Invited Commentary: Whose journalism matters and for whom?

By Barbie Zelizer, Ph.D. Raymond Williams Professor of Communication Director, Center for Media at Risk University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication


The untold aspects of journalism’s Anglo-American imaginary are too numerous to be counted. Worse yet, they permeate all kinds of values, beliefs and practices that com-prise an unachievable ideal of what journalism is supposed to be. As I argued not long ago, an imaginary ill-suited for addressing current times runs rampant in the study of journalism, made recently visible by U.S. and U.K. journalism’s crippled responses to Brexit and the ascent of Trump (Zelizer, 2018). This pristine version of journalism, shaped by a largely unmarked U.S. and British context, drives a misunderstanding of what journalism looks like in multiple parts of the world.

Attending to particulars is especially critical at this point in time, as observers are increasingly recognizing that the West needs to follow the rest. With some of the most settled and presumably stable democracies currently undergoing political intimidation, threat and diminution, it has become clear that the media are emerging as one of the most critical junctures for arresting the creep of authoritarianism. But the fundamental question of how to resist—how media practitioners can secure and maintain an independent and critical presence while accommodating the unkempt and challenging backdrop of authoritarianism—is largely unresolved. How media practitioners imagine their role under increasingly autocratic conditions, how they contemplate acts of resistance and how they act in a way that allows them to accommodate necessarily modified occupational and professional ideals still remain up for grabs.

A slew of explanatory factors helps clarify why push-back is so difficult to come by on the part of institutional actors in so-called established democracies. They range from a deep-seated shared reliance on implicit values and an institutional culture that drives certain ways of thinking and acting to explicit acts of looking the other way, such as the disregard that greets impunity, collusion, corruption, power-sharing and secrecy. Because muzzling or otherwise constraining journalists has long been part of the political playbook in both autocratic and democratic regimes, it is curious that scholarly thinking about mechanisms of resistance among media practitioners has not been more fully or assertively developed.

This takes on urgency when we recognize that authoritarianism emerges by linking itself, often unseen, to the underside of flailing and troubled democratic systems. Democratic-looking institutions are prime weapons if not window-dressing in the hands of authoritarian regimes (Gandhi, 2008). By not fostering a repertoire of acts that lay the ground for media push-back to intimidation when needed, the ideal vision of journalistic performance, even in the so-called foundational democracies of the United States and the United Kingdom, remains sorely ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable acts of political threat that accompany authoritarian creep.

To be fair, authoritarianism has not been well understood across the board. Winston Churchill was famously quoted congratulating Mussolini in 1927 for succeeding in his “triumphant struggle” against Leninism, unaware of what was to follow. Political theorists have long focused on democratization as the premiere political impulse—where, as Art noted, “democratization was pretty much the only game in town” and authoritarian regimes were “theoretically interesting insofar as they told us something important about their democratic successors” (2012, p. 351). The focus on democracy as a sure-fire corrective to authoritarianism has led observers three separate times to erroneously pronounce the global demise of autocratic rule: in the early interwar years of the 1920s, in the post-World War II period and in the so-called “end” of the Cold War (Motadel, 2016). Theorists of authoritarianism have tended to conceptualize the phenomenon either as a characteristic of government or of personality, without finding a place for the times, spaces and activities associated with the incremental transformation from democratic to autocratic—democratic backsliding, illiberalism or the other mechanisms by which democracies dwindle.

Even the popular image of authoritarianism has gone wanting. As Pepinsky noted in addressing the naivete with which most U.S. citizens regard authoritarian impulses:

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. (2017, para. 4)

Multiple blinkers thereby continue to obscure authoritarianism’s fuller recognition, especially in its incremental states. Without the model of a Gestapo, KGB or Stasi, how much do we know about what platforms of coercion look like? And without current examples of successful and transformative organized resistance and solidarity, how much do we understand about potential avenues of push-back?

