This is an editorial from the Chile Today board.
Chile’s crisis is not about inequality; it’s about the effects of inequality. These effects don’t just relate to consumption, but power and ability to shape society. The media plays an important part in this – and protesters know.
Impartiality and neutrality are virtues any publication – including Chile Today – cherishes. Neutrality is associated with just the bare facts, no politics or bling-bling that could conceal the truth. But neutrality is also subjective. Partisan coverage could still expose other angles and therefore generate understanding.
Readers should keep the subjectivity of neutrality in mind – and acknowledge their own bias.
In the best case, tensions that arise in this field trigger debate and critical thinking. In a healthy democracy, this contributes to understanding society and further its material and intellectual advancement.
Chile’s main media, however, cuts the circuit short. An analysis must go beyond cheap claims of ‘fake news’ and recognize that media are a product of the society they operate in. That means recognizing Chile’s main media are subject to power inequalities that manifest in business model and ownership, concentrated mostly in the hands of oligarchs. So they rely on the investment ability of their owners and ad revenues from private businesses and the government.
This reality is undisputed and the consequences are broadly accepted in the field.
One of those consequences relates to viewer engagement, best done through provocation and tension. A good example are morning shows that keep featuring controversial figures, especially when they’re linked to the dictatorship. Things these figures say often hurt and provoke victims and offend viewers who just value democracy. The controversy is taken up by other outlets and continues on social media, where centrists, who play innocent, and dictatorship proponents turn into defenders of free speech, even if offensive and based on lies.
The process works similar the other way around and also relates to topics like pensions or education.
In the thick of the controversy, an outlet is constantly mentioned, increasing its brand awareness and hence the price it can charge for ads. Local outlets don’t know how to compete more creatively and less divisive, and don’t seem interested in learning how to. But controversy alone won’t cut it. Engagement is also created through spectacle and entertainment.
Protests as Entertainment
Covering the current protests, and especially the violence, editors and producers use mostly techniques they rehearsed while covering street crime.
Every day, broadcasters show assaults and pickpocketing framed as entertainment. The events are taken from surveillance cameras footage, boosted with suspenseful music and described in a dramatic voice. They follow the structure of introduction, plot unfolding, peak, and conclusion. First, the voice introduces location and actor (a public place and ‘anti-socials’ or ‘subjects’), then viewers see what happened, guided by the voice in the off, the music builds tension to finally show the act, and the actors can be seen heading off with either the booty or in a police car. These reports are usually around five minutes long to encourage distribution via social media, and include reiterations of the deed in slow-motion.
In the introduction, reporters are specific about the place, often showing street names for several minutes. Broadcasters’ claim of neutrality can thus not be upheld. They contribute to the dissemination of crime by showing criminals where to go and either how to do or how not to do things. Objective reporting would state a place and occurrence, feature a description of the suspects, without judging them as anti-socials, and refrain from using music or footage that comes from unnamed sources. A democratic media would also question the use of surveillance as a technology to deal with crime and emphasize the social dynamics that create and facilitate it. But by relying on entertainment, broadcasters fuse with the surveillance state. More than helping to fight crime, surveillance thus supplies images that help to plan and execute criminal acts.
When covering white-collar crime, however, the suspects are presented as ‘executives’ or ‘managers’ and their schemes never covered in slow-motion to facilitate understanding how they lifted millions out of the public purse and the damage that does, including missing funds to finance public security. Hence, many Chileans are aggravated by street crime without being aware how it relates to corporate crime. If the media would make the connection, they would lose their advertisers, many of whom linked to white-collar crime.
Many Chileans feel something’s off with the telly, which explains many outlets’ dismal reputation. This disenchantment is fertile ground for the spread of fake news and endangers democracy. But covering the current protests, which demand a new societal status quo not just cosmetic changes, broadcasters face a reckoning. It’s not just the business model based on corporate funds that needs to change, but broadcasters must take responsibility for their role in society and not just the market.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).