Are American Journalists from Mars and Europeans from Venus?

21 Sep

Differences between European and American reporting have fascinated me for over a decade. I guess its only natural. I was educated in Britain, have written for The Independent and Guardian and follow UK papers and TV news assiduously. However, most of my career has been devoted to reporting about Europe for an American audience. I was Chief European Correspondent for United Press International for four years, have been a stringer for Time Magazine and Washington Times and had articles published in the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune and New York Times. I now teach American journalism students in Brussels so witness the clash of media cultures on a daily basis.

So are American journalists from Mars and Europeans from Venus? Of course, the short answer is ‘no.’ Both continents have relatively free, prosperous, established and high quality media – at least compared to the rest of world.

But there are big differences. These are some of the ones I talked about with an audience of Missouri School of Journalism professors yesterday:


European media is in better health than its American counterpart. There have been no major casualties of the economic downturn, as there have been in the States. Partly this is due to state subsidies – see below – but also because European newspapers rely more on subscriptions than advertising for their revenue base.


America takes journalism and the study of journalism much more seriously than Europe.

  • Politicians take journalism seriously. Just look at the first amendment of the US constitution protecting press freedoms and Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
  • Journalists take journalism seriously. One of the core text books at the Missouri School of Journalism is called ‘Elements of Journalism’ (‘What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect’) by Bill Kovach (Committee of Concerned Journalists) and Tom Rosentiel (Project for Excellence in Journalism) Flip though the book chapters: ‘journalism as a public forum’, ‘the rights and responsibilities of citizens’, ‘journalists have a responsibility to conscience…’It is all very serious, weighty, worthy…and just a bit pompous.
  • US Presidents take journalists seriously – even turning up at their annual correspondents’ dinner, alongside Hollywood stars, celebrities and comedians
  • Hollywood takes journalism seriously. Citizen Kane, The Front Page, All the Presidents Men, The China syndrome, The Killing Fields, Goodnight, Goodluck, Reds, The Insider, Broadcast News, Roman Holiday…Even Superman was a journalist!

Compare this self-importance with the more down-to-earth British attitude. In ‘My Trade,’ former BBC political editor Andrew Marr describes a journalist as quite simply “anyone who does journalism.” It includes people who “think of themselves as part of a noble elite of truth-sayers and secular priests. It includes drunks, dyslexics and some of the least trustworthy, wickedest people in the land.”

Celebrity Journalists

Journalists as celebrities – with the power, pay-packets and personality cults to match – is more of an American than European phenomenon. It is impossible to imagine the pulling power of Fox’s Glenn Beck – who recently got tens of thousands to protest against the government – in Europe. Or the polarising effect of Fox News’ Hannity or O’Reilly. Or the hysterical admiration – among the young anyway – for Jon Stewart or Cobert. Or the first name familiarity of world leaders with the New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman. Or the three minders and million-dollar paypacket Dan Rather had in his prime at CBS.

In Europe some top journalists are very well known – but with the possible exception of BBC World Editor John Simpson – only in their own countries.

Investigative reporting

There is a greater tradition of investigative reporting in America than Europe. Almost 40 years after the Watergate scandal the most famous journalists in the world are still probably Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It is not uncommon for Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalists to spend months working on one investigation – although less-so nowadays.

That said, there is some very good investigative journalism in Europe: Der Spiegel and Stern news magazines in Germany, the satirical magazines Canard Enchaine and Private Eye in UK and France and TV documentaries like Panorama in Britain and Envoye Special in France. But the cosy, often incestuous relationship between politicians and the press often makes this difficult.

State intervention

In the United States there is less government intervention in the media – and fewer state subsidies – than in Europe.

America has no public broadcaster comparable in size or quality to the BBC or German broadcasters ZDF/ARD. There are few public subsidies to the press and little government intervention in the media.

In Europe state-owned public broadcasters are often the biggest and richest broadcasters. The BBC receives over $5 billion a year from taxpayers. State interference is also more accepted. “My enemies have the press so I keep television,” said former French president Charles de Gaulle. You can imagine Italian premier Berlusconi – who controls 90% of Italian broadcasting – or French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying the same today.


US media is more driven by new technology. Most of the innovations in journalism in the last 20 years have come from America. 24/7 satellite news reporting starting with CNN, internet news aggregators and portals like Google, Yahoo and AOL news, mobile phone news and apps, blogs, news relayers like Facebook and Twitter and now the i-pad a possible solution to the newspaper’s industry’s decade of self-destruction.

