2010 cases: Mexican drug war

Lydia Herrera

1. On November 13, 2008, Armando Rodriguez a Mexican crime reporter for El Diario Newspaper was murdered outside of his home in Juarez, Mexico as he sat in his car with his daughter beside him preparing to take her to school.  Rodriguez had covered the crime beat for El Diario newspaper for fourteen years and had often received threats on his life for reporting the activities of some of Mexico’s most notorious drug gangs.  The death of Rodriguez was not by coincidence but was part of a systematic attempt by organized crime to silence the media.  The editors and reporters of El Diario newspaper now must question where the line is drawn between working to report the truth and working to ensure their own safety.  The case raises many questions in how journalists can do their job in situations of war and pressures outside of the newsroom.  What should or should not be published in regards to names, facts, and pictures? How can the journalists protect themselves but still reveal some truths?  One of the most chilling and earliest acts of criminal aggression towards the media was the murder of Armando Rodriguez.  Should the editors of El Diario now resort to self-censoring what they publish which would ensure the safety of their journalists but would inevitably show compliance to the drug lords?  What pictures or information should El Diario release to the public that would still reflect the truth and enable them to maintain their role as the “watchdogs” of society?  Is it the public’s right to know the facts of what is going on around them?  Marc Lacey of the New York Times writes that citizens question what the truth is when the media and officials fail to report what happened the night before.  Eunice Pena, professor of communications in Reynosa, Mexico, says, “Is it what you saw, or what the media and the officials say? You even wonder if you were imagining it.”  If they continue on, El Diario runs the risk of more death in their newsrooms or the corruption of their journalists.  Should one’s own self-interest be put above that of the public’s?  Can journalists’ still hang on to personal advocacy in the face of adversity?  How can El Diario keep journalism alive in Mexico, while doing the same for its reporters?  This case presents a professional issue in journalism of how journalists can adequately do their job when there are so many outside forces threatening the integrity of their work.  This issue requires immediate attention and probable solutions because if not then more and more journalists will be targeted and killed or corrupted into going against the rules and ethics of journalism.  They will longer be a mouthpiece for the people and their silence will be a reflection of the worsening conditions in Mexico and how not even the government can control the crime running amuck in the streets of Mexico.  The New York Times urges El Diario not to silence itself.  Other newspapers have decided to censor what they publish, discontinue reporting anything about organized crime, or working with the drug cartels through corruption, bribery or fear.  News organizations, including El Diario, can follow their lead or ask for a truce between their organization and the drug gangs, stick to their responsibilities as journalists and provide timely, accurate and complete coverage, or, as noted by Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, defend their right to freedom of expression and information and not remain quiet due to interests other than that of society’s.  Also, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists writes, “Federal forces must recognize that the media has a job to perform and must keep citizens informed about issues of public interest-like the impact of violence and official corruption.  We call on your government to develop new procedures and training to ensure that soldiers and federal police facilitate rather than hinder this necessary work.”  Another case that explores the issue of what should or should not be published or shown is the Columbine High case.  When Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in the halls of their school three local stations had seconds to decide what information and pictures to release.  The journalists at the scene and in the newsroom worked closely with law enforcement to verify their facts and withhold any information that might risk the safety of the students and faculty still inside the building.  They put into consideration what to disclose because of their conflicting loyalties between providing the facts and remaining sensitive to the public.  The issues raised in the Columbine case reflect some of the same issues that El Diario newspaper faces after the death of crime reporter Armando Rodriguez.  “Under what circumstances should you withhold information or pictures once you have them, and what issues should be factored into that decision?  Which news value should take priority: providing full, timely, accurate news coverage to viewers or attempting to minimize harm?” (Shepard)  Also, both cases dealt with conflicts of loyalty.  The news stations at Columbine had to decide where the ethical line was drawn between providing full, timely, accurate news coverage and keeping the feelings of their viewers in mind.  Their solution was putting aside the competition and being concerned only with the welfare of the situation.  El Diario newspaper is also made to question what they should or should not publish and if they should censor the crime reports they give to the public.  However, their situation is different in that their conflicting loyalties lay between providing good journalism for the public and ensuring their own safety.  Their issue was defined through the question of how far a journalist should go to provide the news without sacrificing their own safety.  Another case that exemplifies similar issues to El Diario was the Watergate Case in which journalist team Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked to expose the political corruption taking place in the White House.  President Nixon hated the media and thus used his power to manipulate them.  When Woodstein refused to back down, Nixon attacked them with a vengeance.  This case showed how journalists and media are always in relationships with other powerful institutions that are exploitative in nature because both parties “use” or are “used” by the other.  It also demonstrates how journalists challenge those in power.  El Diario themselves are in a relationship with the increasingly powerful drug cartels.  News organizations all over Mexico are being manipulated and exploited by the drug gangs and El Diario faces the decision of challenging those in power by providing clear, accurate, and fair coverage to the public or backing down and being manipulated.  Watergate and El Diario raise another question.  How can journalists go about doing their job when they are stuck in such a relationship where the government does little to help the “good guys?”

