At a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented findings from an international research project. Their findings warn journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.
At a virtual meeting of the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented data and findings from the international research project entitled Right-wing Populism in the News Media: A Cross-Cultural Study of Journalist Practices and News Discourse funded by the Swedish Research Council.
The main research question centred on the challenge facing journalists as they try to balance disparate concerns while reporting on scandalous speech by right-wing populists (RWP). Based on a qualitative discourse-analytic approach, Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow examined key aspects of the discursive framing of undemocratic, racist, homophobic and otherwise scandalous speech by right-wing populists in European news reports, collected between 2014 and 2018. The issue is how these frameworks can contribute to the processes of normalizing populist discourse and agendas.
The authors presented case studies from current, ethically problematic speeches by radical right-wing politicians and their mediated representations in print, online, and broadcast news media from Sweden, Greece, and France. The main analytical aspects in the news were: blaming the actors and/or political parties responsible for the scandals; journalistic evaluation through the language constructed in the news (explicit/implicit); and aspects of the foregrounding and backgrounding—that is, was more emphasis placed on the conflict itself or on its moral content.
The Swedish case, presented by Marianna Patrona, shows the press reaction to a November 26, 2017 speech by local politician Martim Strid (of the Sweden Democrats – SD), in which Strid railed against Muslims. According to Patrona, the Akktuelt News Group reported the controversial statement and journalistic commentary that framed the event as a clear moral transgression, comparing the content of Strid’s statement to the Nazis. Moreover, the selection of quotes condemning relevant political actors in headlines, news articles, reports and political commentaries reflects the important work of journalistic evaluation. For Patrona, media coverage helped to highlight the unequivocal culpability of a politician, while highlighting the broader values of the SD. This served as an opportunity for the SD to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-democratic views and the discursive inclusion of the party in a political culture of democratic and legitimate debate.
Patrona also analysed an incident from Greece: reporting on a homophobic speech made by Konstantinos Katisics, MP of ANEL and member of SYRYZA-ANEL in 2018. During a parliamentary debate over a bill that would allow same-sex couples to become foster parents, Katisics equated homosexuality with pedophilia: “Love of pedophilia is a crime, why should homosexuality be any different?” The MP’s declaration provoked widespread public outcry. He was called to account on radio and television. On the “Good Morning Greece” (ATN1 channel) program, the MP was called to explain himself; from the beginning, the hosts framed the interview controversy of legitimacy: “We have many phone calls that agree and many phone calls that disagree.” Throughout the interview, Patrona’s analysis shows that the focus was on the conflicting styles between Katisics and his peers—and not on the homophobic content. The politician was given many opportunities on several occasions to reinterpret his homophobic statement and thus dismissing all charges.
Joanna Thornborrow presented about a scandalous comment overheard by a journalist in France. During a pre-campaign cocktail hour in Marseille, ahead of parliamentary elections in May 2014, the former leader of the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen was overheard talking with other party members about the population explosion in Africa. At the time, he said that France was “submerged” by immigration and that “Monsignor Ebola can sort that out in three months.” According to Thornborrow, the racist and anti-democratic statement was presented in a neutral manner by journalists in most of the subsequent stories, including two major national daily headlines which ran it as breaking news. It was reproduced in direct quotes or speech attributed to the politician, with no journalistic evaluation of the content. Like Katisics’s case in Greece, when JM Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, was asked about the topic at Des Paroles et des Actes, interviewers allowed her to blame the press (…) “who have totally taken his words out of context …”
Following Thornborrow, neutral media positioning on JM Le Pen’s racist comment contributes to marginalize the FN; allows the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen, to blame the media for being biased towards the party and against “the French people”; and enables the reinterpretation of racist discourse and its dissemination across digital media, rousing FN supporters.
Based on the evidence from the three case studies, the researchers concluded that there are three journalistic practices with regards to normalizing RWP speech: 1) neutral and non-evaluative reporting; 2) the media’s propensity to frame extremist discourse as a conflict narrative, without considering the ethical limits of racist and homophobic anti-democratic discourse; 3) the “scandalous” framing, giving free publicity to right-wing populist leaders without any ethical criticism of their undemocratic stances.
Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow’s findings warn academics and journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.