As far-right ideologues are significantly influencing politics across the globe, journalists have been left to question how they should cover so-called populist politicians and figures, some of whom are in power – Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – and some who aren’t – Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
The challenges facing journalism are significant. The 24-hour news cycle demands rapid response. This urgency can lend itself to poor reporting, misguided conclusions and intensify the temptation to indulge wildly sensationalist narratives. It can, put crudely, become a choice between being first or being accurate.
This seeming need for constant reporting is paired with shrinking newsrooms and plummeting profits. Meanwhile, the social media echo chamber and growing distrust of institutions and journalists, seen as a homogenous mass lumped in with “the elite”, is thought to be curbing media influence.
These shifts are incredibly important and also require the left to strategise about how to counter the far right’s huge online power.
Yet considered, careful and well-researched journalism has not ceased to be important. As media outlets struggle to keep themselves afloat, they must begin to resist far-right “populist” tendencies. So the question is, what is the best way to do that?
The Guardian’s Martin Belam has pointed out that when far-right politicians – such as US President Donald Trump – lie, the media feel obliged to prove them wrong. This puts them on the back foot, dedicating precious time to defensive fact-checking instead of actively spreading truth. The latter, Belam argues, should be the media’s focus.
The pitfalls of reporting on the far right aren’t solely the product of the changing media landscape. There is a tendency to glamorise and sensationalise hardliners.
Not long after Trump was elected, the London Evening Standard – a paper, owned by a Russian oligarch, which is distributed free of charge around London – ran a story looking at “the faces of America’s young alt-right pack”. Accompanied by glitzy photos of far-right figures, the article described them as “stars” – celebrities – and cast a supposedly innocent glance over their fashion choices.
Milo Yiannopoulos and Tomi Lahren were fawned over as icons to be examined, intrigued by and even lusted after. There was little serious intellectual engagement with their toxic platform. This temptation to sensationalise and glamorise the far right should be actively resisted by serious journalists.
But profiles of far-right figures – even of those who don’t hold office – have proliferated in recent months. As senior editor at Novara Media, Ash Sarkar, has pointed out, this form of reporting does not allow for the considered coverage that in-depth research and data analysis provide.
The far right is not born in a vacuum. Research shows it thrives when it gets exposure, like weeds, sunlight nourishes them.
Instead, through profiles, far-right figures are treated as woefully misguided or as mere characters on the stage of politics. All the while, their abhorrent views and the real-life effect their politics have go unquestioned.
Similarly, the views of aggressively xenophobic, anti-Muslim ethno-nationalist politics like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen are, at times, normalised in the media. A recent article by Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, described Le Pen as a “nationalist” who is “unabashedly opposed to immigration”, before going on to say: “But there is no hint in her of the far-right ideology that clung to members of her father’s generation.”
This is, essentially, an acceptance of Le Pen’s own branding; she wants to detoxify her image and the idea that she isn’t a far-right ideologue – despite her anti-Muslim politics – does just that. Journalists must refuse to cover the far right in this way, constantly second-guess themselves, and give space to marginalised voices who are consistently written out of the debate unless they are being talked about.
The author of the Evening Standard’s alt-right profile defended their puff-piece claiming “those who demur that engaging with this group is ‘giving them a platform’ ignore the fact that they have already seized their own”. The far right is not born in a vacuum. Research shows it thrives when it gets exposure, like weeds, sunlight nourishes them.
But even when they’re not in power, the far right gets a lot of coverage. In the UK, after he stepped down as UKIP leader, newspapers gave significant attention to Nigel Farage’s views over other party leaders on Brexit. This is born of a temptation to turn news into sensationalist drama, but it helps normalise and magnify his message.
Claims of balance are often built on unsteady foundations: for instance, if 99 percent of scientists say climate change is human-made and one percent argues otherwise, these points of view shouldn’t be treated as equal. Far-right parties don’t tend to start out with huge amounts of support but they’re regularly given a platform simply in the name of “balance”.
This airtime – ironically – sanitises them, and from this, they gain further mainstream platforms on which to spread their ideas.
The media should be a service: providing necessary information to the public and journalists should be aware that giving disproportionate weight to hardliners can become tantamount to helping spread their propaganda. That’s not to say they don’t do their own publicity, but this shouldn’t be validated in the realms of the media.
This is also evident by the way the far-right is reported on when it isn’t in power. In many countries, the anti-migrant right have moved politics on to their territory. In the Netherlands, for instance, although support for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom was vastly overstated in the media, his xenophobic narrative was co-opted by right-wing parties.
When the far right obsessively fixates upon and racialises issues such as migration and security, all the while claiming to be the voice of the people, media focus often serves to legitimise this narrative and consequently skew the political debate.
A London School of Economics report found in 2014 that across Europe, the far right is regularly depicted as “the alternative to the elitist governance of our societies”. In Greece, the report found that even when left-wing Syriza topped the polls, the media “regularly” referred to Golden Dawn as “the real shock to the system”.
This is part of a wider shift in certain places, such as the UK, where research shows that the BBC panders to the right. In part due to ill-informed reporting and in part due to acceptance of the far-right’s propaganda, these extreme parties are portrayed as symbolising the people.
This plays a significant role in shifting and sustaining political rhetoric. As Cas Mudde, an expert on the far right, has noted, it is frequently white working-class men, who are seen as representative of the populous, who have been disenfranchised. This is, again, the wholesale acceptance of one of the central tenets of the far right’s own narrative.
It homogenises the white working-class and erases working-class people of colour, whose views are treated as unimportant. This matters because the media frames reality.
In much the same vein, when the media allow racial stereotypes to seep into their reporting they reinforce the very ideas of “us” and “them” that allows far-right politics to flourish.
The media should actively refuse to dramatise and glamorise hardline figures.
Journalists and reporters must critically analyse far-right narratives instead of – as often happens in covert ways – reiterating them.
And when the media isn’t delivering, the public have a right to demand that they do.
Maya Goodfellow is a writer and researcher. Her work mostly focuses on politics, and “race” and racism in the UK.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.