Television News and Political Partisanship in Latin America

Article excerpt

This article explores the linkages between television news and the decline of partisanship in Latin America, using survey data for eight countries. After discussing the erosion of traditional Latin American parties during the 1990s, I show that the literature has assumed different types of causal links between television and party dealignment (treatment vs. strategic effects, and cohort vs. short-term effects). Based on comparative research on industrial and new democracies, I present two contrasting hypotheses (television news inhibits partisanship; exposure to television creates political awareness) and test the impact of short-term treatment effects using a multinomial logit model. The results suggest that television news encourages party identification in the short run (through treatment effects), although the development of television may weaken Latin American parties in the long run (through strategic effects).

In recent years, students of Latin American politics have shown a growing interest in the political role of television. Different authors have claimed that press organizations and media technologies have become increasingly powerful and that they are weakening or replacing traditional political institutions. Mainwaring and Scully (1995: 471), for instance, suggested that "television has enabled candidates to make direct appeals to large parts of the population, potentially displacing party organizations as the primary means of getting the message out to voters." Other authors have even claimed that "the broadcast media are more powerful than the political parties" (Zuleta Puceiro 1993: 61).

This article presents results of tests to determine whether or not increasing exposure to television news is related to the erosion of political partisanship among citizens of eight Latin American countries. Until very recently, the paucity of comparative data on exposure to TV news and partisanship prevented the development of cross-national empirical studies on this topic. The availability of new survey data for several Latin American countries allows us to focus on a particular type of television influence-what I call short-term, "treatment" effects-- and place such influence in broader perspective. In the first part of this article, I review the arguments about television and the decline of parties, and place this debate in the Latin American context. In the next two sections I discuss some obscurities in the literature and clarify my hypotheses. The following sections present the evidence for eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela) and analyze the effects of television news on partisanship using a multinomial logistic model. The results suggest that short-term exposure to television does not erode party loyalty in the countries under study-quite the contrary; it may encourage partisanship-and that this thesis must be seriously reconsidered.


Students dealing with industrial democracies have seen in television a major threat for political parties and citizen involvement in politics. Giovanni Sartori (1989), for instance, has claimed that commercial television deals with political news in ways that promote localism and erode the political bases of responsible party government. A similar claim has been made by Putnam (1995) for whom television has been a major factor in the dissolution of social capital in America over the last fifty years. The issue of television is particularly important at this historical juncture because during the last decade most European systems traditionally based on public television started to move toward mixed systems where private networks will probably tend to dominate the market of information (Semetko 1996: 256; Van Praag and Van der Eijk 1998).

According to the dominant view, the development of television has had unexpected consequences for the form in which electoral campaigns are conducted and political agendas are shaped. …