Populists threaten press freedom and, frequently, democracy itself. But Giulia Sbaraini Fontes suggests that news outlets may have a toxic relationship with these politicians, harvesting immediate commercial benefits from populists' attacks
Research shows that populist leaders have a hostile relationship with the independent press. Authors including Lindsey Meeks, Ross Tapsell, Caroline Avila and Philip Kitzberger have documented attempts to discredit journalists and news organisations. These attempts have come from politicians across the ideological spectrum, from left-wingers such as Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez to right-wingers like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte.
Their behaviour has been deemed a threat to the freedom of the press and, frequently, to democracy itself. Broadly speaking, populists seek to undermine journalistic authority. Nonetheless, news organisations, as private companies, may benefit from the phenomenon. Scholars such as Gianpietro Mazzoleni have already pointed out how news values and business goals promote populist leaders, creating a kind of complicity between the press and these politicians.
New evidence from Brazil reinforces the hypothesis that news companies may have a toxic relationship with populist leaders. They harvest immediate commercial benefits while jeopardising journalism’s credibility and legitimacy.
To give you some background, Brazil is a young democracy with previous experience of populist politics. Between 2018 and 2022, it experienced a new episode of populism: Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, who became President of the country. As a former congressman and military officer, Bolsonaro was already known for statements praising dictatorship and assaulting human rights.
The NGO Reporters Without Borders included Bolsonaro in its 2021 gallery of 'Press Freedom Predators' from across the world
During his period in office, the then President attacked several democratic institutions, including the press. For instance, Fenaj, a journalists’ union, documented an increase in assaults upon news organisations and journalists during Bolsonaro’s government. In 2022 alone, the ex-President was personally responsible for almost 30% of cases. The NGO Reporters Without Borders included Bolsonaro in its 2021 gallery of Press Freedom Predators from across the world.
Undoubtedly, Bolsonaro posed many challenges to Brazilian journalism during his term. Nevertheless, I argue that news organisations were not simply victims in this scenario. Other scholars have already explored the press's complicity in the process that culminated in Bolsonaro’s election. And my research has shown that Brazil's three main quality newspapers – Folha de S. Paulo (FSP), O Estado de São Paulo (OESP), and O Globo (OG) – have instrumentalised the attacks to promote journalistic values, exploiting them to attract readers and subscribers.
Brazil's main quality newspapers seized the opportunity provided by attacks to promote journalistic values and gain more readers
In a study about the defence of journalistic authority in Brazil, I analysed 249 news pieces and 23 editorials that mentioned some sort of attack on the press. These were published by FSP, OESP, and OG in 2019 and 2020, the first half of Bolsonaro’s term in office. Of the 272 texts, 110 mentioned aggression sponsored by the former President, members of his office, his allies, or supporters.
My analysis also showed that articles which mentioned an attack on the press were likely to cite journalism’s role in democracy. This included pieces with an adversarial tone. For instance, in one editorial, OESP talked about an attack on a reporter by Bolsonaro and seized the opportunity to talk about its 'mission'. 'The threats from Mr. Jair Bolsonaro and from his gang indicate that OESP and its journalists are complying with their duty, looking after this newspaper’s tradition of defending freedom and democracy in any circumstance', said the text.
Strengthening the idea that the press is crucial for the survival of democracy is not only a matter of professional values and social legitimacy. FSP also used this argument in a YouTube advertisement. 'We saw, and will never forget, the horrors from the dictatorship. And we will always defend democracy,' says the video:
In an event celebrating FSP's 99th anniversary, in 2020, its newsroom director, Sérgio Dávila, stated that 'professional journalism is under attack, and Brazilian democracy is undergoing one of its main stress tests'. Dávila also claimed that the number of subscribers to the outlet had increased 'in a spontaneous campaign from people that were subscribing to a newspaper aiming to defend democracy, freedom of speech, and the free flow of information'.
Tweets including the term 'Bolsonaro' tended to have more engagement than those that didn't mention his name. Populism increases the exposure of news organisations' social media posts
Another study analysed these newspapers' Twitter accounts. This showed that posts mentioning 'Bolsonaro' tended to have more likes, replies, and retweets than those that didn't. In other words, populism increases the exposure of news organisations’ posts on social media.
This evidence reinforces the need for more studies concerning the relationship between the press and populism. At first glance, journalistic organisations may seem like mere victims of populist leaders. But the reality is more complex than that.
New research should look further into the effects of the toxic relationship between the press and populists. News outlets can use their opposition to populists to increase their revenue. But, by doing so, how do news organisations themselves harm journalistic authority? In other words, what are the consequences of this attitude for the future of journalism (and democracy)?