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Chile’s television crime news coverage: Manufacturing fear and igniting xenophobia

Article

Published onApr 07, 2024
Chile’s television crime news coverage: Manufacturing fear and igniting xenophobia

Antonio Castillo examines the news coverage on four free-to- air television channels in Chile. He argues that the excessive concentration on crime-related stories is igniting discrimination against Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants and playing into the hands of the political right.

Introduction

This article critically examines the crime news coverage on four Chilean free-to-air television channels: the National Television of Chile (TVN), Chilevision, Channel 13 and Megavision. It also considers the relationship between the mediatisation of crime and the perception of public insecurity. Moreover, the news coverage on these television channels raises ethical concerns and questions about journalistic standards.

The excessive concentration on crime stories has been one of the main factors behind Chileans’ high-level perception of fear and insecurity. The prevalence of crime stories has also sparked xenophobia and the stigmatisation of poverty. It is argued that the four channels examined in this study fail to meet the ethical and professional standards of the College of Journalists of Chile, the country’s leading journalists’ accreditation body.

The research was conducted using a qualitative and quantitative methodology between mid-January and mid-February 2024. News bulletins from TVN, Chilevision, Channel 13 and Megavision were analysed. While TVN receives partial government funding, its primary source of income is commercial advertising. On the other hand, Chilevision, Channel 13 and Megavision are owned by wealthy entrepreneurs with close ties to Chile’s political right. These three television channels dominate the highly concentrated media system and effectively set the news agenda with little competition.

Prime-time fear and control

Television plays a central role in the daily lives of Chilean families, particularly among the lower and middle classes. In addition to soap operas, sports (especially men’s football) and morning showbiz programmes, television news is integral to Chileans’ television culture. According to a report by Chile’s National Television Council, news programmes accounted for 30.3 per cent of free-to-air television consumption in 2023. The report highlights that television news significantly influences how Chileans perceive reality (Chile’s National Television Council 2023).

One participant in the qualitative research, Leonardo Salinas, said he watched the mid-day news while having lunch at home and rarely missed the late evening news. Salinas admitted that he sometimes became ‘a bit tired’ of the excessive crime news he watched daily, but he continued to watch ‘to stay informed and aware of the crimes around him’ (interview, 2024).

The media’s tendency to cover violent crimes with graphic or visual content contributes to the fear that is generated. Elena Reina, a journalist from the Spanish newspaper, El País, described crime news coverage as ‘excessive’ (interview, 2024). Angelo Barrios, 41, is a freelance journalist based in Chile’s northern city of La Serena. In the qualitative exercise conducted for this article, he said he wanted to understand why television channels often dedicated an entire hour to broadcasting criminal acts (interview, 2024). Barrios studied in the UK. ‘There were many crime stories there,’ he said. ‘However, not to the extent I see here in Chile.’

Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world, marked by deep divisions based on social class, ethnicity and, more recently, nationality due to immigration from neighbouring countries. ‘Chile is not a country,’ said historian Jorge Peña. ‘It is a country club where a small, privileged class can exert control over a large mass of Chileans’ (interview, 2024).

This control is exercised through privately-owned commercial media, particularly television, which portrays a society on the brink of a hellish fate reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. As Garland suggests (2002), police and crime news serve a political and social control function. Traditional media tends to exaggerate urban violence levels, providing a distorted view of crime (Hollis, Downey, del Carmen and Dobbs 2017). In Chile, the distorted view of crime is reflected in the feelings of insecurity and anxiety amongst large numbers of people.

‘Elites have long relied on fear,’ writes Geoffrey Skoll (2010). According to Skoll, elites ‘depend on fear to maintain and expand their privileges and to control the masses’. ‘Frightened people are easier to control ideologically,’ said Francisco López – a 48-year-old working in IT in a well-known Chilean beverage company (interview, 2024). López, who was part of my qualitative research, said: ‘It is obvious there is a campaign to manipulate information and provoke fear. They show you crime after crime. You go into the street, and all you can see is crime, insecurity, and fear.’