This has real bearing on how we understand institutional cultures writ large under the grip of autocratic rule, and it creates difficulties in imagining more fully the gradual shift from democratic to autocratic conditions. In Glasius’s words:

Without really understanding what authoritarianism or indeed illiberalism might look like in a democratic or transnational context, we are in the dark as to what the exact problem is, what the current trends are, and how those trends might relate to other recent tendencies such as populism, xenophobia and nativism… [There is need to] study (that is, define, operationalize, observe, classify, analyze) authoritarian and illiberal practices. (2018, p. 516, p. 527)

Authoritarianism, then, is at heart a complex phenomenon that emerges in varying though patterned ways. Combining a mix of impulses of nationalism, economic isolationalism, unity over pluralism and diversity, xenophobia and hostility toward outsiders, an apocalyptic view of the future, anti-institutionalism, anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, an unmediated link with the public and contempt for free and critical media, all embodied in a charismatic strongman figure, authoritarianism has become one of the most central political impulses of current times (Finchelstein, 2017). It latches onto troubled democratic regimes, introducing autocratic measures that wrest autonomy away from the public and the institutions professing to work on its behalf. More important, it exists in hybrid conditions in many places around the world, all of them in need of more sustained and critical attention.

All of this makes a special issue on Latin American journalism important. The papers in this issue drive home the point that an understanding of Latin American journalism needs to begin with a discussion of Latin American conditions. Such conditions include the nature of the political environment, the demeanor of media-government relations, the contours of journalistic entities, the mechanisms used to foment institutional change and, most important, the risks and mechanisms of resistance to risk that exist, are imagined and can be acted upon. Specifically, authoritarianism both lurks stealthily and operates openly across the Latin American institutional landscape, demonstrating, as Rockwell and Janus (2010) showed in their analysis of Central American media, that democratization does not necessarily ensure more media autonomy. Or as Fox and Waisbord (2002, p. xxi) noted, “media democratization remains a pending task in Latin America.” That makes Latin America supremely qualified to offer a map to the rest of the world, demonstrating not only that media democratization is neither as stable nor as complete as tends to be assumed but that there is much that needs to be better understood of what happens in its stead.

Though the topic of these papers varies, together they demonstrate the omnipresence of authoritarianism, across time and space, in a way that can be critically useful for understanding both tools of intimidation and mechanisms of resistance to political threat. Present either as a concurrent experience or indelible memory from the past, autocratic tendencies in three Latin countries—Uruguay, Cuba and Chile—provide an instructive set of examples for thinking about what media performance looks like in such contexts. It is worth noting, as I did earlier (Zelizer, 2013), that although journalism is necessary for democracy, democracy is not necessary for journalism. This makes an examination of the news-making apparatus a malleable instrument that easily traverses the divide between democratic and autocratic regimes. In that we are long overdue in providing as detailed an examination of journalism under autocratic governments as we have provided of journalism under democracies, it is high time that we attend to the latter. These papers call on us to do precisely that.

Each paper wrestles with the important question of how to put journalism in the service of democratic ideals, despite either the experience or memory of autocratic rule. With three oft-cited regional challenges of inequality, violence and the environment (Centeno & Lajous, 2018), journalism has a huge role to play in the region. What becomes clear from these papers is that past and present experience with autocratic rule both creates obstacles and drives ingenious and thoughtful mechanisms to resist its reappearance.

Each paper offers a different corrective to the quandary of a free and critical journalism in the face or memory of authoritarianism. Matías Dodel, Federico Comesaña and Daniel Blanc’s article on reverse agenda-setting raises the important question of how competing interests shape the news hole in Uruguay, particularly around the simultaneous scheduling of two key events—one legislative, one sports-related. Though competition between different agendas is a well-traveled topic in existing scholarship, Dodel and colleagues add the important point that agenda setting helps keep the government accountable, the trait that some theorists see as the dividing characteristic between democratic and autocratic regimes (ie., Glasius 2018). The authors demonstrate that by anticipating public fascination with the World Cup, journalism does the opposite, losing the chance to keep government accountable by preemptively shifting its coverage away from an important legislative story. Doing so, however, demonstrates a reversal of the agenda-setting process, presumed to flow only from media to public, and a recognition of journalism’s ready accommodation of presumed public fascination into the agenda-setting cycle, even when such fascination goes against more refined notions of public interest. Emphasizing a point not regularly embraced by existing literature, Dodel, Comesaña, and Blanc’s article thus sets the stage for thinking about how well-established theories about journalism need updating to fit regional circumstances that challenge their parameters.

