Guest Editors’ Note: Digital media and democracy in the Americas: Renewing a journalism of accountability for extraordinary times

By Eugenia Mitchelstein, associate professor and director of
the communication degree, University of San Andrés, Argentina
Pablo J. Boczkowski, professor, Department of Communication
Studies, Northwestern University

Along with setting the social and political agenda and representing a wide range of public opinions, one of the most important roles of the news media in democratic regimes (Waisbord, 2010) is to hold the powerful, in particular government officials, accountable for their actions (Hughes, 2006; Iyengar and McGrady, 2007; Peruzotti & Smulovitz, 2006; Porto, 2012). Accountability refers to the ability of voters to “discern whether governments are acting in their interest, and sanction them appropriately” (Manin, Przeworski & Stokes, 1999, p. 40). Journalism is an essential actor in the modern process of accountability, conveying to the citizenry information about government decisions and actions that are not always directly available to the public.

In Latin America, print journalists’ role as watchdogs has been an essential component of the process of democratization that unfolded during the last two decades of the twentieth century (Alves, 2005; Waisbord, 2000). Scholarship shows that, as democracies became more stable, and the news industry was hit by dwindling advertising revenues and subscription numbers, watchdog journalism—which tends to be resource-intensive suffered greatly (Brito, 2003; Gill, 2006; Waisbord, 2009). The diminished importance of watchdog journalism in online news outlets might explain the relative scarcity of studies on the intersection of digital journalism and accountability. However, the three papers included in this special issue on “Digital Media and Democracy in the Americas” for #ISOJ, the official journal of the International Symposium on Online Journalism, examine different instances of journalists holding the government accountable during exceptional circumstances, such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup in soccer-loving Uruguay, natural disasters in Chile, and limits to press freedom in Cuba.

Matías Dodel and his colleagues compare Uruguayan media coverage of the annual revisions of that country’s budget bill in 2017 and 2018. They do so through data mining of the three main online news sites in Uruguay. Their account reveals a significant decrease in daily reporting about this crucial instance of accountability during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, in which Uruguay reached the quarterfinals. They find that during the tournament, in a country whose national identity is intimately related to soccer, digital news sites devoted less space to reporting government actions. Rather than following traditional occupational norms of reporting heavily about public affairs events (Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2013), these three media sites focused on presumed audience demand for soccer-related items. Thus, the authors conclude that Uruguayan institutions should “consider the externalities of conducting critical democratic debates during sporting mega-events.”

Magdalena Saldaña also examines online news coverage of government actions during an extraordinary event: the major earthquake that hit Chile in 2014. Interviews with journalists working for three news sites indicate that they concentrated on the political consequences of this natural disaster and tended to scrutinize President Michelle Bachelet’s actions, despite the fact that there were very few casualties and government management of the crisis was competent. Moreover, her analysis shows that journalists chose to ignore traditional human-interest stories. In addition, “despite the high levels of social media penetration in the country, Chilean journalists do not turn to social media to look for alternative sources” or accounts of the earthquake, and instead used social media to contact official sources they already knew. The focus on the president reflected both reliance on institutional sources, and the right-wing media organizations’ willingness to expose center-left Bachelet. Thus, Saldaña concludes that, although Chilean journalists worked to hold the president accountable for her actions, they did so pressured by the market orientation and ideological stance of their employers.

The national political culture also influenced the accountability practices undertaken by the 35 young journalists in Cuba interviewed by Shearon Roberts. On traditional state-run print platforms, reporters practiced limited and relatively tolerated modes of critical constructive public discourse. However, novel digital platforms provided a space for journalists to exercise investigative reporting and communicate their findings to a wider audience. Roberts proposes that Cuban journalists used old (print) media and new (digital) platforms as a “two-pronged strategy” that allowed them to practice “real” journalism that included truth-telling in an authoritarian country that lacks freedom of the press. Rather than acting as passive intermediaries for government-approved discourse, Cuban Digital media and democracy in the Americas: Renewing a journalism of accountability for extraordinary times journalists circumvented institutional constraints, which, as Shearon argues, “is in itself a form of agency within the confines of tolerated discourse by the state.”

