Exposing the president: The political angle of a natural disaster in Chile
By Magdalena Saldaña
[Citation: Saldaña, M. (2019). Exposing the president: The political angle of a natural disaster in Chile. #ISOJ Journal, 9(1), 49-68.]
Chile is a country with high levels of digital news consumption but decreasing levels of confidence in journalism and traditional news media outlets. In a place where natural disasters are common, Chilean citizens usually turn to digital and social media to find out more information about how events unfold. By relying on in-depth interviews with reporters who covered the 2014 earthquake in northern Chile, this study examines how Chilean journalists approached a highly politicized natural disaster. Results show that reporters covered the earthquake as a political issue due to editorial prompting, and they used social media as another way to get close to the sources they already know, but not to look for alternative sources. The implications of these findings for media scholars and practitioners relate to the normalization of social media use among journalists, and the influence of a news outlet’s political leaning on journalistic practices.
Digital media have become a major source for news about public affairs (Kleis Nielsen, 2017), and the preferred pathway to receive breaking news (Martin, 2018). In times of crises, social media have proven to be an effective news disseminator: the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 (Bélair-Gagnon, 2013), the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 (Lee, Agrawal, & Rao, 2015), and the Ferguson shooting (Desmond-Harris, 2015) are examples of online sources providing real-time information during key newsworthy moments.
When disasters occur, people turn to the news media to gain information about these events (Houston, Pfefferbaum, & Rosenholtz, 2012), and the audience becomes highly dependent on the way the media cover a disaster. In countries like Chile, where natural disasters occur often and are therefore “normalized” (Correa, Scherman, & Arriagada, 2016), this dependency is even more evident. Chilean citizens are increasingly using digital media (including social media) to get their news (Newman et al., 2018), and yet, most of the research about disaster news coverage in Chile is focused on television (Pellegrini, Puente, & Grassau, 2015; Puente, Pellegrini, & Grassau, 2013).
To fill this gap in the literature, this study observes how political reporters from the most important Chilean online news sites covered an earthquake in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world (Jacobson & Stein, 2017).
Disasters are commonly reported as a series of unrelated events, with little to no time to prepare in-depth pieces when informing publics about how a crisis unfolds (Miller & Goidel, 2009). Disaster news stories usually take the human-interest angle—studies show journalists give preference to testimonials and dramatic descriptions of the event over expert analysis (Chouliaraki, 2010; Pellegrini et al., 2015; Ploughman, 1995). Though natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions or tsunamis) are less political than man-made disasters or terrorist attacks, they might create an environment of political significance and carry political implications (Cottle, 2009).
On April 1, 2014, an 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck the coast of northern Chile. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet set a precautionary tsunami alert and evacuated 900,000 people in the north (Prensa Presidencia, 2014). Despite the government’s timely response to the crisis, the news coverage of the event was critical of Bachelet’s performance and contradicted previous research on disaster news coverage: the Chilean news media, and particularly the right-wing news media, covered the disaster from a thematic approach and focused on the political implications of the event instead of using the human-interest angle. By relying on in-depth interviews with reporters who covered the 2014 earthquake in northern Chile, this study examines the context leading Chilean press to frame the disaster as a political issue and challenge common journalistic practices in times of crises.
Two Disasters, One President
The night of Tuesday, April 1, 2014, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of northern Chile near the town of Iquique. Right after the earthquake, Chile’s National Emergency Office told 900,000 coastal residents to evacuate because the magnitude 8.2 shock generated a tsunami. People evacuated calmly through the streets, and once tsunami warnings were canceled (by early Wednesday, April 2), they were able to return home. Compared with other recent earthquakes—such as the deadly Haiti shock in 2010 (Martin, 2013)—the damage and casualties right after the earthquake were very limited.