Despite an actual decrease in crime rates (Subsecretary of Crime Prevention of the Government 2023), the perception of insecurity amongst Chileans has increased by 90 per cent – the highest rate in the past decade, according to a National Urban Survey of Citizen Security (ibid). The results of the study coincide with the results found by other surveys. The Catholic University Survey Centre revealed Chileans’ fear of suffering a crime, which reached its highest historical record, 30.5 per cent, the highest figure since 2000 (2023).

Alejandra Mohor is a researcher at the Centre for Citizen Security Studies of the University of Chile. Mohor said the news agendas of the mass media had ‘profited from the crime situation’ (Cisternas 2022). She said the media used ‘images [of violence] so repeatedly, particularly on television, to generate a feeling that crime always happens, in all places and to anyone, in circumstances that we see that many times the news that accompanies these specific events are not contextualised’ (Cisternas 2022).

To create a fearful society, the dominant media must constantly assert that crime, drug trafficking, immigration and terrorism are threatening every city and every aspect of people’s lives. Television viewers, shocked and disturbed by sensationalised news, may be convinced that assaults and robberies are rampant throughout their home city. ‘This form of journalism serves to incite fear and attract sponsors while also stigmatising neighbourhoods, individuals, migrants and social groups, thus leading to more repressive policies and the continuation of the fear industry,’ says Jorge Saavedra, a media researcher at Chile’s Diego Portales University (interview, 2024).

Prime-time news spectacle

Crime dominates the news broadcasts of all the television channels examined in this article. The headlines, personal columns and news stories are filled with accounts of assaults, robberies and violent crimes. Viewers are bombarded with news stories and entertainment content that often purposefully highlight alarmist and fear-inducing narratives. These fear tactics are used to captivate the audience and maximise ratings.

The National Television of Chile, a public broadcaster, airs its prime-time news bulletin from 9 pm to 10:30 pm. However, the news does not start immediately. It begins with a short, less-than-a-minute segment where a deep male voice announces the top five advertisers of the news bulletin, including a security company called ‘Te Pillé’ or ‘I caught you’.

On 23 January 2024, I conducted a modest research exercise to analyse the number, the placement of crime news and its duration during the 9 pm news bulletin. It began with a story about a mayor in Santiago’s metropolitan region demanding military presence on inter-regional buses and at train stations. The story included graphic images of violence committed by alleged thieves. Street cameras captured the images, but it was not mentioned whether the authorities provided them to the television channels. This report lasted about six minutes.

Without a pause, the news bulletin moved on to the next story which focused on the Chilean government’s plan to expand a ditch on the Bolivian border near Colchane, a village in Chile’s Andean Altiplano. The 600-metre ditch, completed in 2017, was intended to prevent undocumented migrants from entering Chile. This story lasted around eight minutes and included images of migrants from Colombia and Venezuela. The reporter repeatedly emphasised their countries of origin, furthering the perception that Colombians and Venezuelans are a threat to Chilean society. More about this later.

The following story in the news bulletin provided an update on a corruption case involving the former mayor of Maipu, one of Santiago’s poorest areas. The former mayor, Cathy Barriga, belongs to the right- wing Independent Democratic Union party (UDI). Her husband, Joaquín Lavín León, is also from the UDI and a member of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies. Perhaps due to their political affiliations and high social status, Barriga’s corruption case received only two minutes of coverage in the national television news bulletin of 23 January.

The news then shifted to a story about an older woman who was violently attacked while collecting her pension. Street cameras captured the attack, and this story lasted nearly ten minutes. However, due to the limited duration of the captured images (only ten seconds), they were repeatedly shown throughout the story. The images showed two young men dragging the woman to steal her purse.

