European election: reality check on political promises

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: France

Organisation: Contexte

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 5 Sep 2019

Credit: Yann Guégan and Jean-Sébastien Lefebvre, with Sabine Blanc, Jean Comte, Hortense Goulard, Laura Mercier, Guénaël Pépin, Fanny Roux and Isabelle Smets

Project description:

During the 2019 European elections, French candidates made a lot of campaign promises, arousing skepticism among EU experts. Indeed, many of the policy measures they put forward were out of touch with the functioning of the institutions. Some of them were utterly impossible to implement given the treaties in effect. 

Contexte is a digital-only news outlet reporting on public policies at the French and European levels. The six journalists of the Brussels bureau gathered 420+ measures found in the platforms published by the eight lists of candidates leading the polls. They reviewed them one by one, and assessed their feasibility.

Impact reached:

The result of this unprecedented evaluation was published by batch in the weeks leading up to the election. On Twitter and other social platforms, the story drew attention of various media pundits, social science researchers, EU operatives, elected officials and other political junkies. 

Many readers pointed out a worrying trend: 21% of the measures were rated “extremely difficult” to implement, 15% “already in effect or already scheduled”, 11% “out of scope”, meaning that the EU is not currently in charge of their field. 

Heartened by the positive feedback, Contexte’s team decided to lift the paywall a few days before the election. A total of 13,000+ unique visitors spent on average 4m 31s on the page. Rounded up, the short comments published for each measure form a 23,300+ words long text corpus.

A few weeks into the project, a TV news team reached us to reuse the data we produced. We sat down with them to explain our methodology, and the thoroughness of our analysis encouraged them to confront the top tier candidates with our conclusions. They had to explain on camera why so much of their agenda was unfit to the position of member of European Parliament they were running for. The story aired on “L’œil du 20 heures”, the fact-checking segment of France 2’s popular evening news. 

This project also strengthened the reputation of Contexte as an expert and independent source of information on public policies. It validated our ambition to report on the European election with a European perspective, where so many French media still keep the focus on national political issues.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used a Google Sheet to gather, classify and comment the 420+ measures, broken down to 9 main categories : institutions, energy, transportation, digital, military, budget, immigration, social and economy.

EU reporters from our four editorial sections were asked to explore each proposal and assess them, using a preset list of 7 ratings: “extremely difficult” to implement (red), “already in effect or already scheduled” (red), “difficult” (orange), “too vague” (orange), “realistic” (green), “out of scope” (grey) or “unevaluated” (grey). 

This evaluation grid was fined tuned during the early stages of the project, to take the feedback of the journalists into account. 

The content of this growing database was made available in a JSON feed through a Google Apps Script, and a data visualisation was designed using HTML, CSS and Javascript to be embedded in a story. Once the desktop version finalized, the layout was adapted to produce a mobile version.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The sheer volume of data to process was the biggest challenge: at the end of the day, we decided to limit our assessments to the topics our reporters are most familiar with. We also selected the parties that actually had a chance to get more than 5% of the vote according to the polls – in France, that is the threshold they have to reach in order to have candidates elected at the European Parliament. 

We also had to make sure that the rating process remained consistent across the team. Neither the merit of the proposed course of action, nor its effectiveness or its ideological premises were at stake: the only criteria to use was its potential to be implemented. The assessment has to be justified by the existing EU legal framework, including the treaties signed by member states, and the current political landscape in Brussels.

From a design point of view, we had to come up with a powerful navigation system that enables the user to find quickly the measures put forward by a given candidate or on a given topic. We created a natural language form and implemented it in a sticky story header. We also had to communicate the rating in a straightforward manner, and therefore adopted a “traffic light” color coding: green is “good”, orange is “so so”, red is “bad”.

What can others learn from this project?

During each election cycle, many news outlets rush to publish stories and infographics that strive to summarize the party platforms and compare them to one another. But in a era of fake news and political polarization, we believe that journalists can take these projects a step further. 

By taking a stand on the feasibility of proposed public policy, we can enable the voters to make an educated choice in the voting booth. Evaluating a party proposal requires a solid expertise in its field, which make it a perfect job for trade media outlets such as Contexte’s editions. 

Regarding the process, a crucial decision was to keep all our data well structured in a database since day 1 of the project. To manage it, we chose Google Sheet, a tool versatile and easy to use. We also mashed up up the data with other datasets we manage, as the list of EU national parties we created for another project and open sourced on Github. https://github.com/Contexte/open-data/tree/master/eu-political-parties

Project links: