UK journalists reveal challenges responding to the ‘Populist Moment’

A new report from Demos think tank highlights the challenges faced by traditional media organisations in responding to the new landscape of the ‘populist moment’, particularly in the face of growing competitive industry pressures.

Through a unique series of anonymous, candid interviews with political journalists, producers and editors , the report peers behind the curtain at Britain’s media organisations, shining light on the daily practices of journalism in the digital age. In a case study focusing on the personal and organisational decisions made in covering the European Referendum in June 2016, it showcases the complex intersection of moral, practical and competitive decisions that built one of the most consequential information environments in British history. While much has been discussed about the media’s role in the ‘populist turn’ in Western democracies, this has largely focused on social media platforms, and the actual experience of journalists in responding to these turbulent political times has previously been little explored.

KEY FINDINGS: BRITISH JOURNALISTS:

  • Additional responsibilities for journalists around monitoring and engaging with social media have not been met by a concurrent investment in staff resources.
  • When journalists do look to challenge populist narratives or policies, many feel a sense of powerlessness. While ‘no-platforming strategies’ are widely dismissed, traditional methods of critique are also seen as ineffective, often serving to reinforce anti-establishment narratives.
  • Within a challenging context, a number of journalists we interviewed argued that the British media ultimately performed well in the EU Referendum. A considerable group, however, admitted they personally felt ill prepared to write confidently about the EU, limiting their capacity to take decisions about what to over, and the veracity or weight of particular arguments.
  • The Brexit campaign was seen by some journalists to intensify the populist tendencies of sections of the press, harnessing and activating a growing mistrust with establishment institutions.
  • The BBC in particular came under particular criticism for its interpretation of ‘balance’, which journalists on both the Left and the Right condemned for giving undue attention to divisive figures.

PUBLIC OPINION

Demos also conducted nationally representative surveys of UK citizens with Opinium Research, finding:

  • The Daily Mail is reported as the singularly most read press title across the country (19%), followed by the Metro, the Sun and the Guardian, all on 12%. Women were, generally, less likely to report having read newspapers, with 51% having not read any title in the past week, compared to 39% of men, and clear differences in title preferences were evident between age groups.
  • In assessing the level of coverage given to ‘voices outside the political mainstream’, the largest group of Britons (43%) believe that the media is hitting the right note, giving the correct amount of coverage to representatives from the fringes. By comparison, 32% feel they are given too much airtime, and a quarter (25%) believe the media should do more to accommodate them. There were significant differences based on citizens’ perceptions of where the political mainstream sits, with Conservative and Labour-supporting voters diverging considerably on their assessments.
  • Citizens were relatively cynical in assessing the extent to which the media was ‘informative’ during the EU Referendum, with broadcast television seen as having fulfilled this responsibility by 66% of people, compared to 39% about broadsheets. They were even more damning in evaluating whether coverage was ‘fair and impartial’, with only 36% believing TV news was objective, compared to 19% of broadsheets and 10% of ‘red tops’.
  • The discrepancy between these two positions suggests that many citizens do not regard partisanship and the capacity to educate as mutually exclusive – in contradiction with the views of many of the journalists we interviewed as part of this project.

As part of the project, Demos also partnered with Das Progressive Zentrum, a think tank based in Berlin, which prepared a contrasting national case study based on interviews with German-based journalists around their experiences in covering the refugee and migration crisis, and the rise of the far-right AfD.

KEY FINDINGS: GERMANY

  • After the AfD’s performance in the 2017 elections, journalists are divided as to whether the coverage they receive should reflect that of any other political party with similar levels of electoral support, given their open challenge to core constitutional rights and democratic freedoms.
  • While many journalists are critical of the German media’s performance during the refugee and migrant crisis – arguing that it had allowed AfD-style framing to dominate – others felt improvements had been made on past reporting of large-scale immigration (ie. post-Balkan Wars).
  • Journalists’ attempts to counter AfD framing were often felt to be problematic, leaving them open to accusations that genuine issues linked to the crisis, such as integration, were being under-reported. This further exposed the media to its depiction as part of the ‘liberal establishment’.

CONCLUSIONS AND RESPONSES

Our findings show that the media’s response to populism is bound up in a host of other economic, social, and technological changes emanating from both within and beyond newsrooms. To enable journalists to more critically engage with populist politics, the report focuses on improvements in five areas:

  1. Creating more sustainable working practices and investing in high-quality journalism.
  2. Enabling journalists to deepen subject expertise and have a say in editorial decision-making.
  3. Negotiating balance and objectivity, and embedding ethical practice.
  4. Widening engagement with citizens and deepening the concept of the ‘public interest’.
  5. Challenging the affinity between populist politics and the news media.

COMMENTING ON THE REPORT, SOPHIE GASTON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR AT DEMOS, SAID:

“Commendably, many newsrooms are making time to develop clear positions and new internal safeguards to ensure the social and democratic missions of their profession are upheld against the immense changes taking place within our media industry and political environments. Yet, it is also clear that the specific challenges of the ‘populist moment’ across the political spectrum have not always been addressed in a proactive way by the media. There is considerable uncertainty about how best to strike a balance between representing legitimate perspectives outside of the political mainstream, and effectively maintaining a democratic position as the ‘fourth estate’ of our democracies. The natural affinity between news values and the campaigning style of populist candidates of all political persuasions necessitates a considerably greater level of robust and critical analysis of journalism in the populist age.”