2.  In order to fully understand the issues brought about by the El Diario case, one must know the context around which it has occurred.  Since the start of 2006 when Felipe Calderon took office and declared a war on drugs, major parts of Mexico have erupted in an uproar of criminal activity as drug cartels terrorize the innocent, the media, law enforcement and political figures.  This drug war has mercilessly taken over 28,000 lives, 30 of which were journalists who were targeted because of their coverage or their news organizations coverage of the drug war.  Mexico is now considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work.  According to the New York Times, traffickers have attacked the media in a vengeance by shooting up newsrooms, kidnapping and killing staff members and regularly threatening the lives of reporters and editors.  Many news outlets in Mexico have fallen into the practice of self-censoring, retreating into silence when it comes to reporting crime, or are heavily exploited and manipulated into publishing what the leaders of drug cartels ask out of fear and severe intimidation.  All Business reported one instance in which a journalist was kidnapped and his safety guaranteed as long as news outlets ran certain pieces on the air.

The current climate of journalism in Mexico is an important factor when contemplating the emerging journalistic issues.  Marcela Turati, head of Journalists on Foot, said, “Northern Mexico is increasingly silent.  Anywhere you go, the right of a citizen to reliable information is compromised.”  Journalism is currently being practiced under severe limitations and under the rules enforced by organized crime.  Consequences of violating these limitations and rules results in harm, possibly even death.  An editor in Reynosa, Mexico, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said, “Journalism today is about surviving another day, plain and simple.”  The rise in self-censorship in news organizations severely undermines the right to freedom of expression.

Also, it is important to note the basic facts concerning journalists in times of war and conflict.  A journalist’s role in times of war is to relay the truth, “bear witness” to what the public cannot see or is kept from and expose it as they see it.  An article entitled “Safety of Journalists” writes, “Journalist deaths typically spike in times of war, from about 26 in years without major conflict to roughly 46 in years of significant warfare.”  They also write that 85% of all journalists killed in conflict were not foreign correspondents working in war zones, but local journalists reporting at home and are usually murdered in their offices, during their commute to work, or at home.  Their murders are usually the result of careful planning and “gangland style” executions.  When reporting war, journalists must perform a balancing act between preserving their own safety and providing the public with clear, accurate, and fair reporting.  After all a journalists number one loyalty is to the public but also has a duty to themselves.

In addition, the protection of journalists that report war is never guaranteed.  Thus, “it is the responsibility of the media institution that sends them into conflict zones to limit the risks and to provide protection, basic guaranties and, if necessary, compensation…” (Safety of Journalists)  Drastic measures must be taken by governments to ensure the safety of the press and the preservation of freedom of expression.  Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the International News Safety Institute have done everything from challenging the government on their lack of investigation into the killings of journalists to voicing their own recommendations of improving media safety whether they are embedded or independent.  Despite this however, little progress has been made in protecting journalists reporting war and conflict.  How can the journalists provide fair, clear, accurate reporting when even the government is doing little to protect them and the laws against attacking the freedom of speech?  A situation in which these professional journalistic issues arise is the work of journalists in Iraq.  As of now the number of journalists and media contributors that have been killed in Iraq stands at 230.  This number is even larger than during the 20 years of the Vietnam War.  Death of journalists is consistently rising with each year that passes in areas where war rages and there is little respect for the media as an institutionalized power.    Journalism will be a force for good as long as journalists are able to work in an environment that protects and preserves the integrity of their work.     

Finally, it is important to consider the journalistic code of ethics when weighing issues.  As documented by the Society of Professional Journalists, “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”  They must also avoid any activities or associations that may compromise integrity or damage their credibility.  They must be “vigilant and courageous and hold those with power accountable.  It is the duty of the journalist to be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information and most of all accountable to readers, listener, viewers, and their colleagues.  When keeping the code of ethics in mind, it is clarifies what direction needs to be taken when dealing with professional issues such as the ones brought up in times of war and conflict.

3. When discussing this case consider these questions in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.  They also allow different points of views and solutions to be considered.

1.  What is a journalist’s role when reporting war details and incidents?  What factors should be weighed when deciding what should or should not be published?

2.  In cases like El Diario, what ways can journalists effectively do their jobs in situations of war when they must deal with pressures outside of the newsroom?  How can journalists provide fair, balanced, accurate news reports when their safety is at stake and the government fails to protect them?

3.  Relationships between powerful institutions, such of that of the media, government, and drug cartels, are often exploitative with one being used by the other.  In what ways do the media fall as the weaker link in such relationships?  What potential problems or discrepancies could arise in how news in presented? How would these problems affect the concept of good solid reporting?