It is relevant to mention that a 2022 study by Chile’s National Council of Television (CNTV in Spanish) revealed that women lead the consumption of free-to-air television. The same study showed that people over 65 watch television the most time per day, with an average of almost six hours a day. Ofelia Ortiz is an 86-year-old pensioner and an avid news watcher. ‘I used to go alone to get my pension,’ she said. ‘Now I ask my grandson to accompany me’ (interview, 2024).

Following the story about the assault on the senior pensioner, there was a 12-minute advertising break when several privately-owned security companies advertised their services. Over the past 30 years, private security companies have grown by more than 500 per cent, turning the sector into a million-dollar business. In 2022, 2,609 accredited security companies were employing approximately 300,000 guards, compared to only 60,000 troops in the carabineros (Basso Prieto 2023)

After the advertising break, the news bulletin continued to cover crime. This time, the story was about one of the most feared criminal acts – the so-called ‘portonazos’ (slams). While the media did not coin this concept, it has helped perpetuate it in viewers’ imaginations. Watching a news bulletin without at least one ‘portonazo’ story is rare. It is also rare not to be exposed daily to stories of ‘encerronas’ and ‘colegiazos’ – the latter began gaining media prominence in 2023.

A ‘portonazo’ refers to stealing a vehicle from the victim’s home, while an ‘encerrona’ involves ambushing drivers from multiple directions. A ‘colegiazo’ involves stealing from parents’ cars while they drop off their children at school. These stories can be unsettling; seeing speeding cars captured on CCTV cameras generates fear and fascination. Although they typically last only 60 seconds, the news segment can extend up to ten minutes. The brief 60-second images are shown repeatedly, providing a visual backdrop for the news presenters’ opinions and interpretations of what has become a headline in Chile – a ‘national security crisis’.

Manufacturing prime-time crime news

The television channels examined here, especially those privately- owned, have effectively manufactured the so-called national security crisis since the young left-wing president, Gabriel Boric was elected in March 2022. This allows plenty of time to highlight the modus operandi of criminals with step-by-step explanations of their methods and actions. The storytelling often concentrates on Venezuelans and Colombians, representing them as ‘deviant’. In my qualitative research exercise for this article, Carlos Pizarro, a 32-year-old physiotherapist, said he associated ‘the cruelty of their crimes with those happening in Mexico or Colombia’ (interview, 2024). ‘In Chile, we saw crime, of course, but it was never so cruel,’ he said.

Pizarro added: ‘Practically every day now, there is news of murders and terrible crimes. It is not that the number has increased, but the violence has increased. We went from a country where criminals used lighters or sticks to threaten their victims to drug traffickers who are leaving human heads in the street.’

Extended footage of violent scenes is accompanied by tense background music. Rarely are viewers warned about the upcoming disturbing imagery. All the stories I used for this article include highly scripted statements from a police officer or a detective. In addition, in a society with low literacy and reading levels, viewers are still bombarded with sensationalised ‘news crawls’ – the scrolling text at the bottom of the television screen, such as ‘A second house of torture was found in Maipu,’ ‘A pensioner was shot to steal her pension’ and ‘A man killed his uncle at his mother’s request’.

In a study titled Themes and actors in prime-time news programs of open TV, Chile’s National Television Council revealed significant details regarding airtime devoted to police matters: assaults and robberies were the most frequently discussed stories in news broadcasts (National Television Council 2023). According to the study, murders received a total of six hours of coverage – daily. Incidents such as brawls, fights or shootings were given at least three hours. The National Television Council analysed the content aired in September and October 2023, stating that the average percentage of crime-related (or ‘red chronicle’) coverage was 21.3 per cent daily.

Megavision and Chilevisión were the television networks that concentrated the most on crimes, assaults and court proceedings. Meanwhile, Megavision allocated 1,265 minutes to the coverage of crimes and robberies, representing 26.3 per cent of its news output. Channel 13, on the other hand, devoted 755 minutes, or 19.3 per cent, to crime news. The National Television Channel ranked fourth, with 585 minutes, or 12.8 per cent, dedicated to police and criminal matters.

