On the Boundaries of Democracy: Analyzing Media Discourses about Populism

Goyvaerts, J. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


For anybody following the news it seems as if populism is everywhere. It is everywhere, in the sense that populist politics seem to have become a permanent feature of the political landscape in large parts of the world. But ‘populism’ is also everywhere in the sense that the term ‘populism’ has become omnipresent in media coverage of politics. These two levels are obviously connected, but it would be too simple to assume that the growth of journalistic references to ‘populism’ would be a mere consequence of the rise of populist politics, or that journalistic coverage of such politics as ‘populist’ would not have any impact on the prevalence and success of populist politics. Glynos and Mondon (2016) have theorized this as a ‘populist hype’: while there may have been an actual rise in popularity of some radical right populist parties, the attention given to it by mainstream media has been exaggerated and portrayed “in predominantly apocalyptic terms” (p. 7), emphasizing a threat to liberal democracy. Despite the relevance of the issue, there has been remarkable little systematic empirical research on how the signifier populism is used in media and what this means for its role within democracy. The aim of this paper is to inquire into the politics of the media’s use of the signifier populism, and relate this to broader questions about the intricate ties between media, journalism and democracy. How do media use the term ‘populism’ and what meaning does the term acquire? What role does ‘populism’ play in contemporary journalistic vocabulary? And why does this matter? In exploring and formulating questions about the politics of media discourse about ‘populism’, we can draw on the few existing empirical analyses of how media use the term ‘populism’ (Bale et al., 2011; Brookes, 2018; Herkman, 2016, 2017). This paper also links up with critical reflections on media’s role in democracy. The critical tradition of media and communication research has criticized the liberal normative perspective of ‘media as watchdog of democracy’, highlighting that rather than representing a diversity of viewpoints, media themselves play a role in hegemonic struggles (see Carpentier, 2005: 202; McQuail, 2010: 168; Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015: 1044-1045). To use this critical theory in an empirical analysis, a particular useful framework is offered by Daniel Hallin (1984, 1989). He describes the journalist’s world to be divided into three different ‘spheres’, visualized as three concentric circles, each with its own journalistic standards and practices: the sphere of consensus, where journalists cover issues that are generally not seen as controversial without much critical distance, the sphere of legitimate controversy, where different viewpoint on societal issues are reported on following the journalistic principles of objectivity, neutrality and impartiality, and the sphere of deviance, including political actors and views that are not considered worthy to be heard. To further strengthen this theoretical framework and identify the areas that would be worthy of further research, this paper draws on an exploratory discourse-theoretical analysis (Carpentier & De Cleen, 2007) of references to ‘populism’ in Flemish mainstream media coverage of the 2014 regional, federal and European elections. All articles containing the word ‘populist’ or ‘populism’ in the seven Flemish daily newspapers were collected, from two months before the elections until one month after. Both the existing literature on discourses about populism and this analysis show that the term populism is predominantly used to express concerns about the negative impact of populist politics on democracy, and the label is often used to place someone outside “political business as usual” (Brookes, 2018, p. 13). Bearing witness to the term’s flexibility, the ‘populist’ threat ranges from racism and ultra-nationalism to antagonistic rhetoric and demagogy. The media’s criticism of ‘populism’ can be seen as an exercise in drawing boundaries around what they consider legitimate democratic politics, an endeavour largely based on a defence of liberal democracy and of rational and moderate public debate. The term populism, indeed, is used to position certain political parties outside of the boundary of legitimate controversy, as well as to position outside of this boundary certain acts by actors otherwise considered to belong in the sphere of legitimate political contenders. It seems media are here defending a certain model of democracy against actors and acts that fall outside of that model and might threaten it, whether these are established political actors or outsiders. To understand the nature and impact of media discourse about populism we need to consider the multifaceted and multidirectional relations between media, politics and academia, but much work remains to be done to properly understand these connections.
Period7 Feb 2020
Event titleEtmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap 2020
Event typeConference
LocationAmsterdam, Netherlands
Degree of RecognitionInternational