4.  It is well known that journalism’s first loyalty is to its citizens, but when their lives are at stake, is their room for a journalist to fulfill its obligation to themselves?  In cases like these, should one’s own self-interest be put above that of the public’s? Why or why not?

5.  In what ways can journalists’ still hang on to personal advocacy in the face of adversity?  And how can journalists reveal some truths without sacrificing their safety?  Is it possible to maintain their roles as the “watchdogs” of society when journalists are being murdered because of their coverage?  Why or why not?

6.  At what point does it become okay to fall into the practice of self-censoring or resort to corruption out of fear or bribery? Should that even be considered as a likely option? Explain.

4.  There are two main issues prominent in this case.  The first is what role journalists play in times of war and how they can preserve their own safety while successfully carrying out the tasks demanded of them.  The next is what factors should be considered when publishing certain information.  Questions 1, 2, and 3 allow discussion to be geared towards contemplation of the role of journalists in war.  It allows the student to consider what issues must be weighed when deciding what should or should not be published, what the consequences might be, and if it will minimize or maximize harm.  I hope it also will allow them to think about the kind of pressures that are placed on the media by different institutions and how it affects the way news is portrayed.  Question 3 steers the discussion towards analyzing the different dynamics of institutional relationships and the consequences of these relationships.  I hope for the students to come to the conclusion of how these relationships are oftentimes manipulative and exploitative in nature because each may use the other for their own personal advancement.  This case study reflects the negative state of journalism today and, it is important that the students realize how vital it is that journalists be allowed to do their jobs to their fullest ability in the absence of fear or threat.  Questions 4, 5, and 6 steers the discussion into the ethics of journalism.  When considering these questions, students must keep in mind the elements of truth, loyalty, obligation to personal conscience, and the role of journalists as the “watchdogs of society.”  The students should be able to clearly see the balancing act journalists perform when confronted with such issues and how a line must be established between reporting the truth and ensuring one’s own safety.

Works Cited

ARCHIBOLD, RANDAL C.. “Mexico Paper, a Drug War Victim, Calls for a Voice – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/world/americas/21mexico.html?scp=1&sq=mexico%20paper,%20a%20drug%20war%20victim,%20calls%20for%20a%20voice&st=cse&gt;.

Allenback, Aimee. “Ethics.” Mason academic research system (mason.gmu.edu). N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://mason.gmu.edu/~sklein1/comm351/outl22.html&gt;.

Campbell, Monica. “At Risk in Mexico : Columbia Journalism Review.” Columbia Journalism Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. <http://www.cjr.org/feature/at_risk_in_mexico.php?page=all&print=true&gt;.

“Editorial – ‘What Do You Want From Us?’™ – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/opinion/25sat4.html?scp=1&sq=’what%20do%20you%20want%20from%20us’&st=cse&gt;.

LACEY, MARC. “Fearing Drug Cartels, Reporters in Mexico Retreat – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 13 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/world/americas/14mexico.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=fearing%20drug%20cartels,%20reporter%20in%20Mexico%20retreat&st=cse&gt;.

Negron, Sito. “Juarez reporter killed, while his daughter sits next to him – Newspaper Tree El Paso.” Newspaper Tree El Paso. N.p., 13 Nov. 2008. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. <http://newspapertree.com/news/print/3076-juarez-reporter-killed-while-his-daughter-next-to-him&gt;.

“Journalists’ Code of Ethics | Reynolds Journalism Institute | University of Missouri.” Home | Reynolds Journalism Institute | University of Missouri. Web. 13 Nov. 2010. <http://www.rjionline.org/mas/code-of-ethics/ibero-american-code&gt;.

O’Connor, Mike. “Second investigator on murder case killed in Mexico – Blog – Committee to Protect Journalists.” Press Freedom Online – Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. <http://cpj.org/blog/2009/08/second-investigator-of-journalists-death-murdered.php&gt;.

Ricchiardi, Sherry. “AJR – Dangerous Assignment.” American Journalism Review. 2006. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.ajr.org/article_printable.asp?id=4003&gt;.

Rosensteil, Tom , and Amy Mitchell. “Columbine School Shooting.” Thinking Clearly. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 57, 60. Print.

“Safety of Journalists: UNESCO-CI.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=23540&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html&gt;.

“SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp&gt;.

Torres, Olivia . “Mexico daily cuts drug war coverage after slaying – Yahoo! News.” The top news headlines on current events from Yahoo! News. N.p., 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100920/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/lt_mexico_journalist_killed&gt;.

“Violence against Journalists in Latin America Is on the Rise, Experts Say | Legal Constitutional Law from AllBusiness.com.” Small Business Advice and Resources from AllBusiness.com. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.allbusiness.com/crime-law-enforcement-corrections/criminal-offenses/14645996-1.html&gt;.

6.  Other resources

 

Los Angeles Times series, Mexico Under Siege, coverage from June 2008 until now, includes photos, multimedia, news reports

http://projects.latimes.com/mexico-drug-war/#/its-a-war

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