News organisations have come under increasing criticism for inviting voices from populist and extremist groups to air their views in mainstream news.
The unintended consequence, however, is that giving airtime to radical figures may reinforce public support for their ideas.
So, at a time when populist, far-right and far-left parties are on the rise in the Western world, how can journalists cover them without becoming part of the propaganda?
Birmingham-based investigative journalist Amardeep Bassey said that the media’s fascination by extremist views is nothing new, it provides a way to put other opinions into context. However, in the current political climate and the age of social media, giving extremists such exposure is irresponsible.
"The media is probably pandering to the fact that if we report on somebody with an extremist voice, they’ll get a lot of social media reaction, which will then bring them to their publication. It’s a case of putting profits before any kind of responsibilities,” he said.
Will Jennings, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton, pointed out there is a growing number of studies suggesting that media attention towards radical right parties bolsters their support. A paper from Gunnar Thesen, for example, concludes that news content played a role in the long-term rise of radical right parties in Denmark.
Jennings particularly criticised the approach taken by news organisations when covering populism, saying it is often covered without questioning and criticism.
"It’s easy to get sucked into the network of populist experts who will come along and tell you to be very excited about whatever, say, Nigel Farage is doing, without critically appraising what’s going on, which isn’t true for existing parties," he said.
Advocates of giving extremist voices a platform often point to the former leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin and his appearance on the UK topical debate show Question Time in 2009. They claim that by allowing his views to be opened to criticism, they were exposed as being ludicrous.
However, Bassey explained that the climate today is very different from ten years ago, with the views of extremists and populists available for all to see on social media and repeated appearances on news programmes.
"Not everybody would have heard of Nick Griffin and his arguments, whereas now everybody knows what people like Tommy Robinson stand for and say.
"It’s lazy journalism. It’s very easy to get soundbites and it’s just an easy, cheap option to cause controversy."
Jennings shared that view and said that the media need to get away from a "heroic news model" which assumes that sitting down with someone with extreme views and interrogating them will pull their argument apart.
"Very sophisticated populist operators on both left and right don’t succumb to that because they’re actually not playing on the same terms."
So if a journalist wants to interview a person with extremist views, how can they prepare?
Bassey encouraged reporters to invite different voices and different perspectives from within extremist groups.
"Find those nuanced arguments which can challenge you as a journalist, rather than going for cheap shots.”
Jennings stressed the importance of ensuring words from extremists are provided with context and understanding of the rhetorical and symbolic appeals used by those groups.
"The populist phrasebook is remarkably unoriginal if you look at populist parties and candidates across the world, so highlighting that helps to question whether populist politicians are any more authentic than other politicians.”
Save the date: Newsrewired takes place on the 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
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