‘Polarization is a trap,’ says Mexican journalist Gabriela Warkentin of W Radio

In Mexico, when a journalist asks the president a critical question during his press conferences, he is then attacked on social networks. "What happens here is the digital warfare against journalist, this digital cholera," said Mexican journalist Gabriela Warkentin of W Radio.

Gabriela Warkentin, host of W Radio in Mexico

Gabriela Warkentin, host of W Radio in Mexico, talks about the interaction between President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the press during the leader’s morning press conferences. (Teresa Mioli/Knight Center)

Warkentin was one of the journalists invited to the event “Media and Democracy in Times of Digital Cholera and Polarization in Latin America,” organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin. The conference took place on Nov. 1 and was transmitted via Facebook Live.

In "the mañaneras," the press conferences of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the leader communicates official information, but also answers questions from journalists.

Mexico has gone from having a government that gave little more than two press conferences a year during Enrique Peña Nieto’s time in office (2012-2018), to holding daily conferences every morning from Monday to Friday, covering all the morning news spaces, the political agenda and achieving more than a million views in a single day.

Warkentin explained the geography of these conferences. “There is always the same people sitting in the front row,” she said. And those journalists ask the president “very favorable and long questions.” Behind them sit the other journalists. But what Warkentin points out is the polarity of these conversations between the government and the press during the conferences, because the president usually calls the press sensational when they ask questions critical of the government.

“Considering the digital sphere, we have a very polarized conversation,” Warkentin said. “Media outlets in the digital environment still have an important role in being a bridge between those extreme poles.”

In Mexico, there is no 50-50 polarization of public opinion, what is seen is an attempt by different actors to convince people about a version of the facts, of a specific narrative, the Mexican journalist explained.

In that sense, AMLO is a president who, according to Warkentin, keeps the conservative forms of a respectful conversation that characterize Mexican society. Therefore, when he attacks critical journalists and questions them or scolds them for interrupting, he is seen by society as a respectful man, Warkentin explained. This is even though he has even come to compare journalists with dogs, she added.

Also, he has a good management of social networks and has a team trained to respond to any event, and thus get the attention of public opinion and its support, the journalist explained.

As an example, Warkentin pointed out what happened in Culiacán on Oct.17, when the city was terrorized by cartel members due to the temporary capture of the son of Chapo Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel.

The journalist showed a study, which she conducted with Signa_Lab of the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, about the Twitter conversations that revolved around those events and some hashtags that at the end of the day had great repercussion on public opinion. The tag that generated the most traffic on Twitter, out of those she looked at, was #AmloEstamosContigo (#AMLOWeAreWithYou), with more than 260 thousand tweets.

“Polarization is a trap,” Warkentin said. It may be something that keeps us arguing with each other without getting anywhere, she added. Polarization also does not allow space for news coverage with novel angles.

In addition, the media system in Mexico continues to rely heavily on the official advertising budget, and since the new government came into operation, the media still have not seen that income, the journalist said. "There are many journalists on the streets." Therefore, according to Warkentin, there is more self-censorship to please the government. There are also new types of media that are changing the landscape, she said, but we still have to see what will happen to them.

There are also parts of Mexico where there is a very strong local journalism that has a great impact on their cities, such as Ríodoce and Noroeste in Culiacán, in the north of the country.

Mexico remains the most dangerous country without conflict in the world to practice journalism, and that forces many journalists to have more than one job to make a living. For Warkentin, that is often the reason why there is so much impunity in crimes against journalists, because prosecutors do not consider their profession as a motive for aggression or murder.

And the attacks on the media do not come only from common aggressors, such as organized crime, drug trafficking or the government, Warkentin explained. “In Mexico, everyone stigmatizes the press,” and that is a social context that must be taken into consideration, she added.

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