El Pais error is not plot of the right but uncertainty of values
Jul 2, 2013
El Pais publishes fake photo of Venezuelan president, exposing flaws in digital journalism and compromising journalistic values.
Perhaps marking the biggest blunder of print journalism in the 21st century, El Pais featured a photo of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez intubated in an ICU on its cover. The photo was fake. The Spanish newspaper underwent a massive international embarrassment. The issue was not the right-wing conspiracy pointed out by Venezuela and left-wing observers that combines demagogy with denial. El Pais, from the height of its excellence, simply overlooked some basic journalistic values and was punished. However, it should be noted, it is not the only one making these mistakes. Journalism, bolstered by the digital age, needs to learn how to deal with its own limits.
First, a note on the "right-wing conspiracy". Chavismo emerged as a powerful political movement upon its arrival to power, only to later transform into a status quo seeking its perpetuation. Even though it has provided concrete social gains, it subjects Venezuela to a regime with a distorted democracy, with repression of press freedom and a demagogic, ideologized, and populist rhetoric, a trend that has followers in other South American countries.
However, the commitment that Chávez may be providing to Venezuela does not account for the error of El Pais. If The Guardian, The Washington Post, or The NYT managed to get a photo of Chávez in a coma when the official Venezuelan position was of silence, they certainly would have considered publication. At a time when the political fate of Venezuela directly depends on the health and imminent death of Chávez, it is questionable whether the publication of a person in their supposed deathbed, taken without their knowledge, is worth publishing. Among the newspaper's mistakes, the debate about Chávez's right to privacy would have been the least, as the public interest would override the individual rights of the politician, especially because the newspaper is printed and distributed in almost all of Spanish-speaking America.
The serious flaw of El Pais, however, was the offspring of a series of errors, which go straight to the heart of the nature of digital coverage. From the offer of the photograph by a smaller agency, the investigation into the origin of the image was always in second place to one question: is the photo real? The entire narrative made by the newspaper minute by minute that led to the publication, in a sort of inquisitional mea culpa, shows a discussion focused on the attempt to verify the origin of the image through technical opinions instead of the old, obvious, and slow method of seeing who took the photo.
The case of El Pais is symptomatic of a journalism that is undergoing a metamorphosis in its DNA. Priorities that applied to traditional journalism - the search for the "scoop" more than anything else - no longer fit. In the 24-hour cycle of newspapers, "as soon as possible" allowed the journalist's work at least one day to do the hard, difficult, and sometimes boring task of investigation and checking. Today "as soon as possible" is now. Media that put "we have to be first" as the sacred cow invariably compromise their result.
The serious issue - more serious than any political attack on the Chavista regime - is the realization that the basic values of journalism are being "adapted" to keep "we have to be first" ahead of the others. Each major breaking news is a big bet that, when the publication loses, just changes the subject, like the Business Insider website and its frenetic-sensationalist coverage that disguises everything as opinion to be able to mount its defense in case the "forecast" is wrong.
The distortion of the principles of journalism is not only due to technology. The stubbornness of most experienced journalists and academics in embracing the technological switch of the industry, coupled with the constant salary losses of journalists in the last two decades has left newsrooms under the command of much less experienced professionals with much less baggage to make decisions at critical moments - exactly like the one that made El Pais go ahead with a photo that could be found in a video on the Internet. What is thought-provoking is imagining how journalistic disasters like the one starred by the Spanish newspaper do not happen, since the environment in practically all publications in the world suffers from the same malady.