More than 80 complaints over television coverage of Chilean fire

By Diego Cruz

While a fire continues to ravage the Chilean city of Valparaíso since Saturday April 12, the country’s National Council of Television (CNTV) has received up to 81 complaints for television networks’ coverage of the natural disaster, reported the daily La Nación.

CNTV received 15 complaints on Monday directed at public television channels Chilevisión, Canal 13 and Televisión Nacional (TVN) due to their “sensationalist” and “gruesome” coverage of the disaster and for being unmindful of the victims' dignity, according to the website Emol. Another 40 complaints were received on Tuesday, most of them against the previously mentioned channels, plus two more against Mega and La Red. On Wednesday CNTV confirmed a total of 81 complaints.

The complaints criticized interviews with minors, the use of phrases like “fire tsunami” and “fire earthquake” -- in one case a TV station described the fire as “a giant barbecue” -- publishing images of burned animals and what was considered risky exposure of reporters on the scene.

One news report that garnered a large amount of criticism on social media was a video by journalist Claudio Fariña from news outlet 24 Horas from TVN who interviewed children who had lost their homes and possessions during the fire, according to the daily La Cuarta.

The video showed the reporter asking several young girls what they had lost, how much their possessions cost (and offering to pay for them), when they would return home and in one case a girl was filmed crying in response to the tragedy. Twitter users criticized the video for “endangering the rights of children” and “profiting from the pain of little ones.”

In an interview with Radio Cooperativa, Fariña defended his work saying that as a journalist he simply tried to show the actual drama of reality while trying to help the disaster’s victims at the same time.

“In so far as this touches people so they collaborate and help, I believe this is good work,” Fariña said. “I don’t see what other motivation there could have been beyond showing what we found at the location, I don’t know what basis these complaints could have.”

Óscar Reyes, interim president of CNTV, asked editors and press directors to “have greater precautions” in interviews with underage victims and their appearance on television, saying that although it is especially important to take care of children during disasters like the fire, this should happen “far away from the television.”

CNTV will analyze the complaints received and look at their viability to press charges against television stations in case of a violation of regulations,” the public agency told Emol.

Television media were also criticized after two cases in which reporters were almost injured by the fire, according to digital newspaper El Mostrador.

Reporter Iván Núñez from Chilevisión was recording video a few meters away from the fire when the wind changed its direction and forced him and his cameraman to flee. Similarly, journalist Mónica Pérez from TVN abandoned her reporting on Ramaditas Hill after the fire began surrounding her.

These episodes resulted in criticism questioning the role of the press in a natural disaster and considering it more of an obstacle than a benefit.

The forest fire continues to burn in Valparaíso after several days, resulting in 15 deaths, more than 15,000 people affected and the destruction of at least 2,500 homes, according to BBC Mundo.

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.