The government responded to the disaster quickly. President Bachelet declared a state of emergency and ordered a military response within five hours after the earthquake. In her first official press release following these events, Bachelet said, “The tsunami alert was sent promptly” (Prensa Presidencia, 2014, para. 2), and, “The country has faced these first emergency hours very well” (Ford & Ahmed, 2014, para. 6). She also emphasized the government’s work to protect people’s lives and belongings (Prensa Presidencia, 2014).
Yet, the night of the earthquake, social media exploded with comments against President Bachelet. Online users called her “jinxed” and advised people in the north not to listen to the president. The wave of negativity in social media, however, was not triggered by Bachelet’s response to the 2014 earthquake, but by her management of a previous natural disaster that caused more than 500 fatalities in 2010.
Bachelet had already been in power from 2006 to 2010, acting as Chile’s first female president. During her first term, Bachelet enjoyed high levels of popularity among Chilean citizens, to the point she attained an 84% approval rating by February 2010—the highest level of approval a Chilean president has ever achieved when leaving office (Délano, 2010). On February 27, 2010 (two weeks before she ended her first presidency), an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck central and southern regions of Chile. The earthquake (also referred to as 27/F) generated massive tsunami waves that caused the deaths of 156 people and the disappearance of 25 more. According to Judge Ponciano Sallés, “Not enough was done to avoid the catastrophic results” of the 27/F disaster, based on the contradictory decisions made by Bachelet’s government, who failed to set a tsunami alert right after the earthquake (Bonnefoy, 2013, para. 2).
This important mistake, which was caused by a series of miscommunications between Chile’s National Emergency Office and the Navy Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service, triggered disapproval of Bachelet’s actions by Chileans. In August 2012, a public opinion poll revealed citizens blamed President Bachelet’s government for the 27/F consequences: 73% of the respondents attributed legal responsibilities to the authorities for their poor response to the crisis in 2010 and expected them to be fined or even to go to jail (Cavallo, 2012). Four years later, citizens’ criticism remained harsh regarding Bachelet. The government’s performance did not gain public approval despite the successful crisis management the night of the 2014 disaster.
Media portrayal of authorities affects public perception of individuals or groups in authority (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007). If the media evaluate an official response as too slow or inappropriate, audiences might assign blame to those in charge, even in the case of events without human control. For example, Strömbäck and Nord (2006) studied the Swedish government’s response to the 2004 tsunami disaster in Sumatra. The response from Swedish authorities was rather slow and the government was strongly criticized in the media. Findings indicate Swedish citizens were also highly critical of the authorities, echoing the media evaluation of the government’s crisis management. Similarly, Littlefield and Quenette (2007) explored the portrayal of authority during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They found the media associated negative terms to the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security. Although this study did not observe the public’s evaluation of the authorities, it found the media went beyond their role of objective observers and assumed a position to blame those in charge for their lack of leadership to deal with the hurricane’s consequences.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet faced the criticism of the media right after the 2010 disaster in southern Chile. National newspaper La Tercera indicated Bachelet’s government had shown “incomprehensible weakness and slowness” at managing the crisis (La Tercera, 2010), while national newspaper El Mercurio called on President-elect Sebastian Piñera to “restore hope” to Chile once he took office two weeks after the disaster (El Mercurio, 2010). In this scenario, the media portrayal might have negatively affected not only public opinion about the government in 2010, but eventually in 2014 as well.
How Journalists Cover Crises
A crisis is an event in time with “high levels of uncertainty, confusion, disorientation, surprise, shock, and stress” (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003, p. 125). Natural disasters are an example of crisis situations—people are disoriented and confused about what to do, and unexpected disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can be surprising and shocking. The public turns to the media to find out the scope of the harm and the responses initiated by authorities (Seeger et al., 2003).
