Future of Journalism: Lessons on Covering Populism in Divided Societies

August 25, 2021

In the latest event in “The Future of Journalism” series, the Santiago Center, Universidad Diego Portales’ (UDP) School of Journalism and Columbia University’s Journalism School hosted a conversation with Mary Beth Sheridan, correspondent at The Washington Post and recent winner of the Maria Moors Cabot 2021 award, on how to cover populism in divided societies.

The event was opened by Columbia Journalism School’s Assistant Dean of Academic Programs and Communications, Elena Cabral, and moderated by Gazi Jalil, Director of UDP’s School of Journalism.

Sheridan shared four recommendations for journalists when it comes to covering populism:

1. Know when to listen to be able to tell the whole story. In Mexico, where Sheridan is based, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been largely criticized for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sometimes the government minimized the pandemic, sometimes it used data to distort [reality]. By no means do I want to blame journalists on this, but at times there is a temptation in divided societies with populist leaders, to bring everything to confrontation,” she said. “There were many articles that weren’t written because everything was trapped in the polarization. For example, there were no stories about the doctor who handled the pandemic in Mexico…No doubt, there are moments when you need to confront the government, but there are also moments when you need to listen and understand.”

2. Understand populism. Sheridan pointed to the example of the 2016 US presidential elections between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, where she said no one in the pressroom expected the latter to win because they had failed to understand the reason behind his popularity and why people were attracted to him, overlooking significant social and economic factors.

She also spoke about her personal experience in Venezuela during the 2004 referendum over whether to recall President Hugo Chávez from office. “The analysts I spoke to were as polarized as society was, and it was difficult to get a good analysis from anyone. So I went to talk to some sociologists, and they were the ones that had a much clearer vision of what was happening, explaining how for years the poorer, working class had been mobilizing, and how Chavez took advantage of that social movement. We need to listen to everyone, to reflect those voices in our articles,” she noted.

3. Be careful with your sources. “Today in Mexico, it’s difficult to find analysts who really understand the phenomenon of López Obrador, what he is or even giving him credit when he deserves it,” Sheridan said, calling for journalists to search for balanced sources.

4. Investigate rigorously. The seasoned journalist highlighted the need for thorough documentation when there are violations of human rights or democratic principles. She pointed to the well-documented, serious work done by El Faro in El Salvador, which investigated how the government had secretly negotiated with gangs to reach an agreement to bring the violence down.

“I don’t want to minimize the challenges of journalists working in places like El Salvador, where the president has come up against El Faro with insults and disqualifications, calling for investigations of journalists’ tax filings, taking away their visas. In Mexico, the president also criticizes journalists, trying to discredit them. This is a difficult moment for journalists in countries that have populist leaders,” she said, expressing solidarity with her colleagues.

Sheridan has worked at The Washington Post since 2001, after 11 years as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times. Currently she covers Mexico and Central America; her previous assignments for The Post include covering diplomacy, homeland security and immigration. She was deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018.