Buenos Aires Times

argentina BIAS, OBJECTIVITY AND TRUST

Argentines deliver a damning verdict on the nation's media outlets

Report by Pew Research Center shows just 37% of Argentines believe stories cover political issues fairly

Saturday 24 February, 2018
Only 37% believe the media covers local political issues fairly.
Only 37% believe the media covers local political issues fairly. Foto:SHUTTERSTOCK

Argentines do not like their media, it seems.

According to a recent report, only 37 percent of Argentines believe the media covers local political issues fairly, compared to 52 percent worldwide and 77 percent in the highest-rated country, Indonesia. That’s lower than all but three of 38 countries studied in the survey.

The January report from the Pew Research Center, a USbased non-partisan polling and demographic research organisation, examined public attitudes toward the media worldwide. It showed that overall, approval for the media across many measures remained relatively high, a boost for journalists, editors and publishers in a time where the term “fake news” has come to the fore. But Argentines and Latin Americans in general, Pew found, had less confidence and trust in their journalists than people in other nations surveyed.

“What’s interesting is how low [Argentina] sits when it comes to covering political issues thoroughly,” said Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of journalism research at Pew. “Among the 38 countries we saw, that’s on the low end.”

In one of the survey’s questions, respondents were asked if they believe their local media outlets do a good job of reporting the most important stories. In all countries, some 73 percent said the media did “well” or “somewhat well,” but in Argentina the figure slumped to 56 percent. Queries about whether the media reported the news accurately (62 percent worldwide, 45 percent in Argentina) or reported news about government leaders and officials well (59 percent globally, 38 percent for Argentines) fared no better.

The report’s most notable overall conclusion, according to Eva Matsa, is how overwhelming the desire is for unbiased news, but that this demand from the global public isn’t matched by their evaluation of how media are performing. This is no surprise for Argentina, said Martín Becerra, a media and politics researcher at CONICET and a professor at the universities of Quilmes and Buenos Aires. In general, Argentina “is not a country where the public has a lot of confidence in the media,” he explained to the Times in an interview.

Argentine media outlets don’t choose what to cover based on the relevancy of the information to the public, Becerra argued, but on what’s the best decision to take politically. “In reality the media is very biased,” he said. Another significant revelation for local observers is how closely linked support for the current government in power and feelings about the economy are to approval of media. In Argentina specifically, 47 percent of those that support the Macri administration are satisfied with the news media, but among those that distrust the government, the number falls to 33 percent. That gap is greater than in the US, UK and Venezuela. Empirical evidence, some might argue, of the infamous “grieta.”

Much of Argentines’ lack of confidence in the media’s transparency and lack of bias depends on a person’s political leanings, Becerra continued. “The vast majority of those who oppose the government are critical of the media,” he said. “There’s a difference with the countries I mentioned because in Argentina the quality of political journalism is hampered by emotion.”

But Becerra also agrees that other factors in an Argentine’s daily life can impact their trust in media. “The social and political climate doesn’t offer much opportunity to trust in journalistic accuracy,” Becerra said. “An Argentine is more sceptical than a Canadian citizen, for example, because the Canadian lives in a more stable situation.”

BROKEN MODELS

Daniel Dessein, the president of the Association of Journalistic Entities in Argentina (ADEPA), attributed much of this disillusionment with the media to the actions of recent populist governments across the region and specifically Kirchernism in Argentina. “They try and break away from traditional model,” he said. “They try and start a conversation around the media and question the role of journalism. They make it sound like something secretive, that’s in cahoots with other industries.”

Dessein compared the atmosphere around the media in Argentina to the current situation in the United States, where President Donald Trump has persistently attacked media outlets and used his personal Twitter account to bypass traditional communication channels.

“Sometimes these constant battles can impact upon media entities,” Dessien said. “But journalism has come out of this stronger so far. There’s been an enhancement in how some people value journalism.”

If Dessein’s analysis is correct, that might help explain data from the rest of Latin America, the region most critical of its news media overall. In addition to Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and especially Chile struggle with confidence in media.

Though Venezuela’s media outlets scored higher than Argentina in all four categories of media approval, Dessein warned that a direct comparison was unfair because of the differing political systems. The press in Venezuela have faced numerous obstacles too in recent years, nor are they covering a well-functioning state.

Becerra said Argentina and Chile have very different media and political landscapes. For example, Argentina returned to democracy sooner and Chile is more conservative. Yet despite the differences, the two neighbours scored similarly on things like economic development and educational attainment.

“In this sense it’s possible Chile and Argentina offer a similar situation. In both countries there’s a huge concentration of media companies. They’re media entities that are very biased and partisan,” he argued.

This is a different state of affairs, for example, than in Brazil or Mexico, where standard of living measures are lower. Brazil has strong media approval rates for the region, which Dessein suggests may have been helped by the role journalists played in the massive corruption scandals that have ravaged nearly every aspect of Brazilian life.

DIGITAL DAYS

But Argentina does keep pace with Brazil in another category: digital news engagement. Brazil, with the secondmost Instagram, third-most Facebook and sixth-most Twitter users in the world, is known for its social media presence. But over half (51 percent) of Argentines get news from social media nowadays, 10 points more than Brazil. Plus, 39 percent visit social media sites multiple times a day, the fourth-highest rate of countries surveyed. Expanding to the Internet in general, 47 percent of Argentines get their news online, just one point behind Brazil and five points above the global median.

Both Becerra and Dessein worry about the effect this is having on media organisations. Beyond reducing revenue sources, they see social media as exacerbating the ideological gap and making it more difficult to discern trusted sources from unreliable ones or even outright fake news.

It’s unclear exactly how Argentines might think under a different administration, or in a different economic moment — this is the first time Pew has asked such questions globally. But for Dessein, the Macri administration is a sea change. During Kirchnerism, “the government attacked in a systematic manner,” and was constantly motivating its followers in a battle against the media. But now with Macri, “this is an agenda of normalisation,” he argued.

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