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Regaining trust, maintaining attitude – Challenges for journalism in populist conditions

In this post, Nils Napierala and Andrea Römmele address the consequences of far-right populism for journalism. Using feedback from Dahrendorf Forum workshops and panel discussions, they address how journalists can navigate these conditions.

A changing media landscape

Among both academics and media professionals themselves, there is an ongoing debate about the role of the media in the spread or containment of right-wing populism. This is linked to questions about the development of the media itself, its perception, the communication strategies of populists, the rise of social media, the self-image of journalists and journalistic strategies in dealing with populists.

The classic gatekeeper function of journalists is in the process of breaking down. The media are losing credibility and political discourse is increasingly shaped by right-wing populists. As social media and other online resources proliferate, political exchange is less reliant on a shared societal framework of knowledge.

In the course of disintermediation, politicians are no longer as dependent on the media as they used to be. Public debate is less and less structured by traditional sources of information. Source and recipient no longer rely on journalists to communicate with each other, but can make direct contact via social media. Although this can have the positive effect of enabling individuals of different opinions to become more visible, it can also facilitate the spread of false, misleading, or inflammatory rhetoric.

Do populists especially benefit from the changing conditions?

Right-wing populists often manage to increase their news value by staging calculated provocations and scandals, thereby achieving a particularly high outreach. Often they can use the media to gain publicity while simultaneously attacking it for unfairness. For example, the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Björn Höcke attracted attention when he stopped an interview with the German television station ZDF when it did not go as he had planned.

Here something comes into play, which all populists share (see Müller 2016 [1]): The assumption that there is a ‘popular’ will which only they represent. In this logic, media are either for them or part of a system that prevents the implementation of the supposed ‘will of the people’. Critical discussion of their opinions has no place in their view of the world. It is not regarded as a democratic necessity, but as anti-democratic.

By transferring the populist “us against them” mind-set to the media, populists do not have to justify their behaviour to their followers. They can spread their own narratives unquestioned, because they correspond better to a perceived ‘truth’. Even if fake news is identified as such, its political efficacy may not be diminished, as it still fits the pre-existing narrative which supports cling to. Consequently, political debates are less fact-based, and instead rest on worldviews, feelings, and values. The principle of truth loses its relevance.

Populist communication thus aims to derive a claim to truth from the fact that they hold an opinion that is shared by their followers. Competing opinions are not regarded as equal, but as an instrument for suppressing the will of the people. In this logic, a debate is neither possible nor necessary, since the supposed truth has already been found.

What can the media do about it?

Is it possible to have a debate with people who think a debate is obsolete? Can actors be excluded from discourse who are celebrating ever-higher election successes? What boundaries must be drawn to report on what happens, but not to legitimise positions that may pose a threat to democracy? These are the questions that media professionals ask themselves.

Answers to this can only be found in the dialogue between journalism and academia. Initial steps in this direction are already being taken (such as through the exchange of different strategies in workshops [2]). However, the debate is far from over. Léonie de Jonge presented the findings [3] of her studies of the relationship between populist and the media on a panel organized by the Dahrendorf Forum. Her results show that even in a relatively small region like the Benelux countries, there are major differences in journalists’ relations with far-right populists. She identifies three strategies that journalists use:

  1. Demarcation: An unequal treatment of right-wing populist parties, which does not mean ignoring them, but trying to isolate them from the public political discourse. For example, by reporting about them, but not inviting them to talk shows, to avoid offering them a platform.
  2. Confrontation: Populist parties are not excluded from the political process. However, journalists take a clear stance against them, for example, through particularly critical reporting.
  3. Accommodate them: Of course, there are also journalists who identify with right-wing populist politics. This may result, for example, in a relatively large amount of broadcasting time being allocated to them. Typically, however, it will be expressed in such a way that the language of the populists will be adopted in the reporting or topics for which populists have issue-ownership will become more relevant.

The approaches of journalists are extremely varied. The inner-media debate is in progress and will not end soon. The different strategies of journalists are, of course, strongly dependent on their personal political preferences. Despite efforts at objectivity, journalists’ own opinions remains something that cannot be excluded from reporting.

However, the influence of journalistic attitudes should not be overblown. As the New York Times correspondent Matina Stevis-Gridneff noted on a panel at the Dahrendorf Forum, “It is not the journalist, who makes you do, what you make out of it”. A text interacts with its recipient. How one understands and interprets, it is initially highly dependent on one’s own body of knowledge. In addition, the political audience moves in complex discourse landscapes. The influence of one text is limited by other texts. Many texts are available and there is usually an exchange with other people.  For instance, conversations with friends and family usually have a significantly higher influence on the formation of opinion than the reception of news. As Andrea Römmele added on the panel, the importance of the concept of connection communication (“Anschlusskommunikation”) must be taken into account when talking about media reception. “Anschlusskommunikation” is the communication about the content, which has been perceived in the media. One reads an article, views a news report and then exchanges information and interpretation about it with family, friends or colleagues. As Lazarsfeld et al. already showed [4] in the 1940s, most people’s political attitude is not directly influenced by media consumption, but by how other people report on their media reception.

In the current populist upswing, journalists have operated in a legitimising, rather than a persuading function. The adoption of populist language, the repetition of its frames and the focus on its issues, which enables populism’s electoral rise.

The demarcation strategy can also have dangerous effects. Ignoring populist actors, conversely, reinforces their narrative of the so-called “mainstream media” discriminating against them in order to protect the ruling elites. In the worst case, fake news even experience a special legitimacy by not appearing in the established media.

Therefore, confrontation remains the best way of dealing with populists in journalism. After an initial helplessness, reports about and interviews with populists, which meet them fairly but critically are now multiplying. Such reporting is necessary to take the wind out of populist narratives and at the same time fulfil the task of journalists.

There are also numerous other measures to oppose populist tendencies. It is not only about dealing with populist politicians, but also about interacting with their potential followers (see here [5]).

There are many ways to deal with the growing right-wing populism. What is certain is that it is not a task that journalists can face alone. It is a task for society as a whole to remain open to debate under these conditions.

Andrea Römmele is Dean of Executive Education and Professor for Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School and Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group ‘“Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere” [6]. Nils Napierala is a PhD candidate at Humboldt University and Research Associate to Professor Römmele.