Just how much can protests distract from the real story?

Last week, on August 29th, Colombia’s peaceful agrarian protests turned violent after clashes between protesters and police erupted in downtown Bogota. I was there. And after interviewing a number of peaceful protesters – potato growers (photo) and students to name some – I witnessed the crowd turn into a mob.

Police responded with tear gas and high-pressure water cannons. The mob turned more chaotic. The confusion swelled. And the reporters reported what happened.

From my view, the story that unfolded went from the story of how protesters are backing a message that farmers wanted to send to the Colombian government, into the story of a violent clash between protesters and government anti-riot police. Of course, these clashes are part of the story. And multiple media outlets reported on the chaos that took over the protests. But the chaos isn’t the whole story. And it doesn’t seem to be the message the protesters want to send.


The problem I experienced with reporting on the unrest is that the voices of the protesters and the government drowned in the chaos. The reporting got distracted. And with the key voices lost in the fray, the reporters’ duty to, show both sides, lay the foundations of a debate and get to the roots of the problem went down with the ship as well.

As the chaos of the mob swelled, I ran for it, took refuge in a cafe, gathered myself, and called the newsroom. I dictated the facts: an estimate of how many protesters, how a peaceful tone turned into a violent one, how some protesters vandalized property and how the police responded. That was the gist. I dictated the facts, hung up the phone, and went back out into the street only to find myself caught in another clash. This time the speed of the police and confusion of the mob fell right on top of me and I stumbled away after being tear-gassed.

Colombian media reported on police abuses and some media speculated on who the small group of disruptive vandals were. The Santos administration shared its opinion on who was behind the mischief. The mayor gave his view. And other groups guessed and wondered over the question: who is to blame for the violent clashes?

I too, became caught up with this question of the right and the wrong behind the clashes.

But thinking back, I think those are the wrong questions.

The next day when I began to sift through the stories that had hit the screen, I realized that the voices of the government, the students, the potato growers and the thinkers I had interviewed were lost in the stories. And if they did make it in, they got diluted, earning at most a place low down in the story.

If you listen to a potato grower explain the challenges of covering his costs of production and high taxes you dig into the real story. If you listen to an economist explain the government’s policies on competition, you dig into the real story.

How much did we dig?

I went back and looked at what I had contributed to in the day’s report. The voice of Benjamin Morales, the potato grower I had interviewed, wasn’t there. Had I failed? Maybe I was in the right. Or perhaps I had just become lost in a more sensational, less relevant story?

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