Moreover, this discussion of reverse agenda setting—in and of itself a useful complication of existing scholarship—is important because it helps us understand some of the functions of journalism’s authoritarian backdrop in Latin America. First, the tenor of each competing event orients to different kinds of public engagement—the emotional and frenzied fandom associated with sports versus the rational deliberative investment associated with the news. Though neither response exists in as clear-cut or binary a form as we might imagine, those wishing to stifle the public agenda for hard news are given an opportunity to diminish it by exploiting the popularity of sports events, with the strong appeal of “Futbol” or soccer offering a useful setting for authoritarian regimes to wield their influence. Second, the unarticulated news judgment shown here—by which news organizations voluntarily switched on the sports event instead of the legislative one—is more widely experienced than just in Latin America. But it reminds us of the use-value in recognizing how often and how widely such acts of self-censorship occur. This reversal, then, of agenda setting has particular ramifications for Latin America that are surely present in the default U.S.-U.K. settings central to journalism’s study, and particularly so as those settings experience a shift toward more autocratic rule.

Shearon Roberts takes us to Cuba, where she addresses the degree to which resistance can be found among young Cuban media practitioners. Considering the fact that all of the 14 leading Cuban blog sites have been blocked or threatened with blocking by the state, she notes that Cuban journalists must necessarily develop work-around practices that shield them from surrounding political tensions.

While all such work-arounds are instructive in current times, Roberts focuses on a particular example: how young Cuban media practitioners use digital media to transform traditional media from the inside. Though Cuban journalists often sacrifice living inside the country for a chance to critically and independently tell its news outside, there exist many young Cubans who choose to work in legacy and often state-run media while facing the risks of censorship and other punitive measures.

How these journalists work provides a nuanced and instructive example of how to live with autocratic rule. By working “in between,” they mirror the discourse of the independent blogs from outside while knowingly hedging constraints of censorship and self-censorship. Their basic strategy—working through the voices and views of accept¬able outsiders—includes covering stories of resistance beyond Cuba, addressing the reemergence of politically-conscious trovadores and focusing on art forms engaged in soft political critique. At the same time, as we know from other geographic contexts (i.e., Han, 2016), the same young Cuban journalists also use digital platforms for voicing more strident critique of the government, either anonymously or via pseudonyms.

Significantly, Roberts’ example of what Lawson (2002) labeled “media opening” resembles similar earlier attempts in Haiti from 1968 onwards. Chronicling the similarity between the two cases, she discusses how Radio Haiti Inter engaged in educating for democracy while not directly addressing the lack of domestic freedom. This regional knowledge about how to resist authoritarianism is enormously generative, for it makes explicit a set of cues by which the critical and independent dimensions of occupational and professional identity can flourish within an environment that aims to dismantle it altogether. In the Cuban case, young journalists and new media showed the older journalists and legacy media how to incrementally nudge the needle of repression. Just like reverse agenda setting, this example of reverse modeling inverted the modeling process incrementally, tentatively and creatively. This in itself is refreshing, as it challenges expectations that progressive change is hard to come by under autocratic regimes.

Lastly, Magdalena Saldaña tracks how the reporting of a natural disaster in Chile created an opportunity for political critique. Two massive earthquakes followed by tsunamis—one in 2010 and the second in 2014—occurred under the same Chilean president. Though she handled the second one smoothly, she botched the implementation of alerts following the first, resulting in over 100 civilian deaths.

When right-wing political voices refracted coverage of the second disaster through the first, journalists were unable to craft a work-around.

Why is that so? Saldaña observes that although political persecution and official censor¬ship are entities of the past in Chile, Chilean journalists’ experiences of a media landscape filled with arrests, disappearances, torture and murder are still freshly remembered. Moreover, the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship introduced economic and political structures that persist today on Chile’s neoliberal landscape. Thus, reporters respond to market dynamics and the strong concentration of media ownership in much the same way that they had responded earlier to the dynamics of repression made familiar by the dictatorship. They sidestep risks, self-limit, close off alternatives, even self-censor as the fiercely symbiotic nature of the source-journalist link determines the coverage that ensues. Even the option of finding alternative sources or activating new media were not acted upon, as journalists, in Saldaña’s words, used these options as simply “another way to get close to the sources they already know.”