The three cases examined hail from very different countries: Chile and Uruguay are established democracies (Polity IV, 2011) with freedom of the press (Freedom House, 2018), while Cuba is an autocracy where all the leading independent news sites “have effectively been blocked or threatened to be blocked by the state in the last five years,” as Roberts makes it clear in her piece. However, all the authors included in this special issue highlight that government censorship is not the only possible limitation to the press. In Uruguay, market pressures and presumed interests of the audience may have contributed to decrease journalistic oversight of government actions. In Chile, past dictatorial government actions, such as persecuting left-wing journalists and granting business advantages to families and corporations running right-wing media outlets, resulted in a highly concentrated media landscape in which reporters are pressured to follow a commercial model of journalism that fits with their employers’ ideological outlook.

These reportorial practices, as Barbie Zelizer insightfully reminds us in her postscript, contrast with somewhat insular Anglo-American ideals of journalism, and serve to highlight the non-reciprocal relationship between news and democracy:

While one might argue that journalism has been historically necessary for democracy, the opposite assertion does not hold to the same degree. In fact, circumstances show that democracy has not been necessary for journalism, and the idea that democracy is the lifeline of journalism has not been supported on the ground. (Zelizer, 2013, p. 465)

Apart from underscoring the limitations of taking for granted one model of journalism and democracy to conduct research in various contexts, the papers published in this special issue present two very fruitful streams for both scholarship and activism—what Zelizer, in her contribution to this issue, aptly sums up as “the fundamental question of how to resist.”

First, these papers illuminate the fraught relationship between news and democracy, at a time in which skepticism towards media and information is increasing in many corners of the world. For instance, only 21% of Americans said they trust the news media “a lot” in 2018, and 68% of them believed that news media tend to favor one side of the ideological spectrum when presenting social and political issues (Gottfried, Stocking & Grieco, 2018). In a similar survey, only 32% of respondents in the United Kingdom said they trusted the news media (Mitchell, et al., 2018). These low levels of trust in the news media in the “so called foundational democracies” might be influenced by what Zelizer terms “U.S. and U.K. journalism’s crippled responses to Brexit and the ascent of Trump.” Growing distrust in journalism can also be understood as part and parcel of what one of us has called a “post-institutional era,” in which “the power of institutions is in decline and that of social movements is on the rise,” thus leading to the weakening of “the cultural infrastructure of how the media has made knowledge” (Boczkowski, 2018a, para. 6). The cases presented in this issue, from countries in which the news media have not always been considered fair and unbiased sources of information, either due to authoritarian pressures or to corporate interests interfering with the news production process, might work as a projection of the future of journalism in institutionalized democracies. Most importantly, actions taken by journalists to resist these pressures might also signal a way forward for reporters dealing with authoritarian tendencies in the societies and governments they cover.

Second, these accounts provide a window into how digital journalism, in particular, might renew modalities and sources of information availability that reach both journalists and their audiences. Blogs in Cuba allow young journalists to publish news beyond the scope of what is officially sanctioned for print and audiovisual media. In turn, their work in these unofficial outlets enriches their reporting on state-run outlets. However, increased availability of information does not necessarily lead to broader news coverage. In Uruguay, the budget revision in Parliament received comparatively less journalistic attention during the 2018 FIFA World Cup than during the previous year. This was not due to lack of information, but to the dominant focus of leading news outlets on soccer rather than on government actions. In Chile, the myriad of accounts of the 2014 earthquake on social media barely registered on news sites, which continued its routine of using only official sources in their articles. Digital technology proved to be more disruptive for journalists working in an authoritarian regime, than for reporters in democratic countries—who labor with fewer overt constraints and greater reliability of broadband access. News producers facing pressures from either governments, corporations or other collective actors would do well to use whatever technological tools they have at their disposal to resist these pressures and tell the stories that need to be told.

Methodologically, digital media enabled big data analysis in the paper authored by Dodel and his collaborators, helping them compare all the news articles published during the budget revision in two different years, rather than either a sample or the top placed articles. However, Saldaña’s and Shearon’s decision to conduct interviews with journalists highlight the value of small sample qualitative approaches to understand reporters’ opinions and motivations. Just as online news reporters take advantage of different media to source and publish their work, the best digital media scholarship is conducted by integrating and combining different methodologies to further our understanding of the production and consumption of online news and its potential contribution to society.

