Reporting in the era of fake news in Venezuela and the U.S.
The Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center and the Poynter Fellow in Journalism hosted a conversation with Hannah Dreier on “Reporting in the Era of Fake News in Venezuela and the U.S.” on February 21. Currently a reporter at ProPublica, Dreier has previously worked as the Venezuela correspondent for the Associated Press. Her prize-winning reporting has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Gerald Loeb Awards and Overseas Press Club. The talk was moderated by Eileen Galvez, Director of La Casa Cultural.
Dreier began by comparing the normalization of “fake news” in the United States to her experience as a reporter in Venezuela from 2014 to 2017, during which time she witnessed the country’s quick transition from a prosperous democracy to an economically and politically destabilized authoritarian government. She explained how, following the economic recession the government declared a guerra mediatica – a “news war”– on foreign media and launched a counternarrative that suggested everything was fine. Regarding her role as a journalist, Dreier said, “it was really hard to break through that.”
To give the audience a sense of everyday life, Dreier recalled the juxtaposition of watching President Maduro dance happily on TV while tanks and protestors fought on the street just outside her window. Despite obvious daily hardships, she said, “people would believe the government over news sources that were fact-based.” Dreier described people’s antagonism toward her as a reporter, asking if she was part of the guerra mediatica and suspecting that she was a spy.
In order to break through the government’s counternarrative, she shifted her focus to narrative storytelling of specific people. For example, she wrote a piece called “A child’s scraped knee a life or death matter in Venezuela” that shed light on the inadequacies of the medical system. The accumulation of detail “broke through in a way that others hadn’t,” she noted.
After returning to the U.S. and covering a story on the notorious gang MS-13 on Long Island, she was surprised to see similar issues playing out. She argued that the imagery cultivated by the Trump administration around MS-13 gang members is different from reality, much like the counternarrative cultivated by the Venezuelan government. As Dreier began collecting sources for the story, the public affairs officer “asked me if I was fake news, like CNN.”
She said, “It felt so familiar… this happened all the time in Venezuela.”
Dreier then used the same approach she did in Venezuela, focusing her stories on detailed individual accounts. One of her first reports, “The Betrayal of Triste,” told the story of a teenager who served as an informant for authorities in an attempt to leave the gang, but was turned over to ICE afterwards.
“The power of this kind of storytelling when you say exactly what happened and you don’t try to edit it one way or another… I think that’s what really breaks through,” Dreier said.
In response to an audience member’s question about how to identify good reporting, she responded that she looks at sources, looks for whether perspectives of the other side are presented, and tries to remain aware of the reporter’s own bias. Dreier noted that when it comes to immigration in particular, the reporter may have significant biases that result in advocacy journalism.
Galvez then asked about the tension between foreign and national press in Venezuela. Dreier explained that journalism in Venezuela is currently extremely difficult because the national press is heavily censored and the foreign press is banned by President Maduro. She added that the only two Americans living there right now and reporting for the foreign press do not have the manpower to undertake detailed reporting.
Written by Julia Ding, Class of 2019.