Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robert Samet and “Engaging Journalism”

Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College. In 2008 while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Writing Crime: Journalism, Insecurity, and Narratives of Violence in Caracas, Venezuela,’ supervised by Dr. Sylvia Junko Yanagisako. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant.

One year ago Venezuela was at a crossroads. The death of President Hugo Chávez altered the country’s political landscape and there were questions about what the future held. Today it is in crisis. Soaring inflation, plummeting oil prices, and scarcity of goods have helped fuel frustration and political unrest. No one feels the current predicament more than Venezuelan journalists. My dissertation research (2007-2009) examined the press and the politics of urban violence in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It used crime reporting as a window onto the dynamics of political engagement among journalists, editors, and media owners. I applied for the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct a series of follow-up workshops during the summer of 2014 about the promises and perils of engaged journalism in these times of political uncertainty.

As I prepared for the workshops, it became apparent that the environment for journalism in Caracas had changed dramatically since my last visit in 2013. Political polarization is nothing new in Venezuela; however, there was a heightened sense of professional precariousness among journalists working in both the public and the private sectors. There were good reasons for this. Over the past two years, government proxies bought out many prominent opposition news outlets. This accompanied a wave of firings and retirements, which have shaken the profession. When I began research on journalism in Caracas in 2006, it was arguably the most robust, open, diverse, and politically dynamic media environment in the world. Although reports that “press freedom” is dead in Venezuela are premature, there is no doubt that the space for journalistic engagement has constricted considerably. This should be cause for concern not just for the opposition but for the government as well. Auto-critique was essential to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution, and its gradual disappearance is foreboding.

What kinds of journalistic engagement are possible under the current conditions? Workshop participants discussed a number of different definitions and strategies for engagement, which I highlight here.

 

I. Definitions of Engagement

Over the course of the workshops, journalists offered three different definitions of engagement: engagement as confrontation, engagement as collaboration, and engagement as solidarity. By far the most common definition was engagement as confrontation. Journalists saw themselves as advocates for ordinary citizens against the wrongdoings of powerful persons and institutions. In this capacity, it was essential for journalists to engage publicly with the problems facing the country. However, this particular mode of engagement was becoming increasingly fraught. Consequently, journalists had begun thinking about engagement as collaboration with audiences and their peers.  This took the shape of online forums and reciprocal strategies with other journalists. Finally, some workshop participants argued that professional solidarity was a third way to think about engagement. Journalist unions were crucial to the continued protection of the profession and could offer a mode of engagement that sought to preserve the integrity of their work.

 

II. Outlets for Engagement

1)     Denunciation: In the past, the practice of denunciation was the principal means by which Venezuelan journalists attempted to exercise influence over the political arena. Among crime journalists, denunciations took the form of victims’ testimonies against police corruption, gang violence, and government neglect. It was widely agreed that editors, pressured from above, had begun cracking down on this practice. Although journalists believed that denunciation remained one of their most powerful tools for political engagement, they agreed that it had become necessary to reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. Whereas before it was common to publish denunciations that were not backed by strong investigation, such testimonies now demanded hard factual evidence. Some even said that this was an improvement over past practices in which the press used victims to launch ad hominem attacks. 

2)     Online engagement: Although Venezuelan journalists have been using social media for as long as their peers in North America (especially Twitter and Facebook), the current situation has amplified the importance of online communities as sites of journalistic engagement. Workshop participants identified three main developments. The first was the rise of peer-to-peer engagements with readers. More than ever, journalists found themselves responding directly to comments and queries from audiences. The second was the incorporation of citizen journalism into the practice of professional reporting. Reporters said that readers and viewers were important sources of information with whom they increasingly collaborated. Third and finally, there was a boom in for-profit online news outlets. Journalists had some hope that these new outlets might at least temporarily make up for some of the license that they had lost in other spheres.

3)     Professional Organization: Within the newsrooms, unions and professional associations were a critical tool of empowerment. In particular, the workers’ unions played a strong role in protecting journalists and fostering professional solidarity. Although reporters were openly divided on the prospects for activism on the part of these unions, it was clear that they were an important locus for journalistic engagement.

4)     Collaboration: Finally, a group of crime reporters argued that collaboration between reporters was also a form of engagement that was too often overlooked or demeaned as “pack journalism.” Among crime reporters, journalists from competing news outlets worked together to cover stories and often shared information. Responding to my own writings on this subject, they pointed out that working in teams allowed them to be more thorough in their investigations, to engage more thoroughly with the victims of crime, and to cover a much larger swath of material than would otherwise be possible.

 

In addition to debates about journalistic engagement, the workshops also provided an opportunity for the participants to offer comments and critique on the research that I conducted with the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2008-2009). Two of my current chapters were translated and circulated in advance. They provided a platform for a grounded conversation about what has changed and what remains the same in the field. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant afforded the rare opportunity for research participants to offer feedback on the framing and execution of the book manuscript in progress.

 

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