Why Media Populism Matters and How to Measure it

June 13, 2019 10:09 AM
Giuliano Bobba
(University of Turin)


Antonella Seddone
(University of Turin)


Giuliano Bobba (1) and Antonella Seddone (2)

The efforts of scholars to define and measure populism have greatly increased in the last decades. So far, studies have focused mainly on political parties and leaders'positioning, on the one side, and on voters’ opinions, on the other side. However, besides politics and citizens, also the media could play a crucial role in supporting populism in contemporary democracy.

Let’s think about Fox News Channel in the US: its anchors and hosts are used to talk up Donald Trump while knocking down the Democrats running against him in 2020. Moreover, the media can contribute to spread populist claims by producing autonomous and original contents. In this way, they can act as populist actors. Populism by the media is sometimes explicit, clear and therefore easy to identify. However, in most cases, it is the result of a broader set of different aspects which are not limited only to contents and styles. The proximity to populism is often composite and thin. It may be continuous or occasional. Also, it can focus only on certain topics, or be limited to specific campaigns with political targets, resulting from the riding or promotion of waves of public indignation or widespread fears. It may derive from a matter of various actions undertaken by individual journalists, news media editors, pundits.

To understand whether and how much media populism matters in different contexts, we developed a Media populism index (M-Pop), based on an expert survey. Experts were asked to answer a set of questions addressing the salience of the key elements of populism within the coverage of single media outlets. These questions addressed the following dimensions:

  1. people centrism, namely to what extent media outlets emphasize the praising of people virtues and a Manichean vision of the world, according to a us vs. them rhetoric;
  2. anti-elitism, namely to what extent media outlets blame the composite group of the elites (politicians, intellectuals, experts, and the financial ruling class) to be colluded against the people, abusing of their power in order to deprive the common people of their sovereignty;
  3. outgroup ostracism, namely to what extent media outlets blame outgroups (immigrants, homeless, mendicants, Roma people, gay, etc.) for endangering the people wellbeing and cultural homogeneity.

Initial findings on a pilot study in Italy and Greece look promising. The M-Pop index is able to effectively discern different media outlets and offer a useful measure for comparing the weight of populism in each media system, allowing cross-country comparison as well.

We, therefore, propose to implement this tool as a key element of a DEMOS task that will assess how news media journalists perceive and react to populism, and whether populism has any influence on journalistic norms, professional values, and editorial practices.

The M-Pop index also opens new strands of research when employedin combination with opinion data. This allows investigating mass-level audience populist attitudes and their possible correlation with the supply side of populism to which citizens are exposed. Thanks to DEMOS, the comparison across countries will return the first accurate big picture of Media Populism in Europe.

(1) Bobba is Assistant Professor at the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society and Affiliate at the Collegio Carlo Alberto, University of Turin. He is interested in the relationship between governments, parties and the media; election campaigns at European, national and local levels; populism. He's published in several journals: European Political Science, South European Society & Politics; The International Journal of Press/Politics; Journalism Studies; Plos One.

(2) Seddone is Assistant Professor at the Department of Cultures, Politics, and Society of the University of Turin. Her main research interests include political parties, intra-party democracy, political communication, and election campaigns. Recently, she published in Acta Politica, European Politics, and Society, The International Journal of Press/Politics, Italian Political Science Review, Parliamentary Affairs.

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