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News Coverage Hard To Manage, Pictures Rule

News coverage has long been driven by pictures. A striking photo or dramatic video will attract instant popular attention. The brain processes visual images much more quickly than words. Anthropologists and psychologists know this. So, too, editors. Others are learning.

the eyes have itThe so-called independence referendum for the semi-autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia has been subject of intense media coverage in Spain and around the world for weeks. Hours of broadcast and pages of newspaper coverage peaked a week ago when voting was declared illegal, which many in Catalonia ignored, and riot police descended in full view of the television cameras. The Spanish government apologized (October 6) for getting themselves into a public relations and political nightmare, at the very least. Both official sides - Catalan and Spanish - have attempted damage control, each blaming the other, as demonstrators rallied in major cities through this past weekend.

International news organizations and media watchers noted the deep divide in news reporting between Spanish and Catalan outlets, those opposing and supporting the independence vote, effectively little more than an opinion poll. Al-Jazeera (September 30) referred to “peak polarization” while the BBC (October 6) said “the media has been a key factor in fuelling the polarisation.” Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) (September 28) called the media climate “oppressive.”

Spanish and Catalan news media across all platforms are known for taking vivid, often dramatic points of view. This is not limited to football. New media - online and social - is rising in significance and density. Spanish law enacted in 2015 - the ironically named the Citizen Security Protection Law, elsewhere referred to as the “Gag Law” - gives authorities nearly complete control over news coverage; photographing police officers can be met with stiff fines, for example.

“It is said everywhere that Madrid lost the battle for images in Catalonia, why did it make such a mistake?” asked International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) secretary general Anthony Bellanger on France Inter (October 3). “It is indeed difficult to understand. Even if the police had not intervened, the result had no chance of being recognized by anyone in Europe or Madrid. This raises the question of why they ordered the National Police and the Guardia Civil to charge. And why did they push around demonstrators and snatch ballot boxes if, as (Spanish prime minister) Mariano Rajoy said, ‘there was no referendum’?”

The IFJ and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) noted in a statement (October 5) several “isolated cases” of harassment against media workers. Guardia Civil officers attempted to seize a camera from a photojournalist for Catalan news portal El Mon. Earlier in September Guardia Civil officers raided offices of weekly news magazine El Vallenc, computers seized. Director Francesc Fàbregas is being investigated for “collaboration in the referendum,” reported elPeriodico (September 12). Pro-independence supporters threatened news crews from Barcelona-based TV channel La Sexta, one case at the Catalan Parliament required intervention by guards to allow the reporters to flee.

Spanish public broadcaster RTVE and Catalan regional public television channel TV3, quite separately managed and funded, have both been criticised for taking sides. RTVE news staff openly criticized editors for “manipulating coverage,” certainly not the first such charge of the Spanish government applying pressure. "RTVE has abandoned its obligations and left the responsibility of informing citizens to other television stations.” The public broadcaster “did everything possible to disseminate a partial and biased view of the facts,” said a statement (October 2) by the RTVE news council.

TV3 and public radio channel Catalunya Ràdio have taken a distinctly pro-independence position, not limited to news programs. Children’s news program - InfoK - explained the referendum as "the most treasured treasures in the world,” inviting charges of bias, reported Spanish media portal (October 7). TV3’s comedy satire show Polonia depicted Spanish PM Rajoy as the devil. Evening audience estimates from Kantar Media, which would include the main news programs, showed TV3 doubling its audience share, reported El Espanol (October 5).


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