“You Are Fake News!” Mapping Delegitimizing Media Criticism by Political Actors
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The term “Fake News” is widely used in current public discourse, as well as in a growing
scientific literature. Here, it is mainly understood as false information that is made to look like news articles. However, the term is also applied by mostly populist political actors - the most prominent example being U.S.-President Donald Trump – as label to defame media outlets. Therefore, we suggest a distinction be made between Fake News as genre, describing the deliberate dissemination of pseudo-journalistic misinformation, and Fake News as label, a political instrument to discredit news media and journalism.
We further argue that the Fake News label stands representative for a worrying trend: increasing attempts to delegitimize journalism by political actors.
Politicians have been criticizing the media for years now, however, nowadays publicly voiced media criticism appears to be even more popular, as well as increasingly hostile.
We suggest that delegitimizing criticism is characterized by hostility and incivility, lacks reasoning for its accusations, and often is not directed at specific journalists or media outlets, but rather against “the media” as democratic institution.
The Fake News label and related attacks on journalistic legitimacy are not limited to the Trump rhetoric. The German term “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”), for instance, accuses journalists of lying, and is used as a populist slogan against “the media” as part of the opposing elite. Since 2014, this term has been increasingly applied by the right-wing populist movement “Pegida”, which has backing in other European countries besides Germany. Consequently, this delegitimizing trend goes beyond the notion of Fake News, and is worth investigating in non-American contexts.
However, while worries about delegitimizing media criticism are increasing, we lack empirical data on how these political attempts to delegitimize news media actually look like. Thus, the aim of this study is to propose a framework on what characteristics make media criticism delegitimizing as well as to map how delegitimizing media criticism is used by both politicians and journalists during the 2017 Austrian general election. To this end, we conduct a manual and automated content analysis of nationwide news coverage, as well as party communication on social media. By comparing media coverage and party communication, we not only investigate how and by whom delegitimizing media criticism is used, but can also show how media respond to political attacks.