Authoritarianism, populism and fascism are distinct yet interrelated facets of democratic backsliding, a process through which democracies incrementally deteriorate into less open and more repressive regimes. Authoritarianism typically involves restricting individual freedoms, centralizing power and stifling opposition. Populism thrives on public discontent, offering oversimplified solutions to complex issues and fueling societal divisions. Fascism, on the other hand, is marked by extreme nationalism, contempt for democratic values and often violent repression of perceived enemies or minority groups. Each of these phenomena poses a distinct threat to the foundational principles of democratic governance, ranging from the erosion of checks and balances to the complete dismantling of democratic institutions.
It is paramount for journalists to comprehend these dynamics. Media professionals serve as society’s watchdogs, holding power to account, disseminating critical information and safeguarding democratic discourse. When democratic institutions and values are under threat, it’s crucial that journalists have the tools to navigate these challenges, dissecting the nuances of each development and shedding light on potential dangers. An informed and vigilant press can serve as a critical bulwark against unchecked power and the erosion of freedom.
We recommend that reporters and editors identify creeping authoritarianism, populism and fascism and call them out accordingly to increase public awareness of the current threats to democracy. If the watchdogs aren’t barking, how will people expected to notice?
Guides & Best Practices
“The Authoritarian Playbook”
This essential guide provides specific practices for how reporters can contextualize and calibrate their coverage of authoritarian threats as distinct from politics-as-usual. It outlines the seven fundamental tactics used by aspiring authoritarians; describes examples from inside and outside the United States; and offers a framework journalists can use to differentiate between regular politics and something more dangerous to democracy.
Columbia Global Center
“Future of Journalism: Lessons on Covering Populism in Divided Societies”
This resource features a video lecture in Spanish by Mary Beth Sheridan, a correspondent at The Washington Post, on how to cover populism in divided societies, as well as her four key tips translated into English text.
Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
“Political Journalism in a Populist Age”
A combination of audio and text, this resource provides a brief history of populism plus 10 guidelines for journalists from Claes de Vreese, a distinguished university professor of artificial intelligence and society at the University of Amsterdam with a special focus on AI, media and democracy.
The Groundtruth Project
“Democracy Undone: The Authoritarian’s Playbook”
This multimedia project synthesizes reports from Groundtruh fellows in India, Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Poland, Italy and the United States. In it, they chronicle how seven nationalist leaders in each of these countries seem to be working from the same playbook. The epilogue to this series shares possible solutions and signs of resistance to democratic backsliding.
There are several reputable, nonpartisan organizations and institutions that offer data and research on fascism, populism and authoritarianism. Here are some that journalists might find useful:
Protect Democracy. This nonpartisan, anti-authoritarianism group offers a variety of resources, reports and vetted experts that journalists can call upon as sources or to provide background.
Freedom House. Established in 1941, Freedom House is a U.S.-based nonprofit that conducts research on democracy, political freedom and human rights around the world. They publish an annual report called “Freedom in the World,” which evaluates the state of freedom in countries, often shedding light on authoritarian trends.
Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute. Based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, V-Dem is a global collaborative research project that produces a large dataset on various indicators of democracy, including those relevant to understanding authoritarianism and populism.
Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. While associated with a former British Prime Minister, the institute is nonpartisan and conducts research on global change, including challenges to democracy and the rise of populism.
Bridge Initiative. Based at Georgetown University, this initiative specializes in research on Islamophobia and often dives deep into far-right movements, some of which carry strong fascist or populist tendencies.
Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute. This Budapest-based research institution delves into the rise of populism in Europe, dissecting its causes, manifestations and effects on the broader political landscape.
Global Populism Database. An initiative initially started at the Guardian newspaper, this database tracks the rise and impact of populist leaders and movements around the world, offering a wealth of data and analysis.
It’s essential for journalists to critically evaluate any organization or resource they use, ensuring that the information is accurate, unbiased and relevant to their needs. However, the above-listed institutions have generally demonstrated a commitment to nonpartisan research and rigorous analysis on the topics of fascism, populism and authoritarianism.
“How to Fight Fascism Before It’s Too Late” by Maria Ressa
Columbia Journalism Review
“The Authoritarianism Issue”
European Journalism Observatory
“Are journalists reporting – or publicising – populism?” by Robert G. Picard
“Journalism, populism and the future of democracy” by Robert G. Picard
Columbia Journalism Review
“The fascist next door: how to cover hate” by Sam Thielman
Johns Hopkins University
“Politics and Populism: What is Populism?”
“Advantaging authoritarianism: The U.S. electoral system” by Grant Tudor