Eschewing the very risk-taking behavior that constitutes the core of critical and independent journalism, the failure to craft a work-around, even decades after the dictatorship ended, demonstrates how insidiously authoritarianism permeates its surround. Again, like reverse agenda setting and reverse modeling, Saldaña offers an example of reverse outreach, where rather than expand to seek additional information from additional sources, as is often claimed of the opportunities afforded by new media, journalists double down to secure more of the same. The parallel with journalism elsewhere in the world is obvious.

The value of these inverted examples of reasoning long attached to discussions of journalism in the Anglo-American imaginary should be clear. Not only do they reverse the direction by which the media are presumed to work in stable democratic systems—fostering reverse agenda setting, reverse modeling and reverse outreach—but they introduce increments, noise, improvisation, hesitation, resourcefulness, creativity and flux into the models formerly thought inscrutable for conceptualizing media practice. At the same time, they challenge the boundary that is presumed to separate present experience from past memory. Practices enacted during periods of repression under authoritarian systems thereby live on after the repression is thought long gone.

All of these papers demonstrate that when trying to figure out how best to address journalism’s current tribulations, one can do no better than to go South. Whose journalism matters, and for whom? We need little convincing that what happens to journalism in Uruguay, Cuba or Chile has strong implications for journalism across the Latin American region.

But the question of whose journalism matters and for whom has a broader relevance too, one tied to the budding realization that the Anglo-American imaginary for thinking about the news needs a reset (Zelizer, 2018). When David Frum (2017) wrote “How to Build an Autocracy” in The Atlantic of March 2017, he noted that U.S. citizens:

want to believe that everything will turn out all right. In this instance, however, that lovely and customary American assumption itself qualifies as one of the most serious impediments to everything turning out all right. (para. 10).

Put differently, it may be easier to look from afar and assess what happens there as a lesson for how to better understand what might be happening on the home front too.

Latin American media have a rich, granular and complicated relationship with authoritarianism, and it is time that those who are interested in sustaining free and critical media learn from the settings already well-versed in its trappings. Perhaps, then, we might add to the reverse agenda setting, reverse modeling and reverse outreach discussed in these pages the very core of journalists’ occupational and professional mindset: imagination. By reversing its direction, those striving for a different journalism for current times might orient to what has been already learned, challenged, negotiated and resisted in Latin America. More fully understanding its settings, where autocratic political parameters have long been more of the rule than the exception, seems an obvious place to start setting journalism back on track wherever autocratic rule has caused it to lose its way.

Art, D. (2012). What do we know about authoritarianism after ten years? Comparative Politics (44)3, 351–373.

Centeno, M. A., & Andres, L. (2018). Challenges for Latin America in the 21st century. Open Mind. Retrieved from

Chattopadhyay, S. (2017, January 11). Non-authoritarian states can practice everyday authoritarianism too. The Wire. Retrieved from

Finchelstein, F. (2017). From fascism to populism in history. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Fox, E., & Waisbord, S. (Eds.). (2002). Latin politics, global media. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Frum, D. (2017, March). How to build an autocracy. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://

Gandhi, J. (2008). Political institutions under dictatorship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Glasius, M. (2018, May 1). What authoritarianism is and is not: A practice perspective. International Affairs 94(3), 515–533.

Han, E. L. (2016). Micro-blogging memories: Weibo and collective remembering in con-temporary China. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lawson, C. (2002). Building the Fourth Estate: Democratization and the rise of a free press in Mexico. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Motadel, D. (2016, November 9). Waves of authoritarianism. History Today. Retrieved from

Pepinsky, T. (2017, January 9). Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable. Vox. Retrieved from

Rockwell, R., & Janus, N. (2010). Media power in Central America. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Zelizer, B. (2018, April). Resetting journalism in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump. European Journal of Communication 33(2), 140–156.

Zelizer, B. (2013, June). On the shelf life of democracy in journalism scholarship. Journalism 14(4), 459–473.