Social Media

Coverage of Venezuela Protests: A Case Study of Press Criticism

Peter Adams and Tim Mata
A protest in Venezuela. Photo by andresAzp. Used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A protest in Venezuela. Photo by andresAzp. Used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Peter Adams, NLP's senior VP for educational programs, and Tim Mata, NLP's national digital coordinator, highlight the difficulty of evaluating the credibility of information created by those involved in political protests by analyzing a recent post on the political blog Caracas Chronicles that went viral in February, 2014.

The chaotic nature of events in Venezuela highlights the uncertainty that is typical of breaking news environments and shows how both authoritarian governments and opposition groups try to control information shared with the rest of the world. There have been widespread street protests against the current government in Venezuela for a month as people demand more access to services and express their anger over rising crime and a troubled economy. To date, more than 300 people have been injured and 25 killed on both sides of the conflict.

Three weeks ago, as raw video and images — sometimes out of context yet still genuine — began to surface through social media and blogs, some people assumed that they presented an unmediated truth about what happened and forgot that opposition groups sometimes disseminate misinformation too. Some readers then assumed that the “raw” story that this content seems to reflect is inherently accurate and used it as a benchmark against which to judge coverage (or non-coverage) by news organizations.

At best, these comparisons can highlight lapses in news judgment or reporting. Yet they can also oversimplify more complex factors such as journalist access, verifiability and the relevance of other news stories around the world. At worst, these comparisons can devolve into conspiracy theories and cynical, reckless assumptions, such as theories that parent companies or governments censor the reporting of mainstream news media.

That's what happened after blogger Francisco Toro presented a series of ambiguous raw videos of protests and counter-protests on February 20, 2014, then used them to assert that a crackdown amounting to a “pogrom” was taking place in Venezuela. He posted them on a Venezuelan resistance website that he founded called Caracas Chronicles as part of an article titled, “The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night — And the International Media is Asleep at the Switch.

Many who saw Toro’s post were quick to claim a conspiracy to hide the story. When it was posted on a prominent public Facebook page, numerous commenters not only took Toro’s claims that he found “nothing” in the international media at face value, but also added their own assertions about what the alleged omission meant:

Toro's evaluation of coverage by major news organizations, including the Guardian, the BBC and The New York Times, wasn't fair. He accused them of ignoring the events altogether, substantiating his claim with a series of screenshots that selectively highlighted moments when Venezuela wasn't on the homepage of various news sites the day after the crackdown (when unrest in the Ukraine was still raging).

However, a casual search of those sites reveals that they all covered the events. BBC News even cited a Caracas Chronicle blogger as a source in one of their reports the same day, making Toro’s claims about non-coverage particularly egregious. The New York Times published an op-ed column by Toro three days later.

It's only fair to note that while much of the footage on Caracas Chronicles is ambiguous and invites interpretation, some of the information on the blog sheds light on the situation there. It's also fair to note that while Toro did assert that there was an “international [media] blackout,” he attributed this lack of coverage to “disinterest and inertia,” not censorship.

The events in Venezuela serve as a reminder that not every raw image is authentic and that some are almost certainly purposeful fabrications intended to invoke international outrage.

This isn't to suggest that news media are infallible: news organizations and individual journalists do make mistakes of commission and omission (see our Learn Channel lesson on the "60 Minutes" report on the Benghazi attack in Libya). Yet these are rarely intentional efforts to mislead, misinform or conceal. That means that the public needs to be as skeptical about the fairness and accuracy of criticism of the press as it is of press accounts themselves.