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Breaking the News: When Populists Turn Against the Media

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Pniewsky, Ayala 


November 7th 2016 found Ilana Dayan, a renowned Israeli journalist, exceptionally nervous. Nothing in her long career prepared her for this moment: she was about to read aloud a long smearing account of herself and her work on national TV. Like many reporters and news hosts worldwide, when Dayan entered the profession she could not imagine that one day she would be standing in front of the camera, telling the Israeli people that she was, allegedly, a traitor. But she did. For six long minutes, Dayan read out loud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s smearing reply to her investigative report. “The time has come to unmask Ilana Dayan”, she said, “because Dayan leads a concerted frenzy against Netanyahu. … Dayan has a problem not only with Netanyahu – but with the Israeli people”. The dramatic TV segment has quickly gone viral.

This memorable moment demonstrates the unique challenges which journalists – and particularly women, people of colour, and religious/ethnic minorities – are now facing in various countries. My doctoral dissertation examines journalists’ coping strategies against populist attacks and online harassment. How do journalists cover populist smears targeting them, their colleagues, and their profession? How do these attacks affect their daily work? Which structural conditions enable them to fight back? And what role does social media play in this conflict?

Through 45 interviews with leading journalists in Israel, large-scale public opinion surveys, and analyses of the populist rhetoric, its media coverage, and social media content, I explore four different coping strategies and their implications for democracy, equality, and the future of journalism. My work thus aims to contribute to the research on the relationship between journalists and publics, beyond questions of trust and credibility. It builds on media sociology literature – from Tuchman’s seminal work on strategic rituals of objectivity (1972) to Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (1988) – combined with contemporary political theory and political science – from Mudde’s work on populism (2004) to Muller’s theory of democracy (2016) – to develop theoretical concepts like “strategic bias”, “journalistic imagination”, and “rituals of loyalty”. It concludes by suggesting real-world research-based advice for journalists under attack.

Studying anti-media populism in Israel is particularly urgent. Populist media bashing has turned journalists’ lives in the region upside down long before Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum, which sparked booming academic interest in populism and media. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has always been a fierce critic of the press (Peri 2004). Moreover, the ramifications of phenomena like online harassment and mob censorship (Waisbord 2020) are extremely consequential in Israel and Palestine. As I demonstrate in one of the empirical chapters, leading Israeli journalists have often avoided discussing and covering the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, due to their fear of political attacks and their attempt to maintain the public’s trust and attention. This was not necessarily effective; it has, however, remained a pervasive strategy in the Israeli news industry. I would argue that, apart from the financial incentives and the intense competition with social media, it is the ethos of journalism itself that drives journalists to play into the hands of right-wing populists who seek to discredit them. To improve the relationship between audiences and journalists – as well as our information environment – this ethos must be reckoned with and reconsidered.





McPherson, Ella


Israel, Journalistic norms, Media sociology, Populism, Self censorship


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge scholarship