to meet journalists face to face also in informal contexts and in episodic, extemporaneous situations, that is, outside institutional settings. This usually happens only if activists visit the places journalists haunt, like the buildings of power located in a country’s capital city. Indeed, the geographical factor also helps to explain why some activists do not succeed in performing the practice of sustaining connections with journalists: Greek activists who do not live and operate in Athens, Spanish activists based outside Madrid, or Italian activists living far from Rome are more limited in their ability to create and maintain solid and fruitful connections with the media actors of their respective countries. However, our interviews with activists living and operating in Rome, Madrid, and Athens revealed that movement organizations do not always succeed in getting what they want from their daily efforts to engage in different ways with journalists. According to our interviewees, the main reason for this lies in the lack of relational capital, which they need to get the most from their connections with journalists. Conversely, institutional political actors almost automatically own this relational capital, which can lead party leaders, parliamentarians, or even government agents to call journalists friends, bypassing the standard and ‘colder’, professional relationship with journalists that activists must resort to. Hence, a do ut des mechanism is sometimes the only strategy that activists can activate to obtain what they want from their connections with journalists in a context shaped by a high level of political parallelism and increased precariousness in the field of journalism. Despite these difficulties, activists there seem to be tackling the two combined challenges by proactively developing heterogeneous and multifaceted strategies to successfully engage with journalists.

The same cannot be said for the third challenge, data security, where activists seem to be much less proactive, especially in Italy. Our interviews demonstrated that technology-mediated communications between activists and journalists are handy in that they accelerate and facilitate the creation and maintenance of strong linkages of trust between them. However, they also have a weak spot: they are vulnerable. Third-party actors can easily enter into these communications without being noticed, putting at risk the safety of activists, journalists, and other people linked to them. Confirming what we have claimed in previous chapters, Greek and Spanish activists and journalists perceive this potential threat and then try to behave accordingly to protect their communication. Vice versa, Italian activists act as if there never was a pre- and post-Snowden era, as opposed to activists in other (Western) countries (Ermoshina and Musiani, 2017). In fact, every Italian activist we engaged with relates to other social, political, and media actors with a quasi-total indifference to issues of surveillance and data security.

Regardless of the specificity of the Italian media and political scenario, making communication via digital devices secure does not result in a systematic and established practice in the whole of Southern Europe. Rather, it stands out as an irregular and intermittent factor related to agency, not the result of any codified and stratified norms and habits that are rooted in journalism as a profession as well as in the daily life of activists. Even in the practice of sustaining connections, most activists enter into contact with the digital data sequences of the general data stream they face every day without a deep awareness of the threats and potentially harmful consequences of this activity, no matter if there is a fellow activist, a policy maker, or indeed a journalist on the other side of the screen.

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