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5 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:58pm

Brexit shows the media must wise up to the challenges of covering populism

Regrets in newsrooms were palpable, even occasionally among those working for Leave-supporting papers.

By Sophie Gaston

The growth of anti-establishment politics in recent years has spurred a considerable amount of finger-pointing. The arrogance of elites, globalisation, cultural dislocation, demographic change, inequality – all have come under scrutiny for their role in enabling seismic shifts. Yet nobody has worn more blame than social media companies, whose platforms have become Ground Zero for making sense of the “populist moment”.

It’s right to examine the role of these behemoths, whose reach and influence rivals and often supersedes that of governments, and whose seemingly careless mission of unfettered digital democratisation has fundamentally transformed the ways in which we receive information.

For newspapers, there is a natural appeal in shifting the focus towards the organisations that have been so consequential in disrupting their content monopolies, and who have presented their careful words, honed to the highest standards, in equivalence with the voices of the inexperienced and unregulated.

But the traditional media are not simply the storytellers of these political uprisings – they are also the story themselves. For all the attention paid to Facebook and Google, or Breitbart or Swawkbox for that matter, the largest proportion of news we consume online continues to come from mainstream media organisations.

The “information obesity” of the digital age has created unparalleled commercial challenges for news organisations. It has also increased our dependency on them as navigators, analysts and gatekeepers. The choices made in newsrooms to give time and attention to different politicians, campaigners and issues, remain critical to our lives and our democracies.

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The dozens of journalists I interviewed for Demos’s new paper exploring how the media is responding to the twin phenomena of digital disruption and populism, explain that the changes have been addressed in dysfunctional, asymmetric ways across different newsrooms.

Aggressive commercial strategies to attract and retain subscribers mean journalists are increasingly “performance-managed” as content producers. At the same time, few resources have been put in place to reflect the considerable increase in demands on staff time. When addressing anti-establishment campaigns framing the media as complicit in elite collusion, many organisations have continued to practice “business as usual”, making assumptions about relations between the media and politics that no longer hold true.

The impact of this institutional inertia, and some of the unsuccessful attempts to react swiftly to a fast-moving landscape, has been profound – both on individual journalists and the readers who depend on them for information. Some newsrooms are clearly having nuanced internal debates about these issues, but many more journalists described decisions to “platform” divisive figures – whether Islamic hate preachers or far-right populists – taken in haste or with mixed motives, creating a sense of confusion around where the lines of ethics, standards and quality should be drawn.

It was in this context that the media faced what will surely be seen as one of its most consequential, “watershed” moments: the referendum on membership of the European Union. Academics have helped us to make sense of the news environment that encircled the campaign, quantifying the level of coverage afforded to each side. What has been poorly understood, however, are the decisions taken within newsrooms grappling with the momentous challenge of a defining democratic moment.

Those I interviewed who had been on the campaign’s frontline spoke candidly about the unique operational pressures they faced. Snap decisions were made about the issues that would be covered: the scramble to get up to speed on a hugely complex series of institutions, laws and treaties; the tremendous task of presenting “balance” against the government, the Bank of England, the academic, scientific and business communities.

Some thought the media had done the best it could in challenging circumstances. Many others condemned a “litany of failures” – whether a lack of scrutiny for misinformation, or strategic decisions that backfired to reinforce some of the campaign’s most notorious messages. Regrets were palpable, even occasionally among those working for Leave-supporting papers. In the cold light of hindsight, the campaign spun in their memories as a whirlwind of both considered and careless decisions.

British journalists clearly respect the educative function implicit in the media’s democratic role. A nationally representative poll we conducted with Opinium Research shows citizens are cynical about whether this was achieved during the Referendum, with only the broadcast media seen to have been “informative” by a majority of people. Curiously, citizens were almost twice as likely to consider the media they consumed to have been “informative” than “fair and impartial”. The discrepancy suggests that the British people do not see being partisan and edifying as mutually exclusive, in direct contradiction to many of the journalists we interviewed.

Many have suggested that the best path to reinstating the supremacy of quality journalism lies in emphasising quality, objectivity and scrutiny. The first step to achieving all of these will be to create more space, agency and internal rigour to develop new practices fit for the digital age and the growth of populism The next will be to ensure these attributes continue to be valued by the citizens the media serves.

Sophie Gaston is deputy director of Demos.

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