The censoring effect of populist anti-media messages

  • May 4, 2021
The censoring effect of populist anti-media messages

Ayala Panievsky's study of populist anti-media campaigns suggests journalists' objectivity is being used to undermine them.

Ironically, journalists’ devotion to objectivity is used to erode the public’s trust in that very same objectivity.

Ayala Panievsky

Populist attacks on the press should be viewed as a form of soft censorship which uses journalistic norms regarding objectivity to undermine the media, according to a new study by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

The study, Covering populist media criticism: When journalists’ professional norms turn against them, by Ayala Panievsky, is published in the International Journal of Communication.

It is based on 40 interviews with Israeli journalists who have been criticised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [pictured]. It outlines the ways they have responded to anti-media populism.

The article reports that the majority responded to attacks with what they called “business-as-usual” and stuck more strongly to objectivity rules in order to disprove populist accusations that they were biased against Netanyahu, the right and “the people”.

However, in the process they often found themselves amplifying the allegations because they felt forced to cover the anti-media rhetoric in live speeches by politicians or in emotive, simplistic comments on social media. Due to their reticence about becoming the story and their desire to maintain an objective distance, some attempted to debunk the comments indirectly while some adopted an overcautious approach, sometimes burying or censoring stories to prevent further criticism.

Ayala [2018], who is doing a PhD in Sociology, says: “I suggest studying anti-media populism as a form of censorship: a discursive mechanism that uses (imagined) audiences as a lever to manipulate journalists’ professional norms against them. By framing journalists as biased “enemies”, any future negative coverage becomes an asset that “confirms” the media’s alleged hostility toward the populist and “the people”. Journalists, who fear the potential negative effects on the news audience’s trust, are then trapped in a lose-lose situation: covering anti-media populism “objectively” against their seeming interest, or covering it negatively, thereby confirming the populist accusations.”

She adds: “Ironically, journalists’ devotion to objectivity is used to erode the public’s trust in that very same objectivity.”

The article ends with a discussion of whether, given the current populist surge, journalists should rethink their commitment to objectivity in light of the need to defend democratic values. Ayala says: “This article joins the calls for democratically engaged journalism, which could be thought of as an evolution of the public journalism movement in that it reemphasises journalists’ commitment to actively advancing democracy as players rather than observers.”

*Picture credit: Wikimedia commons and Ron Przysucha / U.S. Department of State from United States

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