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    Media coverage and the Colombian peace process

News regarding the peace process between the Colombian government and former guerilla FARC were not highlighted as the most relevant by the most influential Colombian media, despite that its success meant the end of one of the oldest guerillas in the world.

The ranking of news on the Havana (Cuba) peace talks between 2012 and 2016 was dubbed as “low”, in other words, the information on the peace process were not headliners on radio and TV newscasts.

This was the conclusion of nine researchers of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) Media Observatory (OBSEMED, for its Spanish acronym)*, after documenting and analyzing the news coverage of the peace process between February 15 of 2012 and April 15 of 2016 when 385 articles were published on the topic.

The purpose was to assess the good or bad performance of a group of public opinion influential media including news outlets such as Caracol –radio and TV–, RCNTelevisión, and the El Tiempo newspaper.

“There is significant trust on the media in Colombia and in all Latin America, as they are an essential source of information. It is important to analyze how information is provided to viewers/listeners and how it influences the decisions they are taking,” said Ivonne León, political analysts and co-director of the research project

The results of the Latin American Public Opinion Project indicate that, “the average Latin American and Caribbean citizen expresses a 59 point trust on the media”, where 0 is no trust at all and 100 is total trust. Colombians voice major credibility with respect to the rest of the region with a rating of 62 points.

For the project, the UNal researchers focused their observations in five main aspects of the peace talks discussed at the moment:

  • Endorsement of the agreements
  • Criminal responsibility and political participation of former guerilla members
  • The victims
  • Gorilla demobilization
  • Peace talks with the ELN guerilla

Pablo Ignacio Reyes, political analyst and co-director of the research project claims that the analyzed period set the trends that later were reflected on the plebiscite summoned by the Santos Administration in October of 2016 to endorse the agreements. At that time the No vote won with 50.23% of the vote over the Yes vote with 49.77%.

As the news was categorized, the research team met weekly to analyze the monitoring progress, comment on the findings and rank the news between 0 and 1 according to fulfillment of the following variables:

  • Hierarchy: importance and precedence provided to the news within the media outlet
  • Extension: space or air time provided to information on the peace process.
  • Position: location of the information (on TV the first three news reports; in written media, the areas of greatest impact for readers).
  • Source material: if interviewees were the most appropriate or expert to refer to the news
  • Orientation: if information was neutral or if adjectives, gestures, images and  quotation marks were used to highlight a position
  • Relation between heading/content: if the heading provided information on the content of the news report

After ranking the news, they averaged the ratings to show a Performance Balance of the media outlet according to the following ranges:

  • Low (0 to 0.25). Biased and unbalanced
  • Moderate low (0.26 to 0.5). Value judgment news (images, adjectives and direct gestural opinion).
  • Moderate high (0.51 to 0.75). Balanced news management but biased to favor particular political, economic or social interests.
  • High (0.76 to 1). Balance and neutral, with many sources of information, not to influence the opinion of the audience.

Although the media outlets analyzed obtained lower raking according to the hierarchy of the news reports over the peace process (0.4), they received better ratings in the relation between heading/content category (0.8), showing skillfulness in structuring information.

In general the media was ranked and “moderate high” and “high”. TV obtained the greatest values, with an average of 0.8 (high); followed by radio newscasts with 0.67 (moderate -high); and written press with 0.65 (moderate-high).

Routines that bias information

Although the figures show good performance of the media, for Political Sciences student Hugo García Gómez, the bias is not shown within the figures but in the routine actions of journalists, i.e. the interviewees, air time or absence of alternate parties.

For instances, when the term “castrochavismo” was introduced by opposers to the agreements, the posture was not attributed to the presenter or a determined news outlet, but to a Senator interview which was given 20 minutes of airtime, while only 2 minutes were provided to another interviewee opposing the term. Therefore the news outlet was exempt from managing biased information even if his/her decisions directed the news report.

The term “castrochavismo” spread across public opinion and according to León, it was used by every sector and with different views, “although without greater clarity on what it meant and everyone perceived it as a threat but nobody questioned the topic.”  

The peace concept also changed. At first, there was an apparent strong position with ideas such as “we want this process.” However, the research project found that the term also changed into “we want peace, but not in this manner,” said Leon. These messages spread thanks to the media and they began to be heard in the public opinion.

Other practices also provided less neutrality to the news, such as news caster gestures, surprise signals, bad moods or disapproval of a news report. Another, and particularly in radio news, was to use adjectives, limiting time to opposing views of that of the interviewer or closing information with their opinions or that they were interested in reinforcing to the audience.

Although at times, the media showed neutrality in the headings, for the researchers, written media seemed to have greater neutrality of the information.

The study confirmed that the media is not neutral and they mobilize their interests through journalistic routines, especially in a country such as Colombia where, according to Reporters without Borders and the Colombian Federation Journalists, three corporate groups are owners of 57% of the main news outlets:

  • The Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo Organization is owner of the Casa Editorial El Tiempo and all its products: El Tiempo newspaper and TV, City TV, and Motor and Hola magazines, among others.
  • The Carlos Ardila Lulle Organization is owner of RCN radio and TV and the economic journal La República.
  • The Santo Domingo Corporate Group is owner of Caracol Televisión, the El Espectador newspaper and Blu Radio.

Beyond establishing the types of economic or political interests promoted in the media in face of the peace process, León highlights that the research project allowed them to observe “how the interests are promoted, how speeches are created and how they produce dominant views, which generally are directed to exclusion in Colombia.”  

The researcher emphasizes that although coverage of the agreements did not question peace in itself, it did end up speaking of peace as slightly bellicose and exclusive.”

 

*The final conclusion of this research project, which included other media analyses such as the Special Justice for Peace (JEP, for its Spanish acronym) or the task of the armed forces during the post-conflict, are published in the book: Medios de comunicación: elecciones regionales y proceso de paz, of the Observatorio de Medios de Comunicación (Obsemed), (The Media: Regional elections and the peace process) published in 2016.