Media expert: Lazy journalism leaves fertile soil for populism

Tim Pauwels.
Tim Pauwels. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Populism can never be removed from society completely, while journalism can keep its spread in check by paying attention to the everyday problems of ordinary people, Tim Pauwels, ombudsman of the Flemish public broadcaster VRT, says in an interview.

The number of research papers treating with populism has exploded in the last five years, while the concept can be difficult to understand even when used by the scientific community. How to recognize populism in journalism and who are populists?

I am no academician and cannot therefore choose scientific concepts, but I see it more as rhetoric – a way of speaking – rather than a trend or tendency. It tells us that everything is rotten to the core – the state, system, apparatus. The only clean thing in the world is the people and thankfully I am a part of the people. Talking like that makes one a populist.

This mentality can be found in all political parties. I dare say there are very few politicians who have never said anything populist. It is just easier to go with it sometimes.

This leaves us journalists with a problem. When a populist says that everything is rotten, it usually includes journalists. How should we react if we are also rotten? Usually, there are two approaches. One group finds that we should condemn it. Others, like me, say we should continue to be good at our job.

Of course, it is harder than most people think. Populists often make false claims. How to make sure we are not giving them a free pass by covering their actions? We tend to pay more attention to controversial characters and believe, when we criticize them, that people will not vote for them or can see through their agenda.

I am less hopeful on this front. We should take care not to make it look like populists are the most important party or politician.

It is not a request to silence those who oppose the powers that be, not at all! However, as journalists, we should only give justified attention. We are not treating populists differently as much as it is a general principle. Everyone needs to be given the media attention they deserve. An (unfortunate) example of this is how the pronouncedly pro-Democrat MSNBC gave Republican candidate Donald Trump more airtime during a debate than they did Hillary Clinton. It should have been equal, but journalists decided differently.

Populism is not characteristic only of right or left-wing political forces. For example, some statements by (climate activist) Greta Thunberg are also populist.

How wide of a net should we cast when catching populists? As you said, populist elements can be found in the style of environmental activists like Greta Thunberg, not to mention promoters of different family models.

I have no idea of hot political topics in Estonia. However, if Greta Thunberg says that politicians tell us nothing but fairy tales, that the younger generation is the only ray of hope courtesy of being the only disillusioned group and that she has the right to speak for an entire generation – that is populism.

We can see it everywhere. It is not a bad thing as such. People sometimes feel the system is not working for them. There is nothing wrong with trying to understand the sentiment on a deeper level, and it is sometimes important to say it out loud. However, as journalists, it is our duty to attach a suitable emphasis and verify the facts.

It is not an attempt to contrast to anyone. We are simply doing our jobs. Everything is permitted in journalism, there are no taboos or topics one shouldn't touch. The only thing that is not allowed is lazy journalism. It is our task to show where the dog lies buried.

Where does this leave political journalism and commentators? It is important to showcase politicians' views to educate the audience and give them an overview of candidates, no matter how populist they might be. A better understanding of what different candidates really represent.

I have been a political journalist for a very long time and cannot say I'm blameless here. A large part of political journalism can be compared to football commentary. There is an expert sitting in a booth, telling us who played better and won the match.

A good political journalist should be able to talk about the state our society and country is in, what we can do about it and what are the pros and cons of different choices. Whether we should build a nuclear power plant or one that runs on gas. We need to highlight the arguments behind possible solutions and let the people decide. It is important for journalists to always see the big picture and the country as whole.

But it is true that political journalism tends to lose sight of this. Once that happens, you find yourself taking populists seriously. It is another matter if they propose solutions the feasibility of which can be demonstrated.

Tim Pauwels. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

While I do not wish to linger on this topic and logic much longer, was and is it inevitable that populist messages make the presses more often? Dwindling advertising sales sent publications scrambling for new solutions and business models. Pursuing journalism as per the reader's wishes seems like a good solution in terms of solidifying one's auditorium, even if it is just a step away from so-called identity-based journalism where compromises tend to just happen…

Yes, we need to be very careful as journalists when it comes to the whole, "we lost people's trust, no one reads us anymore" narrative. I have studied it in Flanders, when the government asked the people for over 25 years whether they trust the Flemish media. Of course, it is a very obscure question and even I do not know how to answer it. But the important thing is that the question remained the same.

We see that many people cannot give a clear answer because of this obscurity. But looking at people who deeply distrust the media, their relative importance has fallen over the last 25 years, while the number of people who deeply trust the media has grown.

