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How do you solve a problem like The Donald? Reporting on populism in a post-truth era

19 Jan 2017

Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America.

In a campaign that was as controversial as it was memorable, Trump’s relationship with the media has been just as volatile.

He famously appeared to mock disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, and tried to suggest Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly’s aggressive questioning was because she had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’. At a recent press conference, Trump dubbed CNN ‘fake news’, and refused to take a question from a reporter from the channel, an accusation he also levelled at BuzzFeed, after they published an unverified dossier containing incendiary claims about the new president, labelling the popular news and entertainment site a ‘failing pile of garbage.’

Accusations of fake news and false claims have dogged Trump too; The Washington Post recently launched a plugin that checks and contextualises Trump’s infamous Twitter feed in realtime, and during the election campaign, the New York Times ran its own fact-checking section as the mainstream press attempted to navigate the tectonic shift in national dialogue.

In a world that’s been described as post-truth, or post-fact, how can journalists report on a populist figure, who relies more on charisma and simplistic slogans, than detailed responses? What are some of the traps to watch out for, and what approaches should the media look to take?

Some of our current and former RISJ Fellows share their experience and advice on reporting on populist politicians.

Noa Landau
Editor, Haaretz English Editions, Israel

“’A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved’ claims the proverb, and populism is definitely borderless. Increasingly so in politics as the two have become quite synonymous. In our region we have our fair share of populist politicians and unfortunately we haven’t found the cure yet (though our best people are still working on it!). The Trump era is already creating ripples in Israel. As journalists, we are challenged daily with the ‘post-truth’ reality. As I see it, our mission is to work harder in Bringing forward the basic facts. With populism on the rise we cannot let emotions alone prevail.”


Alexander Fanta
Foreign Desk journalist, Austrian Press Agency

“Austria's Donald Trump was Jörg Haider, a far-right populist who for over two decades dominated media headlines with catchy rhetoric on 'fighting the system' and reducing immigration. After his death in a car accident in 2008, the public realized that Haider and his loyalists had coaxed a state bank in the Austrian province of Carinthia, where he was governor, to finance his costly pet projects and dodgy real estate deals. The bailout cost Austria billions of Euros. In my opinion, the lessons for journalism is – don't obsess too much about reporting tweets and inflammatory remarks. The story is in the money, and in the populist's track record in government. Journalists had failed to ask Haider difficult questions about his administrations dealings, and frequently allowed him to change the topic from his financial dealings by making xenophobic or otherwise outrageous remarks. I hope US journalism doesn't fall into the same trap.


Servet Yanatma
Freelance journalist, Turkey

"Firstly, I should say that it is not entirely fair to compare the Turkish experience with the US in this context. However, I can say that solidarity among journalists, media outlets and media companies is the key to dealing with pressure of governments or powerful populist politicians.

“Unfortunately, Turkish journalists and media outlets have failed to cope with this issue due mainly to a lack of solidarity, with very few exceptions. They didn’t think that they might be exposed to the concerns they now face, or suppression in the future, but the capture of news has gradually expanded. It demonstrates that no journalists or media outlets are safe unless they are highly docile or government loyal. Establishing “collaboration” with the governments – that is, to support the ruling party in coverage in order to protect themselves from possible concerns – does not make the media outlets safe in the long run.  If the reporters’ right of asking a question is denied, his/her colleagues should raise that issue in the press conferences." 


Krzysztof Dzieciolowski
Freelance journalist, film director and founder of
Vision House, Poland

“Keep calm and carry on. You know the trade so don’t get embroiled in political exchanges as this is the moment you may start losing credibility. This spiral of political fight and partisanship has no end. So keep on checking facts, remain impartial, strive for fairness, tell the truth and ask questions. Lots of them. This way you stand a chance to remain an island of sanity in what is increasingly becoming a world of people locked up in jails of their own convictions. Don’t become one. Good Luck.”