Role of the Media: Two Sides of the Journalistic Coin

It has been said that while objective reporting is the standard of modern-day journalism in the U.S., the Latin model is often more opinionated, sometimes government-influenced, and in many cases amounts to straight advocacy journalism.

“What is often the case with Latin American journalists is that they cannot survive on a journalist’s salary alone, so they might take a job in PR or in some other advocacy position. That’s where the conflicts of interest can arise,” says La Opinion’s executive editor Pedro Rojas. “In some cases, Latin American journalists will come here to work in U.S. Hispanic media and don’t realize that it’s unacceptable to do that here.”

Following the much-publicized scandal that rocked El Nuevo Herald in September, many questions have been raised about the ethical conduct of the reporters involved. To summarize the events that touched-off the firestorm, it was discovered and reported by the Miami Herald that a number of El Nuevo Herald journalists had taken money for appearances they made on U.S. government-backed Radio and TV Martí. Jesús Díaz, publisher of the Herald, promptly fired the accused reporters for their alleged misconduct. They were later re-hired on the grounds that there was no clear policy in place prior to their dismissal forbidding such appearances.

Although the dust has now settled, with a new policy dictating that journalists may appear on television – uncompensated – to espouse political opinions, the question remains: Did their behavior breach essential tenets of journalistic ethics, or is this simply a clash between Latin and Anglo journalistic ideologies?

Cheryl Gibbs, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University of Ohio, sees this situation as clear-cut, saying that the reporters who accepted money did indeed violate journalistic ethics: “The biggest problem with accepting money to promote any point of view is that the person who pays the reporter is essentially buying news coverage — which is not supposed to be for sale. Taking money in exchange for providing coverage also means the journalist is using his or her position for personal gain, which is pretty much the definition of corruption, isn't it?”

La Opinion’s Pedro Rojas is also firm in his conviction that the journalists acted inappropriately, saying that his concern is that people will view this type of behavior as endemic to Hispanic Journalists in the U.S. As he told New America Media’s Elena Shore following the incident, “Quality is not relegated to mainstream media. Quality and ethics are for all of us in this profession.”

Another ethical tangle presents itself in the case of government subsidized media, where an obvious tension arises between reporting critical news and jeopardizing the well-being of the news outlet. One much publicized case is that of Jose Eliaschev, whose show "Esto Que Pasa" on Radio Nacional in Argentina was cancelled in January of 2006, allegedly because he had criticized President Nestor Kirchner on the air for not giving news conferences, something he found unacceptable.

Following a December 30th broadcast, he was notified by Radio Nacional’s director general that his show had been dropped from the schedule for the coming year, with no further explanation other than that an order had “…come from above.”

The incident drew fierce criticism from the group Journalists without Borders, who characterized the government’s actions as censorship, plain and simple, saying in a statement, “Politicians in power have no right to meddle with a news media’s programming, even a public one’s.” In an act of self-censorship, both the director general of Radio Nacional and the president’s chief of staff declined to comment on the matter.

Of course, government trying to exert influence over what is reported in the media is hardly a Latin American phenomenon. In fact, some of the most publicized instances of government trying to control the press’ coverage have come from the U.S. media in the last few years with the coverage of the Iraq War. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal where U.S. Soldiers were found to have tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners was a story over which the U.S. government attempted to exercise considerable control. The Bush administration argued that publishing photos of prisoner abuse was aiding the enemy’s cause by fueling outrage in the Middle East, and consequently urged restraint from the press.

The difference between the two instances is that in the case of Argentina’s Radio Nacional, the government actually pulled the plug on a news source simply because the reporter exercised his freedom of expression. In the Abu Ghraib example, the administration was trying to affect how the incident was covered, but did not resort to punishing those who did not comply. While still disagreeable, the second case does not cross the threshold of overt censorship that the first case clearly does.

In the U.S., the majority of ethical breaches in Hispanic media arise from a shortage of resources, rather than from some hidden political or special interest agenda, says La Opinion’s Pedro Rojas: “Take a paper like the Los Angeles Times, for instance. They have large teams of journalists and fact-checkers. A smaller paper, as many Hispanic papers are, simply does not have the same resources. As a result, they might not verify the facts that they get from their sources as aggressively as they should. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the journalistic approach of U.S. Hispanic publications is more akin to the U.S. general market than to the Latin American model. The Miami Herald case was an isolated incident among an isolated group of reporters.”

What makes for Balanced Reporting?

– Strong journalistic integrity
– Media property has solid editorial and financial resources
– Diverse advertiser base
– Government advertising is a low % of overall advertising
 Strong Reader involvement 
 – Comfortable Income level of media property’s staff