Populism, a notoriously ambiguous concept, is a political ideology emphasizing the central role of the “ordinary people” in the political process. Populist leaders “see themselves as true democrats, voicing popular grievances and opinions systematically ignored by governments [and] mainstream parties” (Canovan 1999, 2–3). “Mediated populism” means the outcome of the close connection between media-originated dynamics and the rise of populist sentiments, and eventually of populist movements.
Comparative research points out the existence of a sort of complicity between the news media and political populism. The increasing commercialization of the news industry has further intensified the media’s natural search for mass audiences, and their craving for sensationalism, scandal, and conflict. This inclination of the media has been also identified as “media populism.” In various countries the media – “by engaging with people’s moods, catering to their entertainment needs and harping on negative stories that might spread social and political malaise” (Stewart et al. 2003) – have objectively created widespread sentiments and opinion climates on controversial issues like immigration, unemployment, and crime that have been promptly exploited by populist movements. The question of whether, and to what extent, this complicity is intentional on the part of the media is open to different interpretations, which may vary along with political cultures.
The great diversity of news media makes it difficult to draw broad generalizations. In most of the cases that have been studied, several news media have displayed what Entman (1989) defines as “production bias,” the inevitable slant embedded in all news-making processes. This has meant a largely accidental convergence between the media’s corporate ends and the political action engaged by populist leaders, movements, and parties. The rise of certain populist forces has been facilitated by the sheer implementation of news routines. Nevertheless, in a number of other cases, some news outlets have openly and intentionally voiced people’s discontent and malaise with the purpose of mobilizing and generating electoral support for populist politicians.
In general, the available evidence shows that tabloid media – which respond primarily to commercial imperatives – are more keen to lend direct and indirect support to populist sentiments and claims, by engaging in sympathetic coverage of populist leaders and their rhetori), whereas the elite media (with significant exceptions) – which tend to be mouthpieces of the ruling classes and paladins of the status quo – usually display overt antagonism and treat negatively populist politicians and their political action. In the latter case, beside the production bias, an “evaluation bias” can be seen at work, which reflects the views of the establishment.
On their part, populist leaders and parties engage in intense relations with the media, resorting to different strategies to court the media and/or to secure their media attentio). These strategies comprise playing the underdog (that is, exploiting to their advantage the unfriendly coverage of certain media outlets); using professional expertise; addressing and rallying crowds using abrasive speech; looking for free media publicity, which is easily obtained by bullying against the government and raising blazing issues; staging newsworthy, controversial events; and putting pressure on journalists and editors.
Mediated populism takes different shapes depending on the stage of development of the populist phenomena. Research has envisaged a four-stage life cycle (Stewart et al. 2003). In the ground-laying phase, the media may be engaged in providing a dramatic portrayal of the country’s illnesses, denouncing corruption in government, highlighting immigration-linked crime stories, and the like. This media coverage in the long run is likely to diffuse social malaise and to trigger popular anger and political disaffection. This domestic political climate represents the ideal milieu for the rise of political figures voicing social discontent and for the dissemination of the populist message. This was clearly the case of Austria’s Jörg Haider, whose success was to a significant extent buttressed by the “newsroom populism” (Plasser & Ulram 2003) of the tabloid newspapers, which fuelled a favorable opinion climate. In the insurgent phase, populist movements attempt to enlarge and consolidate their popular and electoral support by exploiting more intensely the communication resources that media make available (unintentionally or not). This is a stage when populist leaders – often media-savvy figures – seek to secure media attention by displaying a wide variety of communication tactics. Italy’s Northern League’s neo-Celtic liturgies, Haider’s remarks on the Nazis, and The Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn’s outspoken statements on Islam are the type of newsworthy realities that the media covet and cover, thus granting populist actors an enormous and free publicity. The established phase is the stage when the movement obtains full legitimization in the country’s political system, with seats in parliaments and even in cabinets. This often means loss of newsworthiness for the leaders and their stances, as they take on more ordinary political roles in the political arena, with the consequent lessening of media attention. Some movements have experienced also a decline phase, like Ross Perot’s Reform Party USA, and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia. The attitude and behavior of the media vary widely in this phase. Their spotlights might be suddenly switched on by the political fall of formerly transgressive (and at times “media darlings”) populist leaders. The murder of Pym Fortuyn in the 2002 election campaign was followed by a short-lived electoral success. However, his movement lacked his personal charisma and media savvy, and eventually did not survive, among other things, the fall of media interest.
- Canovan, M. (1999). Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy. Political Studies, 47(1), 2 –16.
- Entman, R. M. (1989). Democracy without citizens: Media and the decay of American politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ociepka, B. (ed.) (2005). Populism and media democracy. Wroclaw: Wroclaw University Press.
- Plasser, F., & Ulram, P. A. (2003). Striking a responsive chord: Media and right-wing populism in Austria. In G. Mazzoleni, J. Stewart, & B. Horsfield (eds.), The media and neo-populism: A contemporary comparative analysis. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Stewart, J., Mazzoleni, G., & Horsfield, B. (2003). Conclusion: Power to the media managers. In G. Mazzoleni, J. Stewart, & B. Horsfield (eds.), The media and neo-populism: A contemporary comparative analysis. Westport, CT: Praeger.