Covering populist leaders: 10 research-based tips for journalists

(Journalist’s Resource) – A new paper by Claes H. de Vreese, a professor of political communication at The Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the University of Amsterdam, discusses populist movements and the media’s role in them.

It also offers some smart guidelines for reporting on populist leaders. De Vreese, who completed the work while serving as a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based his suggestions on what scholars know about populist communication from decades of research.

Below are 10 tips outlined in the paper. We edited or expanded upon some to make them even more helpful — after consulting with de Vreese, of course.

A version of this list, complete with academic citations, appears at the end of de Vreese’s paper, “Political Journalism in a Populist Age.”

Cover politics as usual.

Research has shown that neglecting and isolating new political entrepreneurs can lead to a questioning of the media’s fairness and even contribute to the newcomer’s political success. Belgium’s Vlaams Blok party is a case in point. The party was neglected by political opponents and the media, and it gained popularity in the wake of criticism of the established parties and “elite media.” It’s advisable for journalists in most cases to report on populist actors as they would on other political actors.

Journalists also should not ignore candidates they may not consider “acceptable” because of the candidates’ extreme views. “It could backfire,” de Vreese notes. “And it’s bad for democracy if there’s not a full range of opinions and voices being covered.”

Don’t cover politics as usual.

In contrast to the first recommendation, there are also good reasons for journalists not to cover populism as if it’s just another form of politics. Deep populist sentiments are typically held by much less than half of the electorate, which makes balanced coverage problematic. Balanced coverage can give the impression that a populist impulse is more substantial than in fact it is. Moreover, the ideas advocated by some populist parties and candidates go beyond what’s acceptable in a liberal democracy. Scholar Robert Picard notes that the problem of “false equivalency” is a challenge “because there are some ideas that simply should be ignored, repudiated, or denounced.” There are risks in calling out such ideas, including the charge of elite bias, but journalists’ civic duty compels a vigorous response.

“It’s fair to cover an extreme viewpoint, but also point out how many have this viewpoint — a fraction of the party or a percentage of the public,” de Vreese says. “It’s important to qualify this and show if it represents the minority perspective.”

 

Governing is not campaigning.

During election campaigns, media organizations and journalists commit additional resources to their political coverage. This resource allocation is justified by heightened public interest at the time of elections and by a need to match or counter the extra activities of political parties, candidates and their supporters. An increasing challenge for news outlets is how to cover actors who are in campaign mode during the time they’re governing, as is the case of the [Donald] Trump presidency. The situation can lead journalists to frame stories about governing in the same way that they frame election stories — as a game and a fight. Research indicates that the effect is to heighten public distrust of both the political process and the news media.

 

Not too much meta-coverage.

Given the campaigning-is-governing strategy and the often unorthodox communication strategies of populist actors, it can be tempting for journalism to focus on process over substance. In election coverage, the result is an oversupply of poll, horse race and political strategy stories. Imbalance can also occur if journalists are overly attentive to the communication style of populist actors. American journalists’ obsession with Trump’s tweets is a case in point, much like Dutch journalists’ focus on tweets from Geert Wilders, the Dutch Member of Parliament and leader of the Freedom Movement (PVV). Such coverage, if overdone, contributes to public cynicism about politics and journalists.

 

Don’t chase every shining object.

A challenge in the coverage of populist actors is their tendency to bypass the press, communicating directly with constituents through social media. Wilders typifies this style. He rarely gives interviews or answers journalists’ questions, reaching out to his audience through Twitter instead. Such communication has been shown to give “increased traction for controversial ideals that provoke and incite others towards extremism, violence, racism and Islamaphobia [sic],” according to scholars at Edith Cowan University in Australia. This strategy poses a challenge for journalists. Messaging by elite actors or political parties is potentially newsworthy, but one-way communication, where the journalist is a passive recipient, raises accountability issues. Journalists should be as wary of tweets as they are of standard news releases.

De Vreese asks: Would a news organization publish a corporate press release in full without offering context or asking questions about the content? He says journalists should hold tweets and other social media messages to the same standard, even those coming from powerful individuals such as a president. “Only focus on those you can question and put into context,” he says. “Tweets need the same level of scrutiny in terms of whether they should be considered [for publication].”

De Vreese also suggests journalists should not cover every offensive or otherwise negative tweet a political leader sends. “Is every tweet equally newsworthy?,” he asks. “Maybe there is a story about a pattern. But not a story per tweet.”

Be factual about non-facts.

Contemporary communication is awash with misinformation and disinformation. Research indicates that it’s hard to effectively retract or correct false information. Much of it “sticks” even when the correction is nearly immediate. Nevertheless, corrective information does reduce misperceptions, which makes it an important task for journalists. Corrections of populist-originated disinformation should be done in a matter-of-fact way. Adding other information, such as the persistency of false claims, will diminish the effect.

Contextualize.

Context is always important in news stories, but doubly so in the case of populism. Audiences have little understanding of populism and might see it as a novelty or, in its malignant form, as benign. Yet, news stories about populism tend to be devoid of historical, comparative and contemporary understandings of what it represents. Audiences need that type of context in order to respond properly to what populist actors are proposing.

Claim relevance.

Populism poses a challenge for journalism and legacy media. A hallmark of populist rhetoric is its anti-elite component, and established news organizations are portrayed as part of the elite. The effect is that journalists are forced to report about themselves and their role, as well as about the media generally. Journalists need to be candid with their audience about such things as media ownership, the role of algorithms in information seeking and the use of trolls. A lack of transparency will serve only to feed the argument that the news media are manipulating the agenda. Transparency about media is a step journalists can take that would help reclaim their relevance in the new media system.

Ask for details.

Constituent elements of populist communication are the anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric, typically voiced on behalf of “the people.” When covering populist actors, like any political actors, attention to the details of their (policy) proposals is imperative. An insistence on explanation and justification can be daunting, but it is the only way to discover whether populist proposals are realistic and would serve “the people’s” interests. As Columbia University’s Michael Schudson reminds us, such details represent more than just accountability to the voters:  “The press can serve as a stand-in for the public, holding governors accountable – not to the public (which is not terribly interested), but to the ideas and rules of the democratic polity.”

Be a non-combatant when called an enemy.

The press and journalism are always in the line of fire, justifiably so if they are to be held accountable and deserving of being called the Fourth Estate. However, some populist actors have systematically targeted (most of) the media as fake, lying or unfair — “Lugen Presse” and “Fake News” are just two expressions. That’s a challenge for journalists. Studies show that politician-bashing by the press, which has been commonplace for years, undermines confidence in both politicians and journalists. There’s reason to think that journalist-bashing by politicians has the same effect. But journalist-bashing also represents an opportunity for the news media. In liberal democracies, citizens have come to take a free press for granted, and journalist-bashing gives reporters an opportunity to make the case for why a free and unfettered press is essential. Getting in food fights with the journalist bashers is not the way to do it. Thoughtful pieces, steeped in context, will be far more effective.

 

Citation: De Vreese, Claes H. “Political Journalism in a Populist Age,” working paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, 2017.

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