That sounds quite surprising

Yes, it is quite interesting. Looking at the last five years, the picture might be slightly different. The year 2016 was critical. Donald Trump became president, the United Kingdom voted to support Brexit, there were bomb attacks in Brussels, AfD won in Germany, Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. In other words, a number of polarizing issues cropped up. Western Europe had been hit by the migration crisis just a year before, which is something Eastern Europe is experiencing now.

Polarizing events tend to erode trust in the media. We saw some effect in the Flemish poll but it subsided. I would have expected the same kind of ripple to accompany the coronavirus. Unfortunately, the government stopped asking this specific question and I need to go on Reuters.

Surprisingly, trust in the media grew instead. I suspect that people sense the value of journalism and perceive it as less ideological when there is a lot of trash floating around social media.

Therefore, I am not all that pessimistic in terms of the future of the media. Of course, there have always been people who are anti-elite and receptive to populist ideas. Especially the idea that the system is working against them.

We cannot really hold it against them in the energy crisis…

No, that is one concern we should take seriously. Life is not easy for many people, neither in Estonia nor Belgium. The risk of journalism overlooking that fact is real. When people talk about climate, we should say, good for you, but we have a person here who heats their apartment with gas and cannot afford or simply cannot use any other source of heat. That is our job. Failing to do it allows populism to spread.

We should be the voice of the common people. Public transport is all well and good, but what about a single mother who needs to take one child to kindergarten, the other to school and go to work themselves? What bus does that for you? It is an important question and one we need to ask when professors tell us that we need to hike the price of gas without offering any alternatives. We can retain our credibility if we can do that.

Of course, we need to keep in mind that people can be manipulated to some extent in social media and other online environments. Some misinformation is not as spontaneous as we would like. But you will never hear me say we should combat populism. It will always be there. Populism throws us the gauntlet, while we should keep a cool head and carry on working.

Jaan-Juhan Oidermaa and Tim Pauwels. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

What could be some other readily available solutions for distinguishing journalistic content from other kinds of online information and boost credibility this way?

One important aspect is to better explain how we do our jobs and pick things that are the most likely to be true. If investigative journalism covers something concerning which the prosecution is about to bring charges at around the same time, we need to explain in great detail why we started investigating the matter. We need to do it before we are accused of conspiracy to remove a high-ranking politician from office.

The same goes for scientists who deal with the coronavirus and especially climate change. When they appear on television, they also want to arrive at what we need to do as quickly as possible, just like journalists. However, that is not science but shaping public opinion. As journalists, it is our task to bring them back to their own desk so to speak.

Many editors might find this boring, but I beg to differ. I at least believe there is demand for the method to be explained. Why else are so many articles that disseminate false information boring and full of graphs, scientific language and citations of published works? I am not saying it should be done with every story published, but these explanations should at the very least be available online. We should do the same in journalism, it is not boring.

This from someone who has worked as a journalist for decades.

Yes, and I have probably made every single mistake I am currently pointing out.

Still, I have to ask why not cover populism from time to time? Yes, it makes sense not to feed the troll and to avoid the snowball effect of the journalist becoming the populist's agent. But studies carried out in several European countries have shown that if a person does not see their views reflected in any publication, it will cause them to lose faith in journalism as a whole. Even reading The Star or Daily Mail could be better than jumping down the rabbit hole that is Facebook.

I would clearly separate political populism from the rest here. If a political party has gotten votes, we cannot argue with the people. Their views need to be covered and member interviewed. It amounts to doing your job and not giving them a free pass.

But talking about populism that covers coronavirus conspiracy theories, we should not give it too much airtime. Is it prohibited? No, but lazy journalism is. Interviewing a coronavirus skeptic requires you to be up to speed on all the counterarguments. If you rely on information from virologists and epidemiologists who have studied the field their entire lives, the facts are on your side.

We need to demonstrate that science is not born in social media but as a result of a long academic process. Things seem suspicious if one needs YouTube to arrive at the desired conclusions.

However, should we pit coronavirus skeptics against virologists in the first place? No! A debate can be won courtesy of wielding a better sense of humor and rhetorical skill. The subject matter is not the only thing that matters. While it is unfortunate when people are elected to office because of their beautiful blue eyes in the world of politics, there is nothing we can do about it. However, in the field of science, we need to demonstrate that the truth does not depend on how good one is at waxing ironic.

Scientists, even if they don't know something for sure, should be more willing to say what they think is the best course of action based on what they hold probable. The difference between us and misinformation is that the latter never talks about the method, just conclusions. While we have no miracle cure against it.

