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Review of Digital Journalism Special issue on Latin America

By Vanessa de Macedo Higgins Joyce
Associate Professor
April 26, 2021

Latin America is experiencing a major shift in news consumption behavior in the past few years, following the rise of digital and mobile technology. According to the 2020 Reuters Digital News Report, in the four Latin American countries surveyed (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico), social media has surpassed the once all-powerful television as a source of news (Newman, et al., 2020). Changes and innovations in Latin America are not limited to audience preferences and new news repertoire, but also to journalism practices such as collaborative news reporting, audience listening, an independent stance, and data-driven reporting, among others, altering the dynamics in these young democracies. The Digital Journalism special issue on Digital Journalism in Latin America, edited by prominent scholars Eugenia Mitchelstein, from Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina, and Pablo J. Boczkowski, from Northwestern University, USA, highlights fresh perspectives from Latin America and decenters journalism scholarship. 

Lourdes Cueva Chacón, PhDigital Bootcamp fellow and San Diego State University assistant professor, and Magdalena Saldaña, Assistant Professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, co-authored the article Stronger and Safer Together: Motivations for and Challenges of (Trans)National Collaboration in Investigative Reporting in Latin America. They found that, while the practice is still scarce in the region, it has been quite impactful, as with the example of the award-winning Panama Papers. The study looked into factors related to Latin American journalists’ participation in collaborative investigative projects and found that digital knowledge, coupled with more years of experience, were among the most relevant factors. They also found that, when working on collaborative projects, journalists were able to strengthen security measures, a very important issue considering the attacks and threats faced by journalists in the region (Cueva Chacón & Saldaña, 2020). 

In an interview, Dr. Cueva Chacón emphasized the security issue that makes collaboration particularly relevant in Latin America, “At the national level, I think seeking safety in the group is quite crucial," Cueva Chacón said. "Corruption is the number one enemy in the continent, and collaborations help journalists strengthen their reporting and solidify their position against attacks.” She added that specifically transnational collaborations “are pushing innovations, expanding professional skills, and calling attention to issues that legacy media cannot or would not cover, such as environmental issues and gender and human rights issues.”

Equally concerned with safety issues and potential solutions, Sarah Anne Ganter, from Simon Fraser University, Canada and Fernando Oliveira Paulino, from the Universidade de Brasília, Brazil, investigated independent digital journalism in Brazil. In Between Attack and Resilience: The Ongoing Institutionalization of Independent Digital Journalism in Brazil, they found, through a series of in-depth interviews, that attacks on journalists working for digital news outlets highlighted editorial, economic, ideological, psychological, and reputational pressures. They identified models of resilience to protect journalists' work through a series of network arrangements (Ganter and Paulino, 2020). 

The remaining four articles from the special issue highlighted the challenges, changes and opportunities brought by the use of social media by journalists and by news consumers. In The Mechanisms of “Incidental News Consumption”: an Eye Tracking Study of News Interaction on Facebook, Adrián Vergara, Ignacio Siles, Ana Claudia Castro, and Alonso Chaves from the Universidad de Costa Rica co-authored a study on incidental news consumption by young Facebook users. They employed a novel approach to understanding news consumption on social media, by combining eye-tracking methodology to semiotics. They found that, while Facebook and other social media platforms are increasingly where audiences get their news and information, that only about 9% of the posts encountered in the news feed of the participants of this study would be considered news, but that participants paid attention to them most of the time. The study also provides an important finding demonstrating the centrality of images and videos as points of entry to news on Facebook, finding that visual elements were seen before anything else 70% of the time they encountered news (Vergara, et al., 2020). 

Summer Harlow, from the University of Houston, in her study Protecting News Companies and Their Readers: Exploring Social Media Policies in Latin American Newsroom, explored how the presence or absence of social media policies in Latin American newsrooms influence how journalists incorporate social media in their work. She finds that only about one-third of journalists in her survey (N=1,094) said their newsroom had a social media policy. Those who do have a policy said they tend to be oriented on what not to do and focused on protecting the company, as opposed to providing support to journalists. Given the increased hostile environment faced by many Latin American journalists on social media, guidance could help protect these journalists (Harlow, 2020).

Among the different social media platforms, Latin Americans are, in general, strong adopters of WhatsApp, one of the dominant social media platforms in mobile. Sebastián Valenzuela, Ingrid Bachmann and Matías Bargsted from the Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile contributed to the much-needed understanding of the uses and consequences of the platform. Their study, The Personal Is the Political? What Do WhatsApp Users Share and How It Matters for News Knowledge, Polarization and Participation in Chile, looked into the information sharing practices on the platform, of both personal and political nature. They found that different social groups equally used the platform and that that use was significantly related to political knowledge and participation. Interestingly, given the increased social polarization in many Latin American countries, they did not find that WhatsApp had a clear relationship with issue position extremity (Valenzuela, Bachmann & Bargsted, 2020).

Victor García-Perdomo, from the Colombian Universidad de La Sabana, contributed to the understanding of the relationship between television, online media and audiences. His study, Re-Digitizing Television News: The Relationship between TV, Online Media and Audiences, brought a rich insight with data stemming from ethnography, participant observation and in-depth interviews with two major Colombian TV news organizations. He found that, while television experienced a delayed pressure from digital media in comparison to print, they are currently experiencing it, stemming from innovative forms of video production, distribution, and greater access. He found that “arrangements between traditional media and audiences condition the presence of television in the online environment, and how users’ interactions on social media exercise some power over the news-making process” (Garcia-Perdomo, 2021, p.148).

Together, these papers bring new perspectives, apply not-often-seen methodologies, and bring new approaches and findings to our understanding of the evolving journalism environment in a digital world. As the editors point out in the introduction to the special issue, “these papers underscore the importance of abandoning the ethnocentric perspective which tends to homogenize a supposedly exotic other by revealing differences across and within Latin American media and their audiences.”(Mitchelstein & Boczkowski, 2021, p.133). 

Cueva Chacón, L. M., & Saldaña, M. (2021). Stronger and Safer Together: Motivations for and Challenges of (Trans) National Collaboration in Investigative Reporting in Latin America. Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1-19.

Ganter, S. A., & Paulino, F. O. (2021). Between attack and resilience: the ongoing institutionalization of independent digital journalism in Brazil. Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1-20.

García-Perdomo, V. (2021). Re-Digitizing Television News: The Relationship between TV, Online Media and Audiences. Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1-19.

Harlow, S. (2021). Protecting News Companies and Their Readers: Exploring Social Media Policies in Latin American Newsrooms. Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1-20.

Mitchelstein, E., & Boczkowski, P. J. (2021). What a Special Issue on Latin America Teaches Us about Some Key Limitations in the Field of Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2.

Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Schultz, A., Andi, S., & Nielsen, R. K. (2020). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020,

Valenzuela, S., Bachmann, I., & Bargsted, M. (2021). The personal is the political? What do Whatsapp users share and how it matters for news knowledge, polarization and participation in Chile. Digital journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2,1-21.

Vergara, A., Siles, I., Castro, A. C., & Chaves, A. (2021). The Mechanisms of “Incidental News Consumption”: an Eye Tracking Study of News Interaction on Facebook. Digital Journalism, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1-20.