Disasters are commonly reported as episodic events (Miller & Goidel, 2009). Episodic coverage focuses on the immediate event and gives little or no context about underlying issues or circumstances regarding said event. Conversely, thematic coverage focuses on the big picture, provides context, and identifies causes. “Episodic reports present on the-scene coverage of ‘hard’ news and are often visually compelling. Thematic coverage of related background material would require in-depth, interpretive analysis, which would take longer to prepare and would be more susceptible to charges of journalistic bias” (Iyengar, 1991, p. 14). When crises unfold, there is not enough time for in-depth reporting. As such, journalists inform about characteristics and consequences of a crisis, but they do not provide enough analysis to reconsider disaster management policies, or to anticipate further implications of a disaster (Miller & Goidel, 2009).
The use of official sources in disaster coverage is yet to be determined. Some studies indicate journalists rely heavily on official sources to obtain information about the disaster (Quarantelli, 1981), while other research found journalists are more open to include unofficial sources in times of crisis allowing ordinary people to express their problems and frustrations (Andsager & Powers, 1999; Pantti & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2011; Shehata, 2010). During the Mumbai attacks in 2008, mainstream media sought material from social media, with journalists monitoring social media to share eyewitness accounts of the events (Bélair-Gagnon, 2013).
Existing literature differentiates between institutionally driven news and event-driven news. Institutionally driven news “is cued by official activities in official arenas. It is pegged to institutional news beats, official actors, and institutionally defined decision points” (Lawrence, 2000, p. 8). Conversely, event-driven news requires journalists to report beyond the boundaries of official information, offering the opportunity for unofficial sources to voice their concerns in the news media (Shehata, 2010). Reporters have a higher need to distance themselves from dominant voices when political elites initiate the stories.
The earthquake occurring in Chile during April 2014 presents an interesting case of event-driven news with an intense flow of institutionally driven information. While earthquakes belong to the domain of event-driven news—stories triggered by accidents or disruptive and uncontrolled events (Wolfsfeld & Sheafer, 2006)—the Chilean government pursued a careful public relations campaign when delivering details about the 2014 earthquake. President Bachelet did not release any information herself until several hours after the earthquake, once her team confirmed the risk of tsunami and had a clear number of casualties (La Segunda, 2014). Although neither the president nor her ministers referred to the 2010 earthquake in their press releases, the media heavily emphasized the differences between the two disasters in terms of the government’s performance. Consistent with previous research on disaster coverage, Chilean media stepped outside their role of objective observer and assumed a role as judge of those in authority (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007).
The role of the media during catastrophic events is to communicate warnings, provide a description of the situation, keep the public informed after the event, and contribute to individual and community recovery and resilience (Norris et al. 2008; Quarantelli, 1991; Scanlon, 2007). The current news media landscape in Chile, however, does not always allow for a fair coverage of these events. El Mercurio S.A.P and Copesa S.A. are the most important news companies in Chile—90% of newspaper ownership for the entire country is concentrated in these two groups (Rao, 2012). As both companies are said to promote the ideas of the Chilean right wing, the lack of ideological diversity in the Chilean print press is worrisome, to say the least. According to a survey of journalists in Chile, reporters complain about pressures from advertisers and media owners: at least 45% of respondents have been asked to cover a story just because it was related to an outlet owner, board executive, or advertiser (UAH, 2013). Understanding the Chilean media ecosystem requires knowing Chile’s recent political history. The following section briefly describes the changes introduced by Augusto Pinochet in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973-1990).
Chile’s Political and Media Context
In 1970, Salvador Allende became the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president (BBC, 2018). By 1973, the country was deeply polarized between those who supported Allende’s radical social reforms, and those who did not agree with a socialist government. On September 11, 1973, a military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government and started a military dictatorship that “imposed a curfew, abolished Congress, and closed or took over schools and media institutions. They banned political parties, labor unions, and other social organizations” (Sorensen, 2011, p. 401). The military regime lasted 17 years and killed, tortured and/or imprisoned more than 40,000 people (The Associated Press, 2011).
Pinochet’s military regime significantly affected the Chilean media landscape. Left-wing media were persecuted during the dictatorship, and the press was unable to report on arrests, disappearances, killings and torture. According to Reporters Without Borders (2006), 68 media personnel—including editors, reporters, photographers, cameramen, and printing press workers—were killed or disappeared between 1973 and 1986 for being activists or producing stories against the regime. Consequently, opposition press experienced notable difficulties to survive as compared to those sympathetic with the regime.
