Spain's economic crisis has an unexpected victim: journalism

The Spanish media has been ravaged by the country's recession, and not just economically. The crisis has also sparked serious challenges to its credibility.

Andrea Comas/Reuters
A woman in Madrid last month reads a copy of Spanish newspaper El País featuring a purported photo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that turned out to be false. The newspaper later withdrew the photo, describing it as 'one of the most serious mistakes of [the newspaper's] history.'

In Spain’s transformational economic crisis, no industry has escaped unscathed. But one of the biggest casualties is an unusual one: journalism.

Thousands of jobs have been lost and dozens of outlets have been shut down, denying newsrooms of some of its most veteran and talented professionals.

And the Spanish media isn't just hurting in terms of raw numbers – it's also taken hits to its most valued asset: credibility.

“Beyond a doubt, this is the worst crisis Spanish journalism has endured so far,” says Elsa González, president of the Federation of Spanish Journalist Association. “We have to regain the trust of society that we have lost to a great extent.”

It’s not just the expected result of citizens’ loss of institutional trust amid the grueling global economic crisis. Increased politicization and institutional weakness are making journalists easy prey to government and corporate pressure, experts say, leading to blatant cases of political and corporate manipulation and serious editorial mistakes in even the most reputable publications and broadcasters.

In fact, Spaniards trust journalists just a sliver more than lawyers, according to a poll released Feb. 20. Only 53 percent of Spaniards say journalists are honest, compared to 51 percent for lawyers, 80 percent for police, 88 percent for teachers, and more than 90 percent for health professionals. Bankers and members of parliament came in at 12 percent and 11 percent respectively.

“Reporters should be addressing society’s concerns, and they shouldn’t be as conditioned by their sources and the owners of their companies, but we are witnessing the opposite,” says Ramón Salaverría, director of journalistic projects in the School of Communication of Navarra University and expert on industry trends. “Outlets are more interested in their corporate results than in their public.”

To make things worse, media companies in Spain are either controlled by the government, or corporately owned by banks, large corporate tycoons, and even the Catholic Church. “From that point of view, [society] feels media companies lack independence of vested interests, and respond to ideological and economic clientlism.”

The economic crisis and resulting transformation of Spanish society are further alienating journalists, Mrs. González says. “Journalists are taking part in the country’s radicalization. The politicization is illustrated especially in the absence of transparency as a result of the weakness of journalism. [Journalists] ascribe to different sides because they have no other choice.”

Layoffs and errors

“The errors and lost credibility are not a coincidence,” says Dr. Salaverría. “You can’t do good journalism without good journalists.”

Between 2008 and 2012, nearly 10,000 journalists lost their jobs, almost half of them in 2012, and 73 outlets shut down. The top editorial teams of every major news organization were “beheaded,” González of the journalist federation says. “The biggest enemy of independence is unemployment and precariousness, always waiting to be fired.”

The average age in Spanish newsrooms has plummeted since the beginning of the crisis to the early 30s, Salaverría says, from late 40s. As corporate revenue shrinks and stock prices plummet, companies “are leaving newsrooms without teachers, with few flight hours.”

The most embarrassing – and telling – case involved the world’s most read newspaper in Spanish and Spain’s most respected daily: El País. On Jan. 4, the newspaper made “one of the most serious mistakes of its history,” as it admitted in a story tracing in detail the makings of its error.

El País published a front page picture which allegedly showed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with a tube connected through his mouth. Mr. Chávez has been receiving treatment for cancer, and his condition has been kept under tight wraps by his government. Uncovering and publishing evidence of his current status, like the picture, would be a media coup.

But the picture turned out to be a fake provided by an agency. Most printed copies were collected throughout the country before they hit stands, and the newspaper immediately apologized and reprinted a new edition at a cost of 225,000 euros, it said.

The Venezuelan government has yet to take legal action, as it threatened. Nonetheless, being called out for shoddy screening on such a high-profile topic is a major black eye to El País.

Increased state influence

But the biggest concern is editorial manipulation from government-financed public television and radio, one of the most popular sources of information in Spain that is legally mandated to reflect balanced content representing all Spaniards.

Regional and national governments have historically and readily imposed political agendas on the media they control, with swinging editorial lines depending on what party is in power. But amid the crisis, manipulation has been blatant. Journalists have denounced pressure, and reader complaints and legal suits against media outlets have increased.

Independent media companies are more subtle, but like in the rest of Europe, they are heavily ideologically biased, and allegiances to political parties are obvious, a lot more so than in the US.

It has come to the point that protestors increasingly decry journalists’ ties to the elite in almost daily anti-austerity rallies, at times violently.

Another rising concern is corporate ability to influence reporters, either directly through coercion by threatening vital advertising, or indirectly by bullying journalists into self-censorship, experts say.

“Editors are favoring profit-making and boosting their audience. And amid the loss of credibility, companies have not invested in journalistic rigor,” González says.

“Are we meeting the demands of society?” she asked. “Not so much in some cases.”

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