The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid the coverage of Ukraine, is a crisis in Venezuela being ignored?

A woman walks past a burning barricade in Caracas on Feb. 24. Anti-government demonstrators set up barricades and started fires in Venezuela's capital Monday despite calls from within the opposition to rein in protests in which at least 12 people have died. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)
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Over the weekend, the situation in Ukraine became one of the biggest stories on the planet. On both Saturday and Sunday, stories from the protest-wracked nation ran above the fold on the front page in the print edition of The Washington Post. The dramatic story also appeared on the top of the New York Times' front pages. It appeared to be a major story for almost all news outlets.

What was going on in Ukraine was clearly momentous. On Saturday, Viktor Yanukovych had fled the capital, his extravagant home now open for the world to see, while his rival Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and vowed to run in newly announced elections. The situation is by no means resolved, but it did look like a real breakthrough for the Euromaidan protests.

Ukraine wasn't the only news story in the world, however. On the surface of it, there is a similar situation brewing in Venezuela, and some people are beginning to wonder whether it is getting enough attention.

"Is Venezuela burning while world watches Ukraine?"asked the United Kingdom's Channel 4News, while Voxxi, a news source dedicated to serving America's Latino community, wrote Monday  that Venezuela's violence was "missing from U.S. media coverage." At The Post, we have been specifically called out for not featuring more Venezuela coverage:

There's no question that the protests in Venezuela are important: According to the latest figures, at least 12 people have died and there are few signs that the violence will end anytime soon. What's more, there are other hot spots around the world right now: My colleague Anup Kaphle recently pointed out that violent protests have occurred in countries such as Bosnia, Thailand and Guinea, among others. It sadly goes without saying that awful situations persist in a number of other regions, not least Syria.

The worrying conclusion here is that perhaps American appetite for international news is a zero-sum game: Ukraine is simply taking up too much attention for Venezuela to make headlines. Could that possibly be true? Let's consider it.

Is Ukraine really getting more attention than Venezuela?

It's a little hard to accurately measure this, so let's look at two specific examples. As I mentioned above, there was no mention of Venezuela on either The Washington Post's or the New York Times' front pages this weekend. A search of LexisNexis on Monday morning found there were 10 articles in The Post that featured the word "Venezuela" either in the title or lead paragraphs during the past week; the same search for "Ukraine" returned 28 results. The same search for the Times returned 13 for "Venezuela" and 25 for "Ukraine."

That doesn't mean that no one is talking about Venezuela, of course. Data from social media monitoring Web site Topsy shows that the number of tweets related to Venezuela's protests have surpassed the number of tweets related to Ukraine's protests at some points over the past month. In total, Venezuela appears to be winning the social media battle, though it is possible that this is due to differences in language or script.

If Ukraine really is being covered more than Venezuela, why?

It's a good question. The most obvious is very practical: There's a limited amount of space in a newspaper, especially on the front page. A huge amount of things are happening in the world on any given day, and a newspaper doesn't have the space to publish everything, especially on the front page. Economic factors are a concern, too: Foreign reporting is expensive and news outlets do not have an infinite amount of money. The past few weeks have been full of very important foreign news, and this has led to some difficult decisions. It almost certainly would have been amiss to not include the arrest of alleged Mexican drug lord  Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on the front page this weekend, for example, and as hard as foreign correspondents work, they simply can't be in two places at once.

There are other factors at work here, though. The Euromaidan protests made headlines this weekend because they caused serious changes within the country, but they only did this after almost three months of protests. Euromaidan began Nov. 21, 2013, and gradually grew in both size and severity. The response to protests in Venezuela may have been brutal, but they only began in earnest at the beginning of February. In more morbid terms, Ukraine's total body count is almost 10 times that in Venezuela. For confusing events in far-away places, there often seems to be a "tipping point" beyond which the average U.S. reader finally becomes interested. It could be that Venezuela hasn't reached it yet.

Remember, Ukraine ≠ Venezuela.

Kiev's Maidan Square can perhaps be superficially compared to the center of Caracas' protests, Plaza Altamira, or other centers of protest in Venezuela, with the same violent, anti-government clashes on show, but the reality is – as always – more complicated.

For one thing, Venezuela lacks the obvious geopolitical element that made Euromaidan seem like a clash of civilizations: The Ukrainian people's hopes for a democratic, "European" future  vs. the "Russian" brute force of Viktor Yanukovych's government. The reality of this was (again) more complicated, as both the situation in Crimea and the far-right Ukrainian nationalists among the Maidan protesters illustrate. Still, it was an easy narrative for those in the United States or Western Europe to sympathize with. The narrative for Venezuela may be less compelling, especially to the many Americans who have sympathy for the socialist government in Venezuela.

There also appear to be some important differences about the nature of support for the protests too. Earlier this month, a number of analysts told The Washington Post that even though opposition leader Leopoldo López is resonating with those who are sick of President Nicolás Maduro, the government is not expected to collapse anytime soon. Importantly, Maduro still enjoys the clear support of the country's military and much of Venezuela's poor who personally benefited from the “Bolivarian” Revolution began by Maduro's late predecessor, Hugo Chavez. López's own success may also create a split within the opposition, many of whom could well favor the less confrontational style of Henrique Caprile, a former presidential candidate.

“Many think there will be a contagion [with Ukraine], but we are far from there,” Ángel Álvarez, a professor of political science at the Andres Bello University in Caracas, told the Financial Times today.

But don't be surprised if Venezuela becomes a huge story.

For all the differences between the situations, at least one key factor is the same in Venezuela and Ukraine: The centrality of the economy to the protests. In fact, the situation in Ukraine pales in comparison to that in Venezuela, where basic goods such as milk and flour are in short supply and inflation runs at 56 percent.

Another worrying factor is recurrent reports of a "media crackdown" within the country, where many state broadcasters have been accused of "self-censorship" and there were reports that images were been blocked on Twitter, a source of news for many in the country. "The domestic media blackout imposed by President Nicolas Maduro makes coverage by international outlets all the more crucial," Mariana Atencio, a Venezuelan-born journalist who had been reporting from the country for Fusion, told me in an e-mail, adding that she was "hounded by National Police and armed pro-government groups" even after they saw her foreign press card.

Of course, U.S.  media coverage isn't the be-all and end-all for world events: One recent, widely shared Politico Magazine article argued that much of the coverage of Ukraine ended up as"disaster porn." That said, the events in Venezuela are important and complicated, and are almost certainly not over. They deserve thoughtful and delicate coverage. It may not be Ukraine, but it doesn't have to be.