🔮 Exploring populist supporters’ complex relationship with journalism

Supporters of populist parties and leaders tend to endorse rhetoric that antagonises the press. Yet, they are also avid consumers of news. Clara Juarez Miro explores populist supporters’ paradoxical relationship with journalism. Her research shows how important are emotion and social identities to populist supporters' worldviews – and how they shape their perspectives on journalism

The paradox

Populist elites frequently accuse journalists of attacking them, and of being 'corrupt elites'. Journalists, they say, openly lie, and hide important events from the public to prevent populist parties’ success. Populist supporters’ perceptions that news media service elites, and that their coverage is biased against populist political views, appears to mirror this rhetoric. So much so, in fact, that populist supporters have used social media to censor and harass journalists.

Surprisingly, despite populist supporters’ apparent contempt for journalists and their work, they tend to consume more news than non-populist citizens. This is true even when we control for other relevant variables like political interest, need for cognition, political orientation, and media scepticism. Furthermore, although populist supporters generally prefer commercial and tabloid news, as well as alternative and partisan media, mainstream news sources remain central in their news media diets.

Despite populist supporters’ apparent contempt for journalists and their work, they tend to consume more news than non-populist citizens

All this begs the question: how do populist supporters understand and engage with news?

A populist worldview

Using interviews with populist supporters, my recent research examined this question. To acknowledge populism’s complex, chamaeleonic nature, participants were ideologically diverse American and Spanish populist supporters. We know that subtypes emerge when populist movements intertwine with other ideas. Considering this phenomenon, I conducted 33 interviews with supporters of Donald Trump, Santiago Abascal, Bernie Sanders and Pablo Iglesias.

My investigation revealed that populist supporters believe journalists create biased content that services elites, and that, as a result, journalists are morally corrupt

This investigation of populist supporters’ relationship with journalism revealed a 'populist worldview', which also permeated populists’ relationship with journalists and their work. This worldview encompassed, on the one hand, positive concepts and emotions that supporters associated with leaders and fellow members of 'the people'. Among these was the notion that ideals of informed citizenship were a morally desirable driving force for popular sovereignty. On the other hand, the populist worldview also comprised negative concepts and emotions associated with everything populist supporters perceived to be opposed to 'the people' and their sovereignty. This included journalists and their work, which they judged serviced elites through bias and was, therefore, morally corrupt.

Following this populist worldview, participants gained pleasure and pride from perceiving themselves as meeting normative ideals of informed and rational citizenship.

Populist supporters’ folk theories about journalism

These emotions intersected with populist supporters’ folk theories of journalism; their interpretations of what journalism is and should be. Three popular interpretations emerged:

'Everything is biased'

Populist supporters believed that news is inherently partisan. In response, they sought the truth by consuming information from diverse sources.

'It's a way of seeing what other people think'

Many participants articulated this folk theory to explain their perception of social media and news as reflecting public opinion, which they found useful for feeling informed.

'It's a pleasurable news source'

Participants regarded the ideological leanings of news sources and social media platforms’ affordances as helping to manage their mood while also keeping them informed.

Populist supporters’ understandings of journalism and related patterns of engagement with news allowed participants to derive positive emotions from feeling and staying informed. Their attitudes toward journalism, however, remained negative. This highlights the importance of considering populist supporters’ perspectives and interpretations when examining their relationship with journalism. My study accomplished this by speaking directly with populist supporters to unearth their folk theories of journalism. Nevertheless, social desirability biases may have led to an overestimation of participants’ enjoyment derived from staying informed and their interest in engaging with diverse news sources.

Hence, analysing interactions among populist supporters as they use and interpret news without a researcher present can help us better understand how populist supporters engage with news sources.

Normative ideals of news engagement and deliberation

Benjamin Toff and I analysed posts referencing the populist party Vox between 2013 and 2019 on Spanish message board ForoCoches. Our research revealed that to support their arguments in political conversations, users shared links to both cross-cutting and mainstream news sources. Similar to the folk theories study, this research identified apparently normatively desirable behaviours, this time in the absence of a researcher. Our results suggest that political discussions on message boards like ForoCoches may resemble normative deliberative spaces from a democratic standpoint. However, users may employ them to endorse illiberal and extreme political views. In this sense, our findings continue to challenge conventional notions about the consumption and discussion of diverse news sources.

The conclusions of the folk theories study emphasised the role of emotion in populist supporters’ news engagement. In much the same way, our discourse analysis revealed how emotionally charged were the political discussions on ForoCoches. Our analysis also identified widespread social identity markers employed by users to signal support for Abascal and Vox, alongside the use of slang within the broader message-board community. This suggests an important role for emotion and (social) identity expressions at the individual and group levels of populist supporters’ engagement with news.

Emotional and social facets of support for populism

These studies shed light on wider implications for journalists and their work, which frequently encounter hostility from populist elites and their followers. Of particular significance is the role of emotion and social identities in populist supporters’ worldviews, which in turn shape their perspectives on journalism. The findings suggest that studies on populism would benefit from applying theoretical frameworks that put identity- and community-building processes at the centre.

Sustaining a pluralistic democratic society may require news organisations to carefully acknowledge their audiences’ emotions and agency

These studies also provide insights for journalists into potential paths forward. The current high-choice media environment, including particular social media affordances, can allow populist supporters to retain control over their news use and emotional well-being. Taken together, this research suggests that sustaining a pluralistic democratic society may require news organisations to carefully acknowledge their audiences’ emotions and agency. This consideration is crucial to ensure that populist supporters, among other audiences, persist in consuming news and continue to rely on it to enhance their sense of being well-informed.

No.78 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Clara Juarez Miro
Clara Juarez Miro
Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Communication, University of Vienna

Clara works on the FWF-research project Audience Expectations of News in the Digital Age at the University of Vienna's Journalism Studies Center.

She received her PhD in Mass Communication with a minor in Political Psychology from the Hubbard School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota.

Her dissertation analysed how populist supporters form communities that address specific social-psychological needs based on their interpretation of messages by populist elites.

Her research interests are in journalism and political communication, specifically focusing on populism, social identities, online communities, and audience studies.

Her research on these topics has been published in leading peer-reviewed journals including Journalism, The Annals of the International Communication Association, The International Journal of Press/Politics, and Journalism Studies.


Identity Discourses about Spain and Catalonia in News Media: Understanding Modern Secessionism Kindle Edition by Clara Juarez Miro

Identity Discourses about Spain and Catalonia in News Media: Understanding Modern Secessionism
Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

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