Juanita León: reporting in extremely polarized climates

Colombian journalist Juanita León spoke Monday about how her news organization, La Silla Vacia, faces the challenges of reporting in severely polarized environments.

By Chris KNAPP and Rochelle GLUZMAN

Juanita León (@jleonlasilla) est notre prochaine invitée. Fondatrice et directrice à @lasillavacia. Elle va nous expliquer comment raconter la défiance dans un monde polarisé. Rejoignez nous sur tous nos supports !

📌THÈME : La reconquête du terrain.

⌚️14H15 – 14H30#NPDJ pic.twitter.com/Lw2oAf0rop

— EDJ Sciences Po (@sciencespoEDJ) December 6, 2021

  • La Silla Vacia founder and director Juanita León spoke on the challenges of reporting in extremely polarized climates
  • Around the world, faith in news media is extremely low
  • La Silla Vacia is finding news ways to earn public trust by combining vigorous traditional reporting with innovative presentation

Joining the NPDJ by Zoom, León, the founder and director of La Silla Vacia, described a sharp divide in Colombia’s current political environment, in which 58 percent of the public has no faith in news media. 

People have no faith in institutions,” León said, “but they also have no faith in journalism.”

It’s a situation León says Colombian news organizations see little hope of bridging without falling into irrelevance. Instead, she explained, news outlets have been forced to take sides in order to retain their audiences.

You have to decide”, she said, “do you feed the polarization and increase traffic, or do you stay above and risk not being heard.”

At La Silla Vacia, León said, overcoming this dilemma has meant turning away from traditional media in favor of social media platforms. With more than three hundred thousands followers on Instagram, and more than thirty thousand on TikTok, La Silla Vacia reaches a wide audience with thoroughly reported news, and has created a number of innovative new formats tailored for each platform. 

These formats include weekly video explainers, and topical audience question-and-answer sessions, as well as a fake news debunking segment which uses character-based humor to overcome audience bias and a deeply entrenched distrust of journalists. Similarly, new narrative formats pioneered by the organization break down items in the news cycle in order to separate fact from fiction and to give users perspective on the polarization itself.

During an intense protest movement in Colombia earlier this year, La Silla Vacia faced a particular challenge in conveying to its audience the extent of police use of force. Many people in the country, including traditional media outlets, refused to believe reports that police had killed as many as 43 protesters. By devoting her team to a thorough, in-depth investigation, León brought to the public indisputable evidence that police had fired live ammunition on crowds. 

There are so many issues,” she said, “where you just have to have the hard facts.”


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