Nowadays, “virtually all media has been owned by only a few different individuals and families who were staunch supporters of the Pinochet regime” (Sorensen, 2011, p. 406).
One of the stronger supporters of Pinochet’s dictatorship was conservative newspaper El Mercurio, the flagship paper of the news media company El Mercurio S.A.P. Its owner, Agustín Edwards, collaborated with the CIA to destabilize Salvador Allende’s socialist government in the early ‘70s and supported the military coup in 1973 (González, 2000; Herrero, 2014). Once Pinochet took power, El Mercurio openly supported the military regime, and its journalists worked with Pinochet’s secret police force by fabricating stories to explain the deaths and disappearances of political prisoners (Sorensen, 2011).
The media company Consorcio Periodístico S.A. (Copesa S.A.) highly benefited from Pinochet’s economic reforms. Also associated with Chile’s political right (Gronemeyer & Porath, 2015), Copesa S.A. was rescued by the military dictatorship when it experienced financial issues after the economic crisis in 1982. It was then acquired by a business group emerging during Pinochet’s regime (Mönckeberg, 2009), and nowadays it belongs to businessman Álvaro Saieh, who was also part of Pinochet’s group of neoliberal economists (Navia & Osorio, 2015).
The national newspaper La Nación is located on a different corner. It used to be state-owned and funded through a mix of state subsidy and commercial advertising. As a government-owned newspaper, “its editorial line was subject to change whenever a new president from a different political party was in office” (Sorensen, 2011, p. 410). Consequently, La Nación was seen as a left-wing source between 1990 and 2010, when the center-left coalition Concertación1 ruled the country until President Sebastián Piñera took office. In 2010, Piñera decided to remove all funding for the print version of the newspaper, and La Nación became an online-only outlet (Sorensen, 2011). In 2013, the newspaper was sold to a private company, Comunicaciones Lanet S.A, which has slowly reduced the staff and the scope of the outlet (journalist from La Nación, personal communication, April 10, 2017).
Today, El Mercurio S.A.P and Copesa S.A. are the largest, most important news companies in Chile (Rao, 2012). The former owns two national dailies, an evening newspaper in Santiago, and at least 20 regional/local newspapers throughout the country (Mellado, 2012), while the latter owns two national dailies, two free morning and evening editions in Santiago, a local newspaper in southern Chile, and three weekly magazines (Mazotte, 2014). The websites of EMOL (acronym for El Mercurio On Line) and La Tercera are among the most important online news sources in Chile (Newman et al., 2018). Pinochet’s neo-liberal policies led to an irrevocable entrenchment of a private, transnational, market-based hegemony in communications and media that harms smaller or alternative outlets, which are increasingly weakened because advertising income is increasingly diverted to mainstream, dominant outlets (Godoy & Gronemeyer, 2012). For a media system to achieve structural pluralism, a variety of media with different owners is re quired to reflect different viewpoints, acknowledge diverse cultural representations, and offer mutual interaction possibilities (Gronemeyer & Porath, 2015; Klimkiewicz, 2010). However, “Chile continues to suffer from corruption of the military dictatorship, and the concentration of media ownership limits the democratic debate” (Reporters Without Borders, 2017, para.1).
In this context, how did Chilean political reporters cover a highly politicized event such as the 2014 disaster? Did their editors tell them how to address the stories? Did journalists feel any pressures from their beats? According to Shoemaker and Reese (2014), journalists face several constraints when writing the news. Such constraints come from five levels of influence: social systems, social institutions, organizations, routines, and individuals. Were some levels more influential than others in the context of the 2014 earthquake? This study poses the following research questions:
RQ1. How did political journalists from EMOL, La Tercera and La Nación determine the main angle of the 2014 disaster news coverage?
