Populism’s Dividing Language Leaves its Mark on Political News

Media crisis made journalism simpler and more sensationalist. Populism pushed this trend further, DEMOS study shows

Budapest, May 5—Social media platforms have helped spread populists' dividing narratives . Journalism, picking up on the phenomenon and being influenced by it, helped normalize it. This is the key takeaway of the new DEMOS research, released for download today. The findings suggest that populist views, which remain powerful in European politics , have greatly influenced contemporary political journalism, struggling to find new audiences in the digital era.

Journalism bases itself in the interests of society. Investigative or watchdog journalism takes that as well as government accountability further, so that citizens are not only informed about governmental actions but also make decisions about it. The Internet and the media market crisis forced media outlets to keep reinventing themselves to find new audiences and keep them. As a result, political journalism has become more spectacular, fast, and reliant on politicians’ day to day activities and messages.

“This process has conditioned journalism not only to cover populists more, but also to use populists discursive features more directly, sometimes neglecting objectivity and investigation which are features of political journalism,” Giuliano Bobba, DEMOS co-investigator at University of Turin and a co-author of the new study, says.

Populist frames divide society between “us” and “them”, attack elites as bad actors, exalt the people’s virtues, and offer seemingly easy fixes to complex societal problems, in Eastern or Western Europe. “All these traits allow for a stronger dramatization of politics which journalism had already been pursuing”, Bobba says. “Our data suggest that populism has now become a constitutive feature not only of political life, but also of news media landscape in Europe.”

European analysis

The general conclusions, which are based on expert surveys in 34 countries and interviews with 64 journalists across Europe, have peculiarities in different countries. Researchers placed stronger emphasis in Czechia, France, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain, so that the analyses would include European countries with varying mediascapes and political features.

They found that Western media outlets’ political coverage has been more influenced by the idea that the people’s interests are neglected by political parties. Eastern and Central European countries’ outlets have instead taken a stronger stance against the established elites, described usually in negative tones, in line with right-wing populist discourse that is a mark in the region.

Populism has also widened a divide between media outlets. Some political coverage, particularly of right-wing political orientation, support and promote populists’ discourse against migrants and vulnerable groups. Other outlets have worked harder to counter these narratives. The study found the widest journalistic divide in Poland, governed by the right-wing populist Law & Justice party.

The study also shows different types of media engagement with populists. The media in Italy and Spain are examples of “populist facilitators”. According to the research, that happens when the media unintentionally favour populist actors. Leftist media in France and pro-opposition media in Poland are “populist opponents”, engaged in countering populism. Poland's pro-government media and Czechia’s populist-owned media play the role of “populist disseminators”, sometimes fostering misinformation. Slovak and Czech public news outlets are an example of “detached observers”, covering populists in a more neutral way.

Download Information

  • Between Normalisation and Polarisation: Media Populism in Comparative Perspective (2022). By Giuliano Bobba (University of Turin) et al. Download here.

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DEMOS - Democratic Efficiency and the Varieties of Populism in Europe - is a three-year collaborative research project with 15 consortium members across Europe. DEMOS is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 framework program. The project, which kicked off in December 2018, has two chief objectives: to better understand populism by investigating under-researched trends in existing scientific literature and to address the challenge of populism through innovative and action research. Read more about DEMOS  here

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