Despite inventing the World Wide Web, Europe has largely followed US trends.


American journalists learn more about ethics and operate to stricter ethical standards than European.

US journalists are not supposed to accept paid trips and presents. I know of one American hack who even refused water because he felt it might compromise his reporting. Personally I have signed code of conducts – some running to 10 pages – with the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, United Press International and International Herald Tribune.

In Europe, gift giving – and taking – is more accepted. At EU summits, the country holding the rotating presidency of the Union routinely gives out bags of goodies to journalists. When the Belgians held the presidency of the EU in the mid-naughties I remember receiving a box of erotically-shaped chocolates and a garden gnome. Merci La Belgique!

In Britain, there is a tendency to downplay the theoretical, ethical side of journalism. Asked what he though of journalist ethics, former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie wrote: “Ethics is a place to the east of London where the men wear white socks.”

Journalism schools

The United States takes the study of journalism more seriously than Europe. The first journalism school in the world was in Missouri in 1908 – although Paris also has a claim. The oldest in Spain was in Pamplona in 1958 and in Britain in Cardiff in 1970.

Andrew Marr makes light of the differences between American and British journalism in a brilliant passage in ‘My Trade’. “Certainly British journalism is not a profession. Over the years they have tried to make it one. In the United States they have mostly succeeded. There, every year, tens of thousands of journalism graduates are turned out in a sophisticated production process – Squish, gloop, plonk journalist! Squish, gloop, plonk journalist! They are taught about the technical skills and the ethics, the heroes of American journalism and its theory. In the process they are moulded and given a protective gloss of self-importance. They have Standards and, in return, they get Status. In Britain it isn’t like this at all. Journalism is a chaotic form of earning, ragged at the edges, full of snakes, con artists and even the occasional misunderstood martyr….Outside organised crime it is the most powerful and enjoyable of the anti-professions.”

Writing style

The stylistic differences between American and European journalism are often exaggerated. The odd colour/color issue aside, there are few grammatical differences between writing in British and American English.

It is more a question of differences in style. American reporting is more folksy. It attempts to personalise the news and hook readers with stories before entering into wider issues. For example, this is a New York Times lead about Andalusians battling immigrants for jobs in Spain: “Jose Maria Gomez Jimenez thought his days of toiling in the Andalusian countryside were over. For much of the past eight years, Mr Gomez, 29, earned about $1,900 a month plastering walls and working weekend shifts as a chef in this prosperous, strawberry-farming town. He bought an apartment, often went to parties and splurged on trendy sneakers.”

It’s all very colourful – or colourful – and highly personalised but after one paragraph we still don’t know what the story is about. It is also a tad schmaltzy.


There is less blurring of the boundaries between news and opinion in US newspapers – although the inverse is true for TV.

In European publications like Bild Zeitung, The Sun, The Economist and Liberation – news is mingled with analysis and commentary. There is no shortage of attitude, invective and even humour in the writing. The headlines are punchy, provocative and often very funny. Contrast this to the staid, straight-up reporting in most of America’s grand newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post.

However, European TV news is often more objective than American. There is certainly nothing to equal Fox’s political partisanship – although Italy comes close.

TV vs. papers

Americans rely more on TV for news; Europeans on papers.

Newspaper readership is much higher in Europe than the US. The three biggest papers in the States – The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today – all have a circulation hovering around two million. Bild Zeitung in Germany had four million and The Sun in Britain three million readers. In Austria, The Neue Kronen Zeitung has a circulation of one million in a country with only eight million people.

Another difference is that the biggest papers in Europe – The Sun, Bild, Ouest-France – are usually popular tabloids (with the exception of El Pais in Spain, which is the country’s biggest and best newspaper). In America the three largest papers are all quality broadsheets.

Foreign Reporting

European media has much more foreign reporting than US media.

In the States, the time devoted to international issues on TV has slumped from 45% to 13% and column inches in newspapers from 20 to 2%. Foreign correspondents have also been slashed. In Brussels – capital of the EU and HQ of NATO, there is no correspondent from CNN, Washington Post, NBC, NPR, Fox News or USA Today.

The only caveat is that abroad for Americans is a long way; for Europeans it is on their doorstep. Also, American media such as CNN, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine still do some of the best global reporting.

There has been a decline in foreign reporting in Europe too, of course, but it has not been as precipitous.

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