RQ2. To what extent did political journalists from EMOL, La Tercera and La Nación rely on official sources when covering the 2014 disaster?
RQ3. To what extent did political journalists from EMOL, La Tercera and La Nación rely on unofficial sources when covering the 2014 disaster?
Interviews are an “inter-change of views between two persons conversing about a theme of mutual interest” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 2). For this study, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a set of prepared questions allowing additional questions for verification, accuracy and clarity (Kvale, 1996; Taylor & Bogdan, 1998).
Seven journalists were interviewed in the spring of 2017—two from EMOL, three from La Tercera.com, and two from La Nación.cl. EMOL is the top news website in Chile, while La Tercera.com is in the top six (Newman et al., 2018). As explained above, both EMOL and La Tercera are outlets linked to the Chilean right wing. La Nación (linked to the left-wing at the time of the disaster) does not rank among the top 10 online news sources in the country, but it was included in the analysis to provide ideological diversity to the sample. From April 1 (the night of the earthquake) to April 30, 2014, the three news outlets published a total of 483 online stories: EMOL published 187, La Tercera 196, and La Nación 100 stories (Saldaña, 2018).
Reporters were selected based on the stories they wrote as well as their willingness to participate. Some stories that were written did not include the name of the reporter who wrote it, and others were written by reporters who did not travel to the north and instead covered the disaster from Santiago. About half of the stories were written by political reporters (who usually did not cover natural disasters) and just a few of those reporters traveled to Iquique to follow the president and cover the crisis in situ. From that group, 15 reporters were contacted by email to participate in this study. Ten of them answered, and seven accepted to participate in a Skype interview.
Calls were recorded using MP3 Skype Recorder, a free software for private, non-commercial use. Interviews lasted between 45 to 60 minutes and were conducted in Spanish. Journalists were asked how they went about writing earthquake-related stories, how they selected their sources, and how they determined the main angle of the narrative. They were also asked about their relationship with official sources and online audiences. All interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed following the constant comparative method (Tracy, 2013). The interview quotes selected to illustrate this study’s findings were translated from Spanish to English using back-translation procedures to meet the requirements set forth by the University of Texas at Austin Institutional Review Board (IRB) Policies and Procedures (Institutional Review Board Number 2016-04-0085).
Interview subjects constituted a convenience or “purposive” sample of journalists who covered the 2014 earthquake. Purposive samples are selected to fulfill a certain purpose and are not representative of the entire population (Tracy, 2013). A convenience sample was justified as the goal of this study was not aimed to generalize findings to the entire population of Chilean journalists nor to explain how journalists make news-content decision on their daily work. The overarching intention was to achieve a better understanding of how reporters covered a highly politicized natural disaster in Chile.
Main Angle of the Coverage
RQ1 asked how political journalists from EMOL, La Tercera and La Nación determined the main angle of the 2014 disaster coverage. As described above, the human-interest angle, one of the most prominent angles in disaster news coverage (Houston et al., 2012; Wenger, James, & Faupel, 1980; Yang, 2012), was not the main focus of the reports. Instead, writing about the 2014 earthquake and tsunami was a political decision where the goal was to track President Bachelet’s actions in 2014 and remind readers of the decisions she made in 2010.
The coverage of the 2014 earthquake had a strong political angle. The President had just started her second term, and the 27/F disaster was still foremost on everyone’s minds. Knowing how Michelle Bachelet would react to this new crisis became extremely important. I remember being in La Moneda2 very late at night with my editor telling me I had to get on board the presidential aircraft, even if it meant I had to dress up as a flight attendant … I had to get to Iquique and see how she [the President] would act there. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, April 7, 2017, author’s translation)
Journalists attribute the political emphasis of the coverage to the unique circumstances of the event—having the same president dealing with two comparable natural disasters in two different terms:
This happened when she started her second presidency, and the whole campaign of the runner-up candidate [right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei] was about Bachelet’s role in 27/F, blaming her for all those people who died in the 2010 tsunami. Maybe now it is not a hot topic, but in 2014 it was still relevant for the public opinion. It was seen as Michelle Bachelet’s biggest problem. And then, right after she took office, another earthquake occurred. The natural, most obvious editorial decision was to cover the disaster from a political perspective. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, April 7, 2017, author’s translation).
