Journalists have a tricky job reporting on right-wing populists. They need to inform audiences without aiding radical politicians to increase their reach. A changing political landscape – from Trump in the US to illiberal populism in Europe – has made the task more daunting. 

Previously many thought dodgy characters could be addressed via the “shining a light on questionable behaviour” technique. However, the last 5-10 years have shown this approach is flawed (perhaps fatally). Radical politicians just soak up the oxygen and use the media to amplify their agenda.

How journalists inadvertently normalise inappropriate remarks

This challenge is at the core of a new scientific article by three European researchers, “Reporting the unsayable: Scandalous talk by right-wing populist politicians and the challenge for journalism” published in Journalism

Mats Ekström, Marianna Patrona, and Joanna Thornborrow look at five case studies from four European countries to trace the “complex – even contradictory – dynamics of reporting on scandalous talk by [right-wing populist] parties.”

A key challenge faced by the news media when reporting on right-wing politicians today is that these figures are often themselves interested in their outrageous comments being reported in the press. As the authors put it, “creating a talk scandal can serve as a communicative resource for [right-wing commentators], enacting a clean break with established norms and values of the political establishment, in which the perpetrators portray themselves as candid and anti-elite…”

Journalists often fall into this trap and end up normalising questionable right-wing discourse, even when criticising it and following journalistic standards.

As one of the examples, the researchers tell the story of a debate between party leaders in Sweden. In 2018, a scandal erupted when head of right-wing populist Sweden Democrat Jimmie Åkesson made a derogatory remark towards immigrants. The authors argue that this case received inappropriately balanced coverage in some of the country’s largest media outlets – newspapers contrasted Åkesson’s comments with a response from a centrist politician, giving both sides equal weight and paying most attention to the scandal itself, while providing “no journalistic interpretations of Åkesson’s original statement about immigration.”

The authors thus argue that there are two ways journalists may end up normalising inappropriate remarks, even while criticising them:

  1. Juxtaposing offensive comments with a balancing view from an opposing party – and “thus creat[ing] the conditions for far-right anti-democratic discourses to come forward as legitimate.”
  2. Leaving out the ethical aspect of questionable behavior by focusing on the populist’s strategy – “the framing of scandalous talk as expectedly provocative (publicity strategy) on the part of [right-wing commentators].”

Another example features more abhorrent remarks from founder of French far-right National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2014 was overheard claiming that “Monseigneur Ebola can

sort that out in three months” when talking about rapid population growth in Africa. Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow provide examples of large media outlets referring neutrally to Le Pen’s remarks and focusing on the political fallout resulting from his comments rather than the content of the remarks itself.

More from The Fix: How Telegram harbours far-right groups 

How can we avoid falling into this trap?

Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow don’t focus on proposing specific solutions. Rather they devote the article to charting the challenge itself and implying that understanding the problem is an important step itself. 

For a practical example, we can draw some lessons from Donald Trump’s four-year stint as President of the United States – and American journalists’ reflections on covering him.

After the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a lot of soul-searching in the US “mainstream” media on the election coverage, such as on the unequal weight given to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. Critics argue that, while trying to balance out the coverage of two candidates, the media paid too much attention to the scandal around Clinton as opposed to numerous offensive remarks and unethical actions by Trump.

Before the 2020 election, the media learned the lesson. Big legacy outlets such as New York Times became more comfortable with calling out Trump’s “racism” and “lies” (terms NYT shunned from previously). 

Journalists paid more attention to the problem of false equivalence, something that Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow show to be a big problem. Perhaps most importantly, the media became better at contextualising problematic remarks and actions and providing proper background.  

The evidence shows that this worked well, or at least better than during the previous election. For example, the Hunter Biden story did not become the 2020 equivalent of the 2016 scandals. As opposed to the DNC email leak in 2016, journalists were more wary of documents coming from dubious sources 

More from The Fix: After Trump and record elections: what’s next for the news media? 

Of course, the example of Trump’s successful de-platforming by major social networks in January 2021 (and even the Hunter Biden story itself) shows that, while news media does have an impact on normalising right-wing populists or managing not to do so, Big Tech holds more sway in the amplification of populist agenda. While journalists can provide an additional legitimacy structure for populist politicians, the latter don’t always depend on the media to share their agenda.

Still, the news media can and should do its role – or, as Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow put it, “work to cultivate responsible reporting practices that align with, nurture and promote democratic ideals in the citizenry.”

Photo by NIPYATA! on Unsplash