By Alejandro Martínez
On Thursday night in Venezuela, interim President Nicolás Maduro ended his campaign in Caracas at the same time as opposition candidate Henrique Capriles closed his in Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara, the state where he was governor.
According to Marianela Balbi, executive director of the Press and Society Institute in Venezuela (IPYS in Spanish), the four state-run television channels and the private station Venevisión broadcasted the Maduro event (earlier, Capriles had accused the state media of censoring his campaign message). Meanwhile, only the private channel Globovisión, which had publicly endorsed Capriles, covered the end of the opposition's campaign. None of the stations attempted to give equal time to both candidates, Balbi said.
After the death of Hugo Chávez on March 5, Venezuela held another presidential election on Sunday, April 14, just six months after the last. And, like the last election, the media's polarization continues.
"In relation to journalists, there is always a discussion about the role they should play but the climate isn't the right time for this kind of self-criticism. I believe that the positions are already too entrenched," Balbi told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Like the elections last year, some large media companies have openly stated their political position, which is reflected in their coverage.
"The defense some private media journalists argue is that they are the only ones offering a counterweight to the government," Balbi said. "Think about how important the sale of Globovisión will be after April 14, to continue being the only window to spread the opposition's message in Venezuela."
The state-financed print media does not do any better at balancing its coverage, added Balbi. Despite the fact that only the private media have attempted to provide balanced coverage and political advertising space for both candidates, recently Maduro accused the newspapers El Universal and El Nacional of giving Capriles 80 percent of the available space for advertising (Balbi said that there was no independent study of how political advertisements were allotted to each candidate during the campaign but the National Electoral Commission monitors it and levies penalties).
In countries with extremely polarized political climates, the challenge for journalists is not to let their emotions fly and focus on their role as investigators and analysts, said Colombian journalist and election coverage expert María Teresa Ronderos.
"On a personal level journalists have their political opinions. When what's at stake is so big, it's difficult to say, 'I'm going to coolly analyze the successes and failures of this government.' It's very difficult but it’s the work that has to be done."
In a special forum created within the Knight Center's Massive Open Online Course "How to Improve Electoral Coverage," which Ronderos is currently teaching, participants discussed the problems not investigated during these elections, like the absence of transparency in campaign expenses or the imbalance of media access to the candidates.
“At the same time, the forum itself is a microcosm of commentaries with little verification that demonstrates the need for rigorous journalism," said Ronderos.
"If it's true that the campaigns spend a lot of money, the specific figures are not cited. These things become rumors and ultimately have more to do with [journalists’ political] position," she said, "How can you be objective when the political party you want to re-elect did your work for you? You have to get in there and investigate."
But despite the intense climate of polarization, Ronderos said that some Venezuelan media outlets and journalists have been recognized for their outstanding investigative work. She named Emilia Díaz-Struck, for example, who was part of an international team of journalists from 46 countries who participated in a massive investigation into tax havens and offshore accounts around the world, along with several winners of the IPYS prize for investigative journalism in Venezuela.
Before and during the presidential campaigns last year, several workshops and courses were organized to promote more impartial coverage of the elections, including one from the Knight Center in collaboration with the Carter Center. Ronderos said that several investigative reporters also benefitted from these efforts.
And though the media continued to be polarized and journalists' political positions remained deeply divided, Balbi said that she thinks that journalism in her country will continue advancing toward the middle.
"I am hopeful that these changes will begin to show themselves when the level of polarization drops," she said. "This affects all of us at all levels of the population, it's difficult to ask that it not seep into the media."
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.