COVID-19 has given the media the opportunity to rebuild public trust, which was undermined during student-led protests in 2019, where news organisations were seen to take the side of large economic interests. Efforts to report the pandemic in an independent fashion have helped journalists restore some credibility, but have also led to conflict with the government.
As the pandemic took hold, the Chilean minister of health took aim at the media, accusing them of, among other things, wanting to ‘sell by inventing lies’. The minister also refused to answer a question at a news conference, an event which became a Twitter trending topic. The exchanges have highlighted changing relationships between the media and those in power. Until now, there has not been a strong cultural expectation that daily journalism would fulfil a watchdog role. That seems to have evolved in the aftermath of social protests which gripped the country in the months before the pandemic.
After the minister in question left office, his replacement initially made an effort to improve relations with the media – and communication with the public – by staging daily Coronavirus news conferences. These found a significant audience on television, as viewers looked for information on the outbreak and how they should respond to it. News websites and portals introduced counters that tracked the number of cases, deaths, and the rate of infection based on official figures. Most sites also introduced special sections, and La Tercera, one of the biggest newspapers, offered readers its Coronavirus coverage without charge.
After these changes, tensions between the government and the media eased slightly, only for them to rise again in April 2021 when the minister accused the New York Times and the Washington Post of covering Chile’s rise in infections unfavourably. The country’s vaccination roll-out has been the fastest in South America – and also ahead of global averages.
The challenges of COVID-19, along with the consequences of the protests, led to a period of soul searching. Journalists and others examined their role in society and what needed to change. The protests had highlighted a crisis in trust in establishment powers, including the media – one popular slogan had been ‘Turn off the TV’, in part a reflection of a feeling that daily journalism had not done its duty in prioritising accurate information above commercial interests or holding those in power to account. These sentiments about television news do not extend to radio.
There was a discernible effort by the media to rebuild trust with its audiences – this was particularly felt in TV stations changing their approach to morning programming. Where previously they had shown four hours of entertainment chat, they started offering politics and current affairs, with opinionated journalists debating with members of congress and mayors. The change was so marked that sanctions were introduced in parliament for congress members who neglected their duties because they had been participating in morning shows.
Some outlets have tried to rebuild trust by strengthening their own editorial processes or by introducing fact-checking initiatives, especially concerning misinformation about COVID-19. The role of fake news and citizens’ responsibilities on social media have become a subject of national debate.
Despite the interest in COVID, falls in print circulation continued, and the biggest newsrooms – including in television – have responded by making dramatic rounds of layoffs. Copesa, the parent company of La Tercera, cut more than 200 jobs and ceased printing La Cuarta, leaving just four journalists to write a web version of the paper. La Tercera is now only printed at the weekend and in certain regions. Capital, a magazine, also stopped printing. Most publishers hope audiences will migrate to digital equivalents.
There will be several elections in 2021, some with more than one round. Critical positions are up for election, including the president, parliamentarians, mayors, and governors, but also the drafters of a new constitution, the development of which arose out of the social protests. Coverage of complex issues with a multitude of candidates will be a daunting task for the media.
To help voters choose, some media, including CNN Chile, 24horas.cl, La Tercera, and some independent sites, are inviting users to take surveys which will, they say, provide an indication of which candidates they will have more affinity with.
Francisco Javier Fernández Medina and Enrique Núñez-Mussa
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Television was an important source of news during the COVID-19 crisis, but social media are equally popular as a way of finding and consuming news in Chile. Newspaper readership continues its sharp decline in line with global trends.
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Trust in news overall
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Trust in news on social media
Although overall trust (36%) has increased, it remains low by international standards and still more than ten points lower than before Chile’s recent social protests. Falling trust in the news found in social media (32%) can be explained by a growing awareness of misinformation in such platforms, added to greater dependence on official government information about COVID-19 that has been broadcast daily and live on TV and radio.