Xenophobia in prime-time news

While Chile, a country of 19 million people, has seen some migration, it was not traditionally considered a popular destination for migrants. However, this has changed in recent years. According to the Chilean National Institute of Migration, the number of foreigners living in Chile has increased from almost 354,500 in 2013 to more than 1. 6 million in 2022 (National Institute of Statistics 2023).

This means the migrant population has quadrupled in less than a decade, with most migrants coming from Colombia and Venezuela. The Colombian community currently residing in Chile is around 161,000 people, while the Venezuelan community consists of more than 533,000 people, making it the fifth-largest Venezuelan community in the world (Amnesty International 2023).

The city of Ovalle, in northern Chile, has undergone a significant demographic shift due to the influx of migrants from Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti and Venezuela. This has disrupted the previously homogeneous racial make-up of the city. One migrant, Ricardo, from Venezuela, works at a café that the writer of this article visited. While ordering something to eat, a middle-aged Chilean woman asked Ricardo about his nationality, to which he responded that he was from Venezuela. The woman asked him if he was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Venezuelan.

When the young Venezuelan waiter came to ask me for my order, I apologised for the racist remarks uttered by the middle-aged Chilean woman. ‘It is not the first time,’ said Ricardo. The Chilean woman’s racist comments, it could be seen, are partly due to the influence of the media in exacerbating the ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ of foreigners in Chile (Valenzuela-Vergara 2018). The racist incident narrated above ended with Ricardo, the young waiter, assuring the woman he was a ‘good’ Venezuelan.

About 20 per cent of crime news stories in Chile depict actions linked to countries traditionally associated with organised crime, such as Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico. This perpetuates racism and xenophobia, as crime news is one of the main catalysts for such attitudes. A 2023 survey by the Centre for Public Studies (CEP in Spanish) found that 69 per cent of Chileans strongly believe that immigrants contribute to increased crime rates (Centre for Public Studies 2023). The survey also shows that foreigners in Chile do not commit crimes in a higher proportion than Chilean nationals (ibid). This suggests that media reporting and people’s exposure to crime incidents could explain the perception that migrants are more likely to be involved in criminal activities. The language used in the crime reports also reinforces stereotypes. For example, terms such as ‘invasion’, ‘amnesty’ or ‘illegal’ are often linked to immigration and or immigrants.

Finally, as a footnote, none of the television channels included in my random sample of programmes covered two significant studies published in February 2024 by leading world financial and humanitarian organisations that show Venezuelan migrants enhance the economies of South American countries (Mejia-Mantilla et al. 2024).

The studies also show how xenophobia and discrimination can negatively impact the socioeconomic inclusion of refugees and migrants and undermine their ability to participate in host communities. Immigrants, especially from Venezuela, tend to have a higher educational and employability level than the general Chilean population (Ramírez 2020). Media discourse on some issues of public interest is usually the primary source of people’s knowledge about global and local issues (Ko 2020). Hence, the relevance of how the media represents migrants in their discourses.

Prime – news and the left

In January 2023, Chilean President Gabriel Boric called for a change in television news reporting to include more positive stories. Boric had become the country’s youngest-ever president following a wave of street protests against the ultra-neoliberal policies of former right- wing President Sebastián Piñera. A financial speculator, he died in a helicopter accident in February 2024. Boric also criticised the so-called ‘matinales’ – morning television programmes which mix entertainment with trivial news stories. ‘It seems that good news has no rating,’ he said (2023). Moreover, he expressed concern about the excessive focus on crime stories. He acknowledged the addictive nature of fear and emphasised the need for responsible reporting and diverse information (ibid).

