Dear Nicaragua Dispatch,
We are readers of Nicaragua Dispatch and we find it very useful to keep up to date with the latest news in English. For example, you had some very good recent coverage of the International Court judgement and we appreciated the pieces from San Andres giving reaction there.
We decided to write to you though because we think some of the normal news stories covering the Nicaraguan government’s policies or programmes could be much more balanced. A recent example was the story about schools. Although a government spokesperson was quoted, much of article was given over to criticism. Of course, criticism may well be due, but at the same time the government’s extraordinary achievement in getting large numbers of kids back to school could also be properly recognised, especially given the situation they inherited.
The recent report on the health of Hugo Chavez understandably focused on the effects on Nicaragua but from a very cynical viewpoint in which there was little recognition of the benefits that help from Venezuela has brought in terms of social programmes.
We do not want to suggest you should not criticise the government: as a journalist of course you will do that. We also know that you give space to people with different viewpoints. But speaking as readers, we would find the Dispatch a more enjoyable and satisfying read if its standard news coverage were better balanced, criticising where appropriate but praising too. Nicaragua has achieved a lot in the last few years: the Dispatch could cover the government’s achievements and the many obstacles it faces, as well as giving space to its critics.
We are conscious that you serve many English-speaking foreign residents in Nicaragua. Those among them who don’t read Spanish-language media may well look to the Dispatch for views about Nicaraguan politics, and it would be fairer to Nicaragua if they were given a balanced assessment.
We hope you take this is in the spirit in which it is intended and we wish you continued success with the Dispatch.
Dear John and friends,
Thank you for taking the time to write and for providing me with a seasonable opportunity for a year-end editorial. Before I get ahead of myself, I want to start by saying I am very happy to learn The Nicaragua Dispatch has become a useful source of news for you. Thank you for welcoming our articles into your computer every day.
The Nicaragua Dispatch makes a serious effort to present the news in a way that’s critical but fair. We go out of our way—probably more than any other independent news source in Nicaragua—to include positive stories about a government that is not interested in regular media coverage. The Sandinista administration has an official policy of not talking to media outlets other than the ones controlled by the first family. That makes balanced reporting an even more challenging task in the land where lead floats and cork sinks.
But even with a reticent and guarded administration, The Nicaragua Dispatch makes an effort to publish stories about the good things the government is doing, even if they don’t want to talk about it themselves. We have written extensively this year about the government’s efforts to launch a green energy revolution, promote economic growth, attract foreign-direct investment, expand rural electrification, boost tourism, expand trade, and reduce poverty, just to name a few of the articles I’m sure you’ve read in The Nicaragua Dispatch in recent months. We are also thankful for the handful of independent-minded officials in government who have granted us interviews this year —folks like Bayardo Arce, Gen. Alvaro Baltodano, Mario Salinas and Paul Oquist, to name a few of the officials who don’t seem to suffer from Sandinista lockjaw. Their interviews were interesting and elucidating to our readers.
But back to your plea for balance; I posit that Nicaragua is not a very balanced place to begin with, and one must be careful of misrepresenting the country as such. As a reporter, it’s not my job to align things that have been thrown out of whack by the folks running the place.
The government’s exclusion of the independent media only adds to a complex national disequilibrium comprised of poverty, social marginalization, political polarization, corruption and deep-rooted classism. If The Nicaragua Dispatch were to present all its stories in harmonious balance, we wouldn’t be doing a very honest job of reporting on Nicaragua’s reality.
However, The Nicaragua Dispatch has struck an overall balance in its story selection this year, as you politely acknowledge in your letter by saying some news articles are “very good” by your estimate, while others make you uncomfortable. If you had told me otherwise—that you either approved of or disliked everything I wrote—I would hang my head in defeat. Your mixed reaction to our news coverage is heartening; it suggests balance.
The concept of fair and balanced is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder (just ask Fox News). While people are quick to blame the media for reporting with bias, readers also bring their own bias to stories. That’s not criticism, just empirical observation. Let me give you some recent examples.
Take the story “U.S. commends Nicaragua’s trade liberalization,” which we published last week. The story focuses on how Nicaragua’s main trading partner is happy with the progress the Ortega government has made to liberalize the economy. For readers with a capitalist, free-trade bias, that’s a very positive story about a former socialist leader who is now playing by free-market rules—and doing so exceptionally well. But for left-leaning folks of the anti-globalization persuasion, it’s a negative story about the ruthless advance of “savage capitalism,” as Pope John Paul II called it. Still others will feel no strong bias one way or the other—they’ll read the story with detached curiosity, snickering irony or distracted befuddlement.
Readers’ reactions also varied to the story you mentioned on education, which focuses on how Nicaragua’s schools remain the most underfunded and underperforming in Central America. Government boosters might read that story as an attack on the Sandinista administration. But others might read it as sad criticism of a chronically floundering public education system that continues to suffer no matter how many times the government changes—a story in which victims are the children, not the bureaucrats. (John, you are correct in mentioning that the Bolaños government also had a very poor track record on education; I wrote about that in greater detail when he was president seven years ago).
When it comes to reporting on human rights and social justice, I believe it’s a journalist’s job to be extra critical of the abuses of power. For example, The Nicaragua Dispatch treats the government’s ban on therapeutic abortion as a violation of human rights—it’s that simple. If that comes across as unbalanced, too bad—it’s not a situation in balance.
The Nicaragua Dispatch, since its inception, has maintained a position that the free press’ role is to criticize power, challenge the establishment, mock folly and try to hold people in power accountable. That’s the media’s most important job in a free society. And if it makes people uncomfortable, well…good.
My objective as a journalist is not, as you request, to offer readers an “enjoyable and satisfying read” every day. That’s what self-help books are for. My job is to report on Nicaragua in the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absurd. And there’s plenty of all that going around. But I truly believe there’s a simple beauty in looking at things the way they are, rather than the way they pretend to be.
The Nicaragua Dispatch, as you point out in your letter, does “give space to people with different viewpoints.” That’s part of our mission for trying to create a democratic space for discussion, debate and free exchange of ideas. We have always welcomed—indeed, invited and encouraged—a wide variety of opinions and comments. John, I have personally invited you several times to write an opinion piece so readers can learn from your valuable perspective as someone who has lived here since the 1980s. So I am encouraged you finally wrote in and prompted this exchange of ideas; I hope this will inspire you to contribute more in the New Year.
In the meantime, thank you all for reading Nicaragua Dispatch this year. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. And to all a good night.