conflict & communication online, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
ISSN 1618-0747




Sonia Gutiérrez-Villalobos
Pro-conflict and pro-cooperation coverage: The San Juan River conflict

This paper analyzes media coverage of the San Juan River conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It is a long-lasting conflict over the shared management of a river basin located along the border between the two countries. In March 2002, the governments of both countries agreed to change their approach from confrontation to co-operation.
The aim of this study is to see how the Costa Rican press covered the conflict during confrontation, and after its change to co-operation, in terms of pro-conflict versus pro-co-operation coverage. Two major newspapers were selected: La Nación (LN), and La República (LR).
A total of 81 news stories were content analyzed in two different periods of time: July 1998, when the confrontation reignited, and June 2002, after the change to co-operation.
This study applied a two-dimensional scale. It has 12 sets of indicators. Six sets indicate pro-conflict coverage of the conflict; the other six indicate pro-cooperation coverage.
The results for the 1998 coverage analysis show support for conflict and confrontation rather than co-operation:
- In the analysis of LN in 1998, pro-conflict and confrontation coverage is higher compared to pro-cooperation coverage regarding the variables "conceptualization of the San Juan River conflict" and "negative evaluation of Nicaraguan actions." Thus pro-conflict coverage is dominant in this newspaper.
- The analysis of LR in 1998 shows a dominance of pro-conflict coverage in three variables: the "evaluation of Nicaragua's actions" has the highest score, followed by "evaluation of Nicaragua's rights and intentions" and "negative emotions." However, the "conceptualization of the San Juan River conflict" is oriented to co-operation rather than conflict.
In sum, four variables score pro-conflict coverage, versus one that scores pro-cooperation.
The results of the 2002 coverage analysis show a decrease of pro-conflict coverage and an increase in pro-cooperation coverage:
- LN presents a shift from pro-conflict to pro-cooperation coverage in its conceptualization of the San Juan River: the "conceptualization of the San Juan River conflict" is predominantly oriented to cooperation. There is no predominance of pro-conflict coverage in 2002. Thus, LN changes to pro-cooperation coverage after the political agenda changed from confrontation to co-operation.
- LR manifests a dominance of pro-conflict coverage in two variables, and the "conceptualization of the San Juan River conflict" as co-operation.
In sum, two variables still show the predominance of pro-conflict coverage, while two variables exhibit pro-cooperation coverage.
Altogether, the results allow us to identify two trends:
1. A decrease in pro-conflict coverage and an increase in pro-cooperation coverage.
2. A resistance to change to pro-cooperation coverage despite the change to cooperation in the political agenda.
The results are useful in assessing Costa Rican press support for cooperation and the de-escalation of conflict. Peace is an important axis in Costa Rican foreign policy. Contrary to findings about the media as policy makers' tools, the two newspapers LN and LR lag behind in favoring the policy that supports co-operation and peace. Thus, the two newspapers endorse media culture's preference for conflict, confrontation and drama. The two newspapers' resistance to change to pro-cooperation coverage also indicates their attachment to seeing the San Juan River basin as a border river. To think about the region as a river basin is still an innovation. Usually innovations generate resistance, so the two newspapers exhibited resistance to the innovation.


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On the author:
Sonia Gutiérrez Villalobos, Ph.D., born 1948 in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. 1976 Licenciate in Literature at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). 1990 Master's degree in Communications at the University of Kentucky. 1995 Ph.D. in Communications at the University of Massachusetts. Works presently at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales (IDESPO) at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA). Publications inter alia: Support for the U.S. Administration During the Panama Invasion: Analysis of Strategic and Tactical Critique in the Domestic Press (1994, with Rush and Hertog), Three Theories to Test Press Support (1996), Los Medios y la Cultura de Paz (2001, with Kempf), Media and Reconciliation in Central America (2002, in: Gilboa, Media Diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict).

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