Television executives and the right-wing opposition responded predictably, accusing him of encouraging censorship. ‘Few presidents have attacked press freedom more than Gabriel Boric,’ wrote Paz Charpentier, the director of the conservative Juntos + Libres foundation (Together + Freedom). Charpentier, a member of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI in Spanish), went on with her attacks against President Boric. ‘He is now on the same list as those leaders known internationally for mistreating the media,’ wrote Charpentier (2023).

President Boric clarified that his aim was not to enforce censorship nor establish truth commissions but to promote a variety of information sources and recognise the role of the emotions conveyed through communication. A growing perception of insecurity, led by Chile’s television news, is shaping public opinion and driving support for stricter policies and a tougher stance on migration, as indicated by several surveys in the country (Fernández 2023).

‘The same level of violence has always existed; the issue is that since there is now a government in power that the right does not like,’ said Miguel Gallardo. A small business owner, 63-year-old Gallardo, said that while he fears being a crime victim, he thought the media were behind the country’s ‘collective hysteria that makes people more likely to support authoritarian governments’ (interview, 2024).

Commercial free-to-air media outlets have been critical of the government, blaming it for its perceived ineffectiveness in addressing the issue of criminality. According to market research and public opinion company CADEM, 67 per cent of respondents consistently believe that the government has made little effort to tackle crime (CADEM 2024).

‘We need a Bukele here,’ said Camila Cortés, one of the participants in my qualitative research. ‘Boric is weak; he cannot fix our current insecurity crisis.’ El Salvador’s President, Nayib Bukele, is highly regarded by Chileans, with a 78 per cent positive image, according to CADEM (ibid).

Conclusion

Chile’s situation reflects a global trend where perceptions of safety often differ from actual crime rates. This article seeks to understand the reasons behind the excessive presence of crime in four free-to-air television stations. It also aims to expose the ethical failures and the journalistic malpractices in Chile’s hegemonic media.

Television influences the beliefs and meanings associated with crime and immigrants. This article suggests that the constant linking of crime with immigration has resulted in xenophobia and discrimination, especially against migrants from Venezuela and Colombia. Under the control of wealthy entrepreneurs, primarily associated with Chile’s right-wing political parties, television stations have exploited fear-mongering not only as a visual spectacle but also as a source of social control.

Moreover, the focus on crime news has ideological implications: the hegemonic media, closely linked to the political right, are using it to portray President Boric and the left as weak on crime.

It is clear, then, that Chilean mainstream journalism is failing to meet the professional standards of Chile’s College of Journalists. The college, the leading accreditation body of professional journalists, has repeatedly condemned the coverage of violence and crime. No wonder, according to Chile’s National Television Council, there was a notorious lack of trust towards the four television channels interrogated in this article (2022).

References

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Note on the contributor

Dr Antonio Castillo is a journalist and academic. Antonio has written about major internal events, people and places. He covered the ‘Arab Spring’ in Cairo and witnessed the peace process in Sri Lanka. He has written about Mexico’s war on drugs and the collapse of the Chilean economic model. Antonio’s journalism has been published in the Guardian, the Diplomat, the Huffington Post and Scroll.in, Eureka Streets, New Matilda, Crikey, Inside Story, the Globe Post, the Conversation, the Canberra Times, Medium, the Sydney Review of Books and many other major news publications. He is the author of Journalism in the Chilean transition to democracy, co-author of Cosmopolitan Sydney and founding editor of the Global Media Journal. His next book, Up to the neck in contradictions, is a work of journalistic reportage where he examines the last two decades of Latin American history, economics, politics and culture. Antonio has taught in Latin America, Asia, Australia and Europe. He currently teaches journalism at RMIT University in Melbourne. He also supervises PhD and MA students. At RMIT, Antonio founded and convened the Latin American Research Community (LARC). He is also the Latin American regional leader of the Global Risk Journalism Hub (GRJH), a research network that brings together researchers, policymakers and practitioners worldwide to understand the issues surrounding global journalism and the communication of global risks.

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