I remember that everyone was talking about that—the lessons learned from 2010, the government doing a much better job in 2014, a much faster first response to the disaster in the north. There was better organization to distribute food and supplies. I saw the government concerned about their public image, trying not to repeat the mistakes from 2010. (Journalist from EMOL, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
Journalists from La Tercera mentioned two reasons to bring the 2010 disaster to the readers’ attention. First, the paper favors thematic analysis over episodic coverage as much as possible, going beyond the mere description of current events:
La Tercera is always providing context, doing comparative analysis, using infographics. That is a way to distance itself from El Mercurio. The editor is constantly expecting you to get information El Mercurio doesn’t have. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
Second, reporters indicated the right-wing orientation of the paper plays a significant role when it comes to President Bachelet. Considering Michelle Bachelet is a leader from the center-left coalition that ruled the country between 1990 until 2010, and then again during her 2014-2018 term, La Tercera might be particularly severe in its watchdog role:
La Tercera has made its goal to expose President Bachelet. We did a lot of comparative analysis during the 2014 disaster, but behind such analysis was the intention of exposing the President. The paper likes seeing Bachelet weak. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
Reliance on Official Sources
RQ2 inquired about the extent to which political journalists relied on official sources when covering the 2014 disaster. According to the literature, journalists rely heavily on official actors for the construction of news (Cook, 2005), while political elites are constantly bringing news material to the attention of media organizations (Hänggli & Kriesi, 2012). This inter-dependency “creates a well-organized symbiotic relationship between reporters and official sources” (Lawrence, 2000, p. 5), who rely on each other to communicate ideas to the public.
Journalists, however, are far from simply repeating information provided by institutional voices. Despite their reliance on official sources to report about political events, journalists also shape these events (Entman, 1991). Journalists reframe political information as a way to maintain their gatekeeping power (Pander Maat & de Jong, 2013), and to demonstrate independence and objectivity (Shehata, 2010). The more politicians attempt to influence what journalists report, the more journalists will report on aspects other than those intended by the politicians. This is what Zaller (1998) calls the rule of product substitution—by using official information as a baseline, journalists highlight angles not mentioned by political elites, and include alternative sources, in order to take distance from official information. “If journalists allowed themselves to become a mere transmission belt for the communication of politicians … their professional standing would erode” (Zaller, 1998, p. 114).
Findings from this study, however, reveal a problematic relationship between journalists and their sources. On the one hand, journalists rely on official press releases as little as possible—they see these documents as “the tip of the iceberg”—and they try to find out what information was left out of the release.
As a journalist, you can’t stick to the official account. The starting point is distrust—you must be suspicious. Press releases only show what’s convenient for the government. But what’s beyond that? (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
But on the other hand, reporters interviewed for this study complained about a quid-pro-quo system, where they had to follow political figures’ requests to get an interview or to obtain exclusive information.
Sometimes they [political sources] need you to write something about them and you do it even if it’s not newsworthy, because you need to keep your relationship with them. I wouldn’t say it’s unethical, but it’s certainly an “I’ll give you this if you give me that” kind of relationship. (Journalist from La Nación, personal communication, April 10, 2017, author’s translation)
In some cases, not doing what sources request might have consequences for journalists and their work.
I once wrote a story about the Minister for Foreign Affairs and he didn’t like it, so he stopped taking my calls and even speaking to me. My editor had to talk with him on my behalf. So, you have this power to inform the public and strengthen democracy, but at the same time you have to respond to political pressures. It’s like they [political sources] think we are at their service. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
This situation is even more difficult for smaller outlets. As mentioned earlier, El Mercurio S.A.P. and Copesa S.A. are the most important news companies in Chile. Newspapers such as La Nación, which do not belong to the main outlets and do not have enough resources to compete with them, are unable to attract the elites’ attention.
