With legislative elections on December 6 fast approaching and faith in President Nicolás Maduro’s government at an all-time low, Venezuela’s opposition senses an opportunity for a big win. Polls indicate a 15 to 30 point advantage for opposition candidates, which means that for the first time since the early 2000s the opposition has a real chance to take a national-level institution away from Chavismo. But the cards may yet be stacked in the government’s favor.
In previous elections, Venezuela’s state-owned media has helped the administration get a leg up on its rivals by giving unduly favorable coverage to the government line. If this year’s pre-campaign is any indication, the tendency toward pro-government bias in reporting is only getting worse.
To see just how media bias in Venezuela might influence potential voters, we tracked political coverage on the country’s three most important TV news shows for the week leading up to the start of the official campaign season. From November 9-13, we looked at coverage of stories about the two political forces competing on December 6 — the ruling PSUV and the MUD opposition coalition — and measured both the amount of airtime devoted to each political force and whether the type of sentiment expressed by reporters was mostly positive/neutral or negative.
While assessing the sentiment of a story is no doubt difficult and somewhat subjective, this approach has been used by other researchers in previous elections in Venezuela. We chose to classify a story as positive or neutral if the reporter mostly refrained from offering an obvious criticism of the story covered. We classified a story as negative if reporters focused instead on a story that embarrassed the subject, or if they offered explicitly negative criticisms. When in doubt — that is, when it wasn’t clear to us whether the story was positive or not — we classified the story as positive/neutral.
The three news programs selected for the study were: Globovisión (9 pm to 10:30 pm), Venevisión (10 pm to 11 pm) and VTV (8 pm to 9 pm). These times cover each station’s most important news show — so called “stellar programs.” They each compete for essentially the same demographics. There are no other major TV channels in Venezuela offering nationwide coverage.
One of these stations, VTV, is fully state-owned; the other two are private. Venevisión is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, a renowned millionaire who in 2002 toned down the news content of his station after a tacit deal with the government under then president Hugo Chávez. Globovisión has been owned since 2013 by a group of businessmen with close ties to the government. Under its previous ownership, Globovisión was accused by the government of bias in favor of the opposition.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) is legally required to monitor media coverage to prevent abuses. However, the CNE explicitly refused to regulate media coverage during the period of our study, arguing that their mandate is to only regulate media during the official campaign period, not before.
Below are some of our findings:
All three stations devoted far more time to government electoral campaigns than to the opposition’s (see Table 1). VTV in particular gave zero time to covering the opposition’s campaign.
Table 1: Percentage of total political news coverage time devoted to electoral campaigns
All three stations devoted far more reporting to positive stories for the ruling party or the Maduro administration than for the opposition (see Table 2). In the case of VTV, 78 percent of its political news coverage time was devoted to positive stories about the ruling party; there were zero positive stories on the opposition.
Table 2: Percentage of total political news coverage time devoted to positive coverage of government and opposition performance
The good news is that negative reporting on candidates and campaigns, from both sides, has been very low (see Table 3). All three TV stations kept negative reporting on campaigns to a minimum.
Table 3: Percentage of total air time devoted to negative coverage of campaigning stories
The situation is a bit different regarding coverage of government or opposition performance, rather than electoral campaign stories (see Table 4). Here we see far more negative reporting. Globovisión and Venevisión offer critical views of government performance 10 percent and 20 percent of the time, respectively, whereas VTV offered zero negative reporting. When it comes to the ruling party, it is clear that all three stations offer far more positive coverage than negative.
The reverse is true for coverage of the opposition. The opposition holds few state offices, meaning that there is not much that TV media can do to criticize the opposition’s performance. The one area where criticisms of the opposition are made has to do with stories about “economic sabotage,” which is in line with the government’s position of blaming Venezuela’s economic crisis on economic warfare waged by the opposition. If we add the amount of time devoted to negative coverage of performance of the opposition and stories about economic sabotage, we find that all three stations offer more negative coverage of the opposition’s performance than positive.
Table 4: Percentage of total air time devoted to coverage of performance, by sentiment (positive or negative)
In a recent letter to Venezuela’s electoral authorities, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro denounced, among other things, the “lack of guaranteed access to the media” offered to the opposition. Essentially, he was echoing what most media observers have long said about Venezuela: Media bias is a chronic problem during campaigns.
The pre-campaign period shows that biased reporting by Venezuela’s main TV media is getting worse. All TV media displayed obvious forms of pro-government bias. Even the independent and privately owned media (Venevisión and Globovisión) offered far more attention to the ruling party’s electoral activities and performance in office than to opposition affairs. In all three stations, positive stories about the ruling party far outweighed negative stories. In VTV, there were simply no critical stories of the ruling party.
Opposition candidates, in contrast, were hardly covered, and in the case of VTV were not covered not at all. Negative stories about opposition electoral activities, while not that common, outweighed positive coverage.
The most important difference from previous campaigns is the change in private media, and especially Globovisión. For the April 2013 presidential election, the private media focused more on Henrique Capriles (the opposition candidate) than on Maduro, and 60 percent of its coverage of Capriles was positive (with 23 percent negative and 17 percent neutral). Private media used to be mostly but not exclusively pro-opposition, in contrast to state media, which was entirely pro-government. This time, private media, and especially Globovisión, has turned entirely pro-government, devoting far less (and far more negative) attention to the opposition relative to ruling party candidates and affairs.
In sum, a strategy of “invisibilization” of the opposition has replaced TV polarization. Today, no station seems to be providing much pro-opposition coverage. All national-level TV media, both public and private, is now pro-government. This invisibilization strategy helps explain why so far negative reporting on the opposition is also relatively low: If little in general is being said about the opposition on TV, there is also very little to criticize.
Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, MA.
Franz von Bergen is a reporter for El Nacional, Caracas.