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Encouraging More Balanced Reporting Through Media Dialogues: Colombia – Venezuela – United States

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Misperceptions and misunderstandings among countries in the western hemisphere have often been inflamed by politicians who use microphone diplomacy rather than direct communication to pursue foreign relations, and have at times been reinforced by polarized or politicized media. The media play an important role in providing information about other countries to the domestic public and hence in contributing to positive or negative perceptions among the general public.

Members of the Andean–U.S. Dialogue Forum recognized that media sometimes report distorted information related to bilateral and regional policy concerns and thus may constitute an impediment to constructive dialogue between the Andean countries and the United States. Given this, Forum members formed a working group to promote the debate of the role of the media in relations among the countries. (Click here to see a video on how the Forum addresses the issue of media coverage.)

Building on synergies with the Carter Center's Program to Strengthen Journalism in Venezuela, The Carter Center organized four meetings between Colombian, Venezuelan, and, later, U.S. journalists, media directors, editors, and academics between November 2010 and June 2011. The goal of these meetings was to provide an informal space in which media professionals could reflect on the media's role in generating and promoting mutual understanding, in addition to help forge and deepen the personal relationships and networks among them. The meetings also sought to improve the quality of the information available to participating journalists on issues that cause tensions among the countries and develop recommendations for ways to ensure that media coverage contributes to informed citizenry rather than detract with politicized reporting. Click here for a summary of the four media dialogues (PDF).

Participants of the first meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, dealt with two central themes: analysis and discussion of bilateral relations between the two countries and the media coverage of these relations. Both Venezuelan and Colombian participants described the bilateral relationship as fragile and attributed this in part to the dominant role that the charisma and personalities of Presidents Chavez and Uribe had come to occupy in diplomatic relations between the countries. They also discussed the political intricacies that complicate media coverage, such as Venezuela's polarized media and the pervasive influence of each government's official agenda on media coverage. Click here to read the meeting report from the Caracas dialogue (PDF).

Following the first meeting, a content analysis of media coverage undertaken by The Carter Center and Georgia State University revealed that media outlets in both countries often emphasize negative events and under-report positive events. The second meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, centered on examining the content analysis and saw exchanges taking place around several issues, such as the relationship between information sources and the quality of journalistic work, transformation of bilateral relations between the two countries, and media coverage of realities in the border area. Click here to read the meeting report from the Bogotá dialogue (PDF).

The third meeting took place in the border town of Cúcuta, Colombia. A local Venezuelan priest presented an overview of the difficult circumstances experienced by inhabitants of the Colombian-Venezuelan border, including those stemming from illegal fuel trafficking. He urged participants to consider border problems as comprehensive, human problems and not merely from the perspective of security and economics. The ensuing dialogue dealt with the quality of coverage regarding border issues and its consequences for inhabitants there. Click here to read the meeting report from the Cúcuta dialogue (PDF).

Given the triangulation that has often affected the U.S.-Venezuela-Colombia relationship (e.g. the 2009 U.S.-Colombia military base cooperation agreement) and the related media coverage, a fourth session with prominent U.S. editors and journalists offered an opportunity to share information and analysis on the characteristics of trilateral media coverage and the factors, dilemmas, and limitations influencing it. Click here to read the meeting report from the trilateral dialogue (PDF).

Following the conclusion of this series of dialogues, participants emphasized the need to continue with initiatives of this kind. They noted that bringing journalists together has an important potential given the significant lack of knowledge about the other countries, the deep-rooted stereotypes, and the domestic media's dependency on their respective government's view and information for their media coverage. Another lesson learned was the need to generate hard data on the characteristics of the media coverage to inform the dialogue on perceptions.