For political authorities, the most important media are TV stations, some radios, and papers like El Mercurio and La Tercera. We are never considered for official events, we don’t get invited to official trips, and we certainly did not travel with the president to cover the earthquake consequences in the north. (Journalist from La Nación, personal communication, April 10, 2017, author’s translation)
Reliance on Unofficial Sources
RQ3 asked about the extent to which political journalists relied on unofficial sources when covering the 2014 disaster. The interviews suggest reporters did not rely on unofficial voices when writing earthquake-related stories.
News coverage changes as events evolve over time. There are three stages in the news-making process: news discovery, news gathering, and news writing (Pander Maat & de Jong, 2013). Although political elites may be the main source of information in the news discovery phase, journalists are the ones deciding how to expand the story. This includes citing different sources, developing alternative angles and having the final say over how stories are portrayed (Strömbäck & Nord, 2006). Consequently, there is a higher chance of product substitution (Zaller, 1998) during later stages of the news production. Immediately after the earthquake, news stories might have followed the official information, but as the hours passed, journalists might have brought new information and context to understand disaster implications.
Interviews reveal that was not the case, and official sources dominated the news coverage. The political angle they took was crucial to define who was an authoritative voice to speak about the earthquake. As such, in later stages of the coverage, they turned to social media to find out what people were saying about the disaster—“a system of awareness,” in Hermida’s terms (2010)—but they did not open the gate for unofficial voices to enter the discussion. As shown by previous research, new platforms tend to be normalized to perform the same old routines (Lasorsa, Lewis, & Holton, 2012; Singer, 2005).
I checked Twitter but mostly to see if any political figure or government authority said something about the earthquake. I remember a time when a minister tweeted his opinions about the Communist Party, so I called him to get an interview, or to get at least the same thing he said on Twitter, but on record. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, April 7, 2017, author’s translation)
Social media is a very democratic space where everyone can comment, and I love that. But I also think a lot of readers are poorly informed, and that makes them irresponsible commenters, even dangerous commenters. I do not use social media or news comments to write my stories. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 28, 2017, author’s translation)
The only news comments I care about are my sources’ comments. If they see something wrong in my story, I fix it, at least in the online version of it. I take information from news comments depending on who the commenter is. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
This last opinion suggests sources are more important than audiences for political journalists. And the interviews confirm that. Two reporters discussed this issue and indicated their sources are their actual audience:
The usual news reader is not my reader. Political analysts, political elites, political journalists—they read my stories. Maybe those readers interested in politics do so as well, but those are just a few. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, March 31, 2017, author’s translation)
I think elite newspapers don’t write for common people. They write for the government and politicians in general. TV is for common people—TV simplifies what newspapers write about. (Journalist from La Tercera, personal communication, April 7, 2017, author’s translation)
This study interviewed political journalists from three Chilean online newspapers to learn how they covered the 2014 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northern Chile. Chilean journalism has been accused of excessive sensationalism and melodrama (Mujica & Bachmann, 2015), especially in times of disasters. A study conducted by the National Television Council found the coverage of the 2010 disaster in southern Chile proved harmful to the audience as the excessive repetition of devastating images shown in the media caused anxiety and emotional saturation in much of the public (CNTV, 2010). Instead of providing information for a better understanding of the catastrophe, stories mostly focused on the pain of the victims, triggering worry and excessive sadness in the audience, and engraving images of destruction, suffering and looting in the viewers’ memories (Puente et al., 2013).
