Across most of the Western world, the dominant norms around journalism entail what the authors of the Worlds of Journalism Study defined as “monitorial journalistic cultures“, where journalists are seen as checks on other powers and must therefore remain independent from them. Yet, sometimes journalists legitimately decide to venture into politics, either as advisors or as full-fledged candidates and officeholders. (The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a former journalist.) What happens, then, when journalists straddle the boundaries of these norms and seek to become politicians themselves? How do voters respond to the fact that some members of a professional group that is supposed to hold politicians accountable are coopted by politicians?
In a new article published open-access in the International Journal of Communication I set out to shed some light on these issues based on an experiment embedded in the pre-electoral survey of the Italian National Election Studies, of which I am honored to be a member, in the run-up to the 2018 Italian general election. I started with two theoretical premises. First, journalist-candidates should increase levels of populist attitudes, as the populist mentality denies the separation of society into different groups (what Ernesto Laclau has termed the “logic of equivalence“) and populist politicians routinely lambast the media as out-of-touch elites in cahoots with political elites. Secondly, I reasoned that high-profile journalists may be strong candidates due to their popularity and communication skills, and may thus result in a higher probability to vote for the parties that recruit them.
To test these hypotheses, I designed an experiment whereby participants were randomly assigned to seeing different types of information on parliamentary candidates, some of which reported accurate information on high-profile former journalists who were running for the three major parties at the time: center-right Forza Italia, center-left Partito Democratico, and populist MoVimento 5 Stelle. Participants in the control group were simply asked if they knew who the candidates were in their constituency.
I then asked participants questions that measure their levels of populism and their probability to vote for the three parties that were fielding journalist-candidates. I measured populist attitudes by asking participants how much they agree with three statements: “Politicians in Parliament must follow the will of the people”; “I would rather be represented by an ordinary person than by a career politician“; and “Journalists are too close to powerful groups to inform ordinary people.” I measured probability to vote with a standard question that asks respondents to rank their likelihood to vote for a party from 0 to 10.
Because participants had been effectively randomly assigned to seeing different types of information on (journalist-)candidates, differences in participants’ responses can be attributed to the effects of the different information they saw before they answered those questions.
The results suggest that when people are told that some journalists are running for office, they become more likely to endorse populist attitudes, as you can see below.. Interestingly, however, people did not become more likely to vote for the parties that were fielding the journalist-candidates they had just learned about.
These results suggest that journalist-candidates do not directly enhance the electoral prospects of the parties that recruit them, but they weaken democratic legitimacy by performing what I call “populism vindicated by the media“, which results from media representatives’ conducts that may be seen as validating populist claims. On a more optimistic note, citizens’ negative reactions to journalist-candidates suggest that they value the role of the media as an independent Fourth Estate and as a check on elected officials.
On a personal note, this has been a fascinating journey. Growing up in Italy, where the revolving doors between journalism and politics seem to be constantly spinning, I often wondered whether this kind of close integration led citizens to lose faith in journalists’ professionalism and politicians’ accountability. I was very grateful to be able to include this experiment in the 2018 general election survey of Italian National Election Studies, which gave me the opportunity to empirically test those intuitions. This study went through many different iterations (and yes, journal rejections!) and I am very happy it has now seen the light. I hope you enjoy the article and look forward to your comments.