Nevertheless, you have proposed a few tricks for pursuing better journalism. You have emphasized in your past performances that journalists should dare explain everyday events. Why do we need politicians, activists and other sources in that case?

They are important as voices, while their focus should be elsewhere. For example, it is not the activist's role to explain what is happening when it comes to climate. Their role is to propose a solution. As journalists, we should explain the nature of the problem or at the very least find scientists who are not activists. The line can be blurred at times. However, there is nothing peculiar or wrong about a journalist explaining an intergovernmental climate panel report.

Perhaps you are already wonderful at that in Estonia, while I believe we hesitate too often at VRT. As with all topics, we should create a forum for debate while providing the background information ourselves. Otherwise, people will also regard the unanimous position of scientists dubious as it is presented to them by activists.

In a situation where no one else is doing it, we need to be the voice of the people and show how climate policy affects the ordinary person.

Tim Pauwels. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A recent DEMOS study shows that populist parties have failed to solidify their success in Europe because they were themselves in power or because nations rallied against the coronavirus. But what should journalists do when an opposition party tries to boost its popularity by wielding criticism not in line with the scientific consensus?

If they got enough votes to make the parliament, at least public-law broadcasters need to cover what they have to say. It is our duty to say that this is their viewpoint. Of course, it can be very difficult at times. Luckily, we do not have a fully coronavirus-skeptical party in Flanders.

But if parties do something like that, you need to do your job and point out that science is not on their side. It also pays to remember that not every government policy is good. There is a considerable risk of society splitting into those who support the government's every decision and those who are described as conspiracy theorists.

Some governments didn't hesitate to make poor decisions. For example, the Belgian army had a strategic stockpile of face masks. Immediately before the pandemic hit, they were found to have expired and tens of thousands of masks were simply burned. Even in a situation where journalists and scientists found they could have been used in the crisis.

We were just as thorough in criticizing the previous government's decision to dial back measures in September of last year against the recommendations of epidemiologists.

We must not be caught in the logic trap according to which we shouldn't criticize the government because coronavirus skeptics are lying. If we refrain from doing so or at least from asking difficult questions, we are only giving the populists more leeway. I am convinced our reaction to populism should always be better journalism.

Populists emphasize personal contacts, while journalists of major publications tend to be far removed from rural residents and papers are closing their comments sections. Are we doing ourselves a disservice?

Feeling the system working against you, you take a look around Facebook, read a few posts that you like and join a group. You start to feel the admittedly desirable sense of belonging. Someone shares a few articles that might be all lies, while you are grateful because you feel they helped you obtain new knowledge. Journalists, on the other hand, preach at you from the pulpit, telling you that you must read or watch this and that. We should communicate much more closely with our audience.

We may have radio and television, texts and graphs, but people do not have the opportunity to provide direct feedback and discover it for themselves. We are not used to disseminating our journalistic products this way, while I'm convinced it is a part of the future.

I am not saying VRT is doing brilliantly in this regard, but we have at least two people moderating our Facebook page and directly talking to people. A journalist might write a brilliant article about the coronavirus, while the comments below can be full of false information. Why do we put up with it? We need to talk to those people.

Therefore, we introduced tougher moderation rules. If we cannot verify that a person's claim is true, we block the comment. If they repeatedly try to present the same claim again, we block their account. At the same time, we try to be constructive, share articles, thank people for their feedback etc. We generally demonstrate that someone is home. It is important for people to know someone is listening and acknowledges their existence.

As a result, we have fewer toxic comments and false information, while I also believe the comments section has become a more pleasant place overall. It is good for our brand. Perhaps we will eventually have a community that protects journalists as a result. Yes, it will take time and money to get there, but the prize is worth the effort.

And finally, we can increasingly see fact and opinion mixed in the same article, especially from the younger generation. It is one thing when they fail to land a job at the New York Times or BBC because of it, but what effect is it having on the health of journalism in general? Looking if only at climate change, while their personal concerns are understandable, returning to the publishing culture of the French Revolution does not seem sustainable in the long run.

While this is only my opinion, there will always be a market for this approach. I sport a rather classical view. A journalist's main task is to present credible information and not to fight for anything. Our task is not to change society but keep it informed. Good information will cause society to improve itself through the pressure it creates.

Our role is not to take action but to inform and through it inspire society. The direction in which society will move as a result is no longer our business.

Jaan-Juhan Oidermaa and Tim Pauwels. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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