Coverage of the 2014 disaster, in contrast, focused on the political aspects of the event. Though this emphasis could be seen as a more serious, mature approach to disaster news coverage, findings from this study suggest the political angle had more to do with the Chilean media ideology and less with a definitive departure from sensationalistic practices. As observed from the analysis of the interviews, the media coverage regarding the 2014 disaster was highly permeated and influenced by the 2010 narrative. As President Bachelet and her team were strongly criticized for their poor management skills when facing the 2010 disaster, the blame that right-wing media organizations attributed to her government in 2010 persisted in 2014. Whether the media portrayal would have been different had the disaster occurred under a different government—not the same that faced the tsunami and earthquake in 2010—is a question that remains unanswered.
Contrary to what other studies have found regarding unofficial sources in disaster coverage (Andsager & Powers, 1999; Pantti & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2011; Shehata, 2010), stories reporting on the 2014 disaster relied heavily on official sources. The findings suggest that reporters focused on the political angles over human interest angles due to editorial prompting. The reliance on official sources is a burden on journalists, especially when their sources exchange information for media exposure. The nature of political reporting does not allow for unofficial sources to be quoted, and journalists are so immersed in the political ecosystem, that they do not even consider sources other than the members of the establishment. The fact they do not see news audiences as “their” audiences and write stories to be read by political figures and other journalists, reveals how profoundly symbiotic the journalist-source relationship is.
After 29 years of democracy, Chilean journalists no longer face political persecutions or official censorship. Yet, the strong concentration of media ownership is still a barrier to achieving a completely free press. Results from this study indicate that most of the influences journalists faced when covering the 2014 disaster came from the news organization itself, the third level of influence in Shoemaker and Reese’s model (2014). Chilean reporters are restricted by market dynamics that privilege a commercial, for-profit model with little room for in-depth, investigative pieces. Even more concerning is the recognition of the ideological motivations from editorial management that journalists revealed in their interviews. Although this study found journalists used a thematic approach to cover a disaster, findings indicate political motives led journalists to change the focus from episodic to thematic. As such, influences coming from the organizational level were even more important than journalistic work routines.
There are high levels of social media news use and political activism in Chile but decreasing levels of confidence in journalism and traditional news media outlets (Navia & Ulriksen, 2017). In this context, social media and news comments are a venue to contest the narratives of mainstream public spheres such as the media or political elites—what Toepfl and Piwoni (2015) call counterpublic spheres. Despite the high levels of social media penetration in the country, Chilean journalists do not turn to social media to look for alternative sources. In fact, they often look at users of social media as non-educated and non-elite audiences that are often ignored. Findings show Chilean political reporters use these platforms as another way to get close to the sources they already know. In other words, they normalize social media to perform their day-to-day work (Lasorsa et al., 2012; Singer, 2005).
This study is not without limitations. Although responses from the seven reporters who participated in this project showed consistency, the number of interviews is rather small. Similarly, interviews were conducted three years after the disaster occurred, so perception and memory issues must be considered. Yet, in-depth interviews were the most suitable method to achieve the goals of this study. Any other technique (such as surveys) would have encountered the same problems—subjects not willing to participate, limited recall after three years, etc. The interviews presented in this study provide a rich understanding of journalistic work routines from the reporters’ own perspective.
Chile is a country with a fairly stable democracy (Carlin, Love, & Zechmeister, 2014) and high levels of online news consumption—89% of Chilean news consumers get their news from digital/social media (Newman et al., 2018). It is also a place where disasters are “normalized” (Correa et al., 2016) and as such, people’s perceptions of natural catastrophes are likely to be affected by factors other than the disaster itself. This ensemble makes Chile an ideal case study to expand scholarship on political implications of disaster news coverage in online news settings.
1 “Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia” is the name for the coalition of center-left political parties that governed in Chile from 1990 to 2010.
2 La Moneda Palace is the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile.
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Magdalena Saldaña is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and a junior researcher at the Millennium Institute for Foundational Research on Data (IMFD). She has published articles in several peer-reviewed journals as well as book chapters, and her work has been recognized by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR). Her current work observes how journalists in Latin America negotiate the tensions between journalistic values, political pressures, and media ownership. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Master’s degree in Social Research, both from Universidad de Concepción (Chile), and a PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Texas at Austin (USA).