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On March 16, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue, Fundamedios, and the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Americas at the University of Miami, hosted Media and Democracy in the Americas IV, a conference that convened journalists, academics, and prominent researchers from Latin America and the United States. The two panels discussed the importance of the press’ role in upholding democratic norms and how a lack of trust in the media, fed by stigmatizing discourse, has led to hostile work environments for journalists. In his welcoming remarks, Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, stressed the importance of the conference’s theme about recovering trust in the media and thanked the various civil society organizations that helped plan the event and foster these important discussions. Karin Wilkins, dean of the Department of Communications at the University of Miami, encouraged the audience in her opening remarks to acknowledge that there are important nuances between distrust, apathy, and skepticism, and that recognizing these can improve our analysis of how distrust in the media presents itself in different contexts. Throughout the conference, panelists had the opportunity to discuss these complex topics, as well as propose potential solutions to better protect journalists and restore trust in the media.
The first panel – Distrust in Media: A Journalist’s Perspective – featured remarks from María Sol Borja, associate editor and political editor at GK, Maritza Félix, journalist at Conecta Arizona, Mc Nelly Torres, national board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Mauricio Weibel, journalist at the Journalistic Investigation Center (CIPER). This panel was moderated by Dagmar Thiel, director of Fundamedios USA. The discussion focused on how stigmatizing discourse affects the credibility of the media and of journalists.
Following the political crisis in Ecuador in October 2019, Fundamedios registered 115 attacks that fostered a hostile attitude towards the press. Sol Borja explained that these attacks were not solely from the police or government forces, but from protesters as well, which created an environment where the press was regarded as universally corrupt and as an inherently political actor. Mauricio Weibel from Chile argued that institutional crises that Latin American countries have been facing are related to this distrust in the media. For Weibel, “the press does not only fight against citizen discontent but also against political elites that have captured the State”, creating a common enemy in highly polarized situations. He acknowledged that it is equally important to promote media pluralism and transparency, where “a union of media can give opportunities and lift up the voice of citizens, because all media is necessary in a democracy, in a balanced way”.
Maritza Félix and Mc Nelly Torres discussed how their identities as Hispanic women of color in the United States under the Trump administration has contributed to stigma and discrimination in their work. Félix, based in Arizona, shared that “with many of the conservative politicians I have interviewed, I have to challenge their views, as I am everything they want to get rid of in their country: I am Mexican, my first language is Spanish, and I make money”. Torres argued that former President of the United States Donald Trump’s discourse on the press contributed to dangerous stigmatization, explaining that in 2019, “33 percent of Americans believed what President Trump said about the press… and Trump said that the press is ‘the enemy of the people’”. Like Ecuadorian media’s branding of a “corrupt press”, “fake news” as a concept gained popularity in the United States, showing that increased distrust in the media is an issue that transcends borders.
The second panel – Restoring Trust in the Media – featured remarks from Sallie Hughes, associate dean of Global Initiatives of the Department of Communication at the University of Miami; Tai Nalon, co-founder and CEO of Aos Fatos; María Teresa Ronderos, director and co-founder of the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP); Silvio Waisbord, director and professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and moderation from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. The discussion expanded on themes of a democratic crisis in Latin America and its impacts on citizen’s trust in the media, as well as potential solutions for this crisis of trust.
Hughes began by explaining that this crisis, while acute, is far from recent in the region, a consequence of decades of failed or imperfect democratic processes that result in lower expectations for transparency and citizen participation. Ronderos agreed, indicating that traditional media in Latin America is usually attached to political and economic power and has defended governments that were unjust to their people. Therefore, the most visible media organizations can be associated with an unpopular government, rendering their reporting unpopular as well. She suggested that supporting experimental and independent media can foster a more diverse media environment, where citizens have access to information outside of traditional outlets.
Nalon gave some context to the situation of the media in Brazil, and how, to her, distrust in journalism is related not only to institutional crises and polarization, but the politicization of the media, where governments take advantage of existing distrust to encourage their supporters to disregard any news media not favorable to them. Waisbord compared this to the United States and how political trends also influence trust in the media, where Democrats have more confidence in the media and press than Republicans. As the media gets politicized, citizens get more attached to their particular ideological media ecosystem, creating opportunities for dis/misinformation.
The panelists also proposed some solutions to support the media, as well as to improve journalistic standards to build trust with the general public. Hughes suggested that universities and academia take a more active role and give grants to the press, in order to “involve themselves in investigative spaces and practices”. Nalon emphasized how trust-building can only be achieved through the use of transparent methodologies, where citizens can then more confidently analyze the information presented to them.
All in all, the conference brought together eight speakers from five countries, and gave journalists from around the region an opportunity to share their experiences, analyze the factors that have contributed to distrust in the media, as well as propose solutions that could help the press in its important role of speaking truth to power, supporting democratic norms, and upholding human rights.