Me on BuzzFeed on Venezuela

Journalist Rosie Gray has a story up at BuzzFeed on the wave of protests occurring now in Venezuela and the backdrop of economic crisis and political polarization against which it’s occurring. I found the piece interesting and informative, but I think it also illustrates how hard it is for journalists—and, for that matter, social scientists—to avoid openly sympathizing with one “side” or another in their reporting on conflicts like Venezuela’s and thereby leading readers to do the same.

Analytically, Gray’s piece attempts to explain why this wave of protests is occurring now and why anti-government activists have largely failed so far, in spite of the country’s severe economic problems, to draw large numbers of government supporters to their cause. Most of the sources quoted in Gray’s story are opposition activists, and they are generally described sympathetically. The first opposition activist we encounter, Carlos Vargas, tells us that he and other student protesters are “making an effort to reach out to the poor.” The next, a community organizer, admits that the opposition hasn’t made serious efforts to organize in his neighborhood, but we are then reminded that censorship and pro-government paramilitaries make it very hard for them to do so.

Gray also includes portions of an interview with two Chavistas, members of a colectivo in the 23 de Enero neighborhood. This interview and one with a pro-government economist ostensibly provide the “balance” in the piece, but their remarks and other descriptions of activity sympathetic to the government are framed in a way that evokes a sense of false consciousness. Hugo Chavez is dead, but he remains popular because of a “personality cult” that “still holds a grip on many Venezeulans, especially the poor.” Gray reports the government’s line that anti-government protesters “are a group of revanchist elites out of touch with regular Venezuelans” and writes that this line has “some grain of truth.” She immediately follows that sentence, however, with a description of protesters’ efforts to recruit poorer Venezuelans who, we are told by two of Gray’s sources, would participate more if they weren’t being menaced by pro-government militias. Gray tells us that the Chavistas she interviewed in 23 de Enero have a picture of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on their wall, and that they blame their country’s unrest on “right-wing elements” in the U.S. and some of its allies. As for where ideas like that one come from, we are told that

Across town, the Chavista intelligentsia is hard at work coming up with theories for the foot soldiers to buy into.

To me, all of those phrases and details convey a belief that Chavistas aren’t joining the protesters because they are being duped. As a social scientist, I find that hypothesis unconvincing. The model of political behavior it implies echoes some instrumentalist theories of ethnic conflict, which posit that ethnic groups fight each other because self-interested leaders goad them into doing so. Those leaders’ efforts are certainly relevant to the story, but simple versions of the theory beg the question of why anyone listens. To try to understand that, we need more sympathetic accounts of the beliefs and choices made by those ostensible followers. Gray’s piece suggests one answer to that question when she recounts protesters’ claims that Chavista militias are intimidating them into obedience, but that also seems like a partial explanation at best. After all, some people are protesting in spite of that intimidation, so why not others?

This slant matters because it affects our judgments about what is possible and what is right, and those judgments affect the actions we and our governments take. Objectivity is an impossible ideal, not just for reporters but for anyone. Still, I think political reporters should aspire to afford the same sympathy to all of their sources and the causes they espouse, and then trust their readers to draw their own conclusions. Measured against that standard, I think Gray’s Venezuela piece—and, frankly, much of the reporting we get on factional disputes and popular protest in all parts of the world—fell a bit short.

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