The three papers call attention to the disconnect between the mainstream of communication scholarship and the actual conditions in which journalism is practiced in many parts of the world. This relates to the frequent difficulty of this scholarship to identify both authoritarian practices even within democratic regimes, and the acts of resistance against government, corporate, and social pressure. If the advanced economies of the West have anything to learn from the rest, the studies published in this volume indicate that risk is not only clear-cut authoritarianism, but also authoritarian practices present even in within the central institutions of a democratic polity. Rather than waiting for fully fledged autocracies to appear where democratic life was once celebrated, scholars and journalists alike should be on the lookout to “arrest the creep of authoritarianism,” as Zelizer proposes in her postscript to this special issue. Pressures and constraints on the media, whether external or self-inflicted, are not exclusively a matter of authoritarian governments. If autocracies routinely censor the press, journalists in each democratic country face their own set of obstacles to speak truth to power and relay that information to their audiences. While, according to Shearon’s work, Cuban journalists face censorship on a daily basis, Saldaña finds that corporate pressures and reportorial practices are hampering news work in Chile, and Dodel and his colleagues suggest that popular passions, such as soccer, might also negatively affect journalistic practices in Uruguay. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy’s (2002) famous dictum at the beginning of Anna Karenina, dictatorships are all alike, they all control journalists; every democracy limits reportorial work in its own way.

How should journalism resist authoritarian creep? What role should reporters play in modern liberal societies? How to integrate the institutional practices traditionally undertaken by journalists with the growing influence of movements and the concomitant distrust of institutions, including those that are the backbone of liberal democracy?

Journalism is still one of the most powerful tools to convey not only institutional rationality and practices but also emotions. Rorty proposes that the main role of journalists is to put suffering into language “to help us become less cruel” (1989, p. 141), that is, to make us more accountable to ourselves and to foster solidarity. Thus, journalists should become storytellers on behalf of those who suffer injustice or cruelty. Examples of journalists following and nurturing the liberal traditions can be found in Upton Sinclair’s account of immigrant workers in the Chicago slaughterhouses, and also in the Life magazine photo journalists who “filled the pages of Life magazine with pictures of the National Guard beating up striking United Automobile Workers” (Rorty, 1999, p. 54). As Ettema and Glasser argue:

Listening to lots of different people is essential for Rorty because that is all that we really can do to build a life together. There are no philosophical foundations — no insight into what is eternally true and no consensus on what is universally human that can secure freedom and justice. There can only be an enlarged and strengthened sense of human solidarity that emerges as we listen to lots of different people tell their stories. (1994, p. 6)

Although Rorty’s work was written well before the current crises of institutions, journalism, and expertise, his acknowledgement of the power of human voices and emotions acquire even greater urgency at this particular juncture in which nationalistic, xenophobic, and tribal impulses, fear of economic downturns, and lack of trust in institutions threaten the foundations of democracy in many parts of the world. The combination of the financial crisis in journalism with the political crisis of representative democracies in countries as disparate as France and Brazil highlight the importance of bringing as many the voices as possible to the table. Citizens all over the world increasingly live their lives not with communication devices but within digital environments (Boczkowski, 2018b). In a context in which the physical, social, and media realities seamlessly integrate, “emotion is becoming a much more important dynamic in how news is produced and consumed” (Deuze & Becket, 2016, p. 2). Therefore, opening “spaces in the news for voices representing the interests and concerns of a greater variety of groups increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional institutions of society” and shifting “from rationalizing to legitimating emotion” (Boczkowski, 2018a, para. 14) would work to strengthen both journalism and democratic cohabitation. The constraints faced by Chilean journalists to incorporate unofficial, human-interest, sources in their coverage of the earthquake; the relative success of Cuban reporters to convey transformations in Cuba through the voices of the new generation of trovadores; and the power of soccer as the origin of Uruguayan national identity highlight the importance of a digital journalism that takes advantage of the possibility to gather, analyze, and combine a plurality of voices and opinions to keep governments and societies accountable by telling the stories that deserve to be told.

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