Opinion: Journalistic responsibility to fight right-wing populism

17 December 2018 /

The economic and political crises of the past decade have paved the way for right-wing populists and nationalists. How should the media deal with these parties? Taking Germany’s AfD as an example, the author argues that journalists should not fall in the “populist trap” by giving them more space then necessary in the public sphere. Instead, they should always take the protection of the liberal democratic order as a normative reference point for their coverage.

The economic crisis has increasingly transformed into political and identity crises throughout the 2010s. Populists, particularly from the right-wing, blur the lines between ultra-conservative, authoritarian and xenophobic rhetoric. They undermine trust in the media and political institutions, putting into question the most fundamental principles of our liberal democratic order. The question of how to deal with populist parties arises above all for journalists, who have to cover political leaders’ remarks even if these are extremely provocative and disturbing. This poses two dilemmas: How to attribute these democratically elected parties the right amount of attention without making them bigger than they are? And how objective can and should their coverage be in order to take their electorates’ concerns seriously and yet uphold moral norms?

Media coverage of populists

Firstly, journalists should give right-wing populists only the space they deserve. Parties like the AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) talk a lot about migration even though this certainly is not the only important issue. More time should be dedicated to education or other pressing matters that receive little attention in political debates. Björn Höcke, AfD leader in the federal state of Thüringen and one of the most extremist politicians within the party, recently trivialized the Holocaust, calling for an end to the “culture” of Shoah remembrance in Germany. Certainly, his statement is worth media coverage, but it should not be given three minutes in a fifteen minute-news show because this would mean to fall into the AfD trap: their leaders do everything they can to provoke, draw attention and make the headlines. This was no different when AfD leader Alexander Gauland asserted that the commissioner for integration should be “disposed of in Anatolia” or when he claimed the Nazi era only was a “speck of bird poop” in thousand years of German history. We have seen this pattern over and over in the last years. Journalists should cover these outrageous remarks appropriately in a side column and then move on to more important issues instead of giving the AfD free advertisement on the front pages.

Secondly, I believe journalists are supposed to call out politicians when they tell falsehoods or make anti-democratic statements. Some people complain that journalists are biased and favor leftist views. I agree that journalists should not favor certain parties over others and seek to shine a light on multiple perspectives of a controversy. It is, however, also their responsibility to criticize and deconstruct remarks that go against the principles of our Western societies. It is not a bias or an opinion defending these but rather an attitude and exactly what the media’s responsibility is as the Fourth Estate.

What should be the norm?

Populists seek to shape the public perception of reality. Focusing exclusively on migration and drawing an apocalyptic picture of an “invasion” of violent refugees, the new European right-wing populists spread fear. Once the perception has changed and certain people feel less safe because of immigration or a supposed islamization, populists can claim it really is more dangerous to go out even though statistics indicate falling crime rates in most European regions. Moreover, as we have seen in the previous example, they intend to provoke, presenting themselves as courageous politicians who dare speak their mind frankly without political correctness – even if their rhetoric is reminiscent of the 1930’s.

Ten years after the eurozone crisis and three years after the massive influx of migrants in 2015, which fueled Eurosceptic and nationalistic sentiments, the multifaceted crisis today is also a crisis of norms and values. Right-wing populists seek to make scandalous and extreme remarks sound normal, thus trying to change the norms of our societies. They trivialize stereotypes of foreigners, fuel xenophobia, racism and hatred of minorities and make attitudes acceptable that do not correspond to our Western principles. These principles are, however, exactly the norm journalists should always have in mind as a standard point of reference. Defending the liberal democratic order means, among other aspects, respecting the rule of law, freedom of speech and dignity and freedom for all persons.

The myth of objective journalism

Journalists are always biased to some extent and there is simply no “neutral” news coverage. I believe events should be covered as neutral as possible and from different angles. But this does not mean journalists cannot have an attitude when politicians make remarks that are either wrong or go against the principles of the liberal democratic order. I would even go further and say journalists cannot afford to be completely objective in the current crisis of values, and it is not a bias or an opinion to make assessments based on liberal democratic values as the directive norm.

Recently, the AfD has set up a website for students to publicly report school teachers who are supposedly biased against the AfD. It is not possible to cover this story in an objective way with a pro and a contra perspective. If journalists take the liberal democratic order as a normative reference point, they cannot simply state the facts without filtering what this action implies for society. Instead, they must denounce it as an undemocratic attempt to intimidate critical teachers and to restrict freedom of speech.

The economic and political crises of the past decade are also a crisis of trust in traditional media. However, the press should not be discouraged by this trend and now more than ever protect and preserve democracy, functioning as an institution of checks and balances against undemocratic forces. As European societies, we should have open debates about the shortcomings of our economic system after the devastating crisis. We should confront populists and openly address issues without an exaggerated political correctness or fear of inconvenient truths. We should not be afraid to debate about migration, Islam and identity. But if there is one principle we should not put into question in a rapidly changing world, it is democracy. Journalists have a societal responsibility and should therefore always have a compass in mind that points to that norm.

Frederic Göldner is his first year of the Master in European Studies at the Institute for European Studies (ULB).  

Photo ©Voxeurop

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