A vanilla-infused breeze causes fragile palms to sway and wave along the streets of Papantla, a municipality in northern Veracruz, Mexico. Other than the occasional passerby photographing mural-covered buildings or the buzz of a motorcyclist emitting puffs of exhaust, this quiet town in the country’s eastern region is relatively at peace.
But on March 30, those peaceful streets turned red with blood when reporter María Elena Ferral Hernández was gunned down in broad daylight. Her death in a hospital a few hours later made her the first periodista murdered this year in Mexico, one of the world’s deadliest places to be a journalist.
Violence, instability and impunity continue to plague the country’s news industry. At least 120 periodistas — Spanish for journalists — and likely many more have been murdered in Mexico since 1992.
Several sources, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Article 19, estimate the impunity rate for murdered media workers in Mexico to top 90%. Many of these groups consider reporting in Mexico to be more dangerous than in any other country not currently involved in a war. Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks Mexico 144th out of 180 countries.
As Mexican journalists continue to risk their lives in the streets, a new problem manifests in classrooms and lecture halls: declining interest in the journalism profession from prospective students, turned off or kept at bay by the low wages and high safety risk.
Many of the classrooms that once helped fill voids left by people such as Hernández — a 30-year reporting vet who founded a local news outlet in Veracruz — and other murdered reporters now also lie empty. While the notepads and Rolodexes of the dead collect dust, so do student desks, textbooks and school-owned cameras.
This raises the question: As Mexican students lose interest in journalism, and as reporters continue to die, go missing, or enter hiding, how are those who are left behind working to keep the industry alive?
In late 2012, two Mexican universities announced the end of their school’s journalism programs — Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla and Universidad de Morelia. A third, Universidad Veracruzana, reported concern over sharp declines in enrollment.
UPAEP’s program had about 10 enrolled students at the time of its closure. By comparison, it’s typical for a single journalism course at a U.S. college to enroll at least 10 students per semester.
So far, the trend has shown few signs of reversal. Eight years later, remaining journalism programs in Mexico — such as the one at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City — see double-digit enrollment numbers as a welcome blessing.
“While ITESM is the only private university in Mexico to offer studies in journalism, it has gone against the tide,” said María del Carmen Fernández Chapou, a professor in ITESM’s Department of Creative Industries. “A few years ago, they closed the study for lack of students. But just this year, thanks to the effort and insistence of those who believe in the importance of the professionalism of journalism, the study will be reopened, with 10 students on campus.”
But after graduation, these 10 students will face a turbulent and uncertain path, where meeting a deadline will rarely top their list of concerns.
Chapou noted long working hours, absence of basic benefits, sexual harassment within the newsroom, and — depending on the reporter’s focus and where they’re located — intense censorship and aggression.
“Studying journalism in Mexico represents a great challenge, since it is the country with the highest number of attacks on media and journalists,” she said. “Violence against the media in Mexico discourages the intention of studying journalism; it is perceived as a risky profession. … However, careers in journalism are more necessary than ever today, because journalism is one of the ways to advance in the area of freedom of expression.”
According to Data USA, the United States awarded approximately 14,000 journalism degrees in 2017 and roughly 120,788 communication degrees. Conversely, Chapou said ITESM enrolls just 10-15 students in journalism annually, alongside 40-50 enrolled in communication studies.
While some journalism departments cease entirely, others are folded into communications or social sciences degree programs — perhaps impeding student development if essential courses are cut.
Journalism curriculum in the United States might cover journalistic ethics, feature writing or photojournalism. At ITESM, Chapou notes a significant dedication to “safe journalism” — focused on giving young journalists the tools to stay aware and stay alive.
“Fortunately, the university is still a safe space to teach, promote, do journalism with professional standards,” she said. “I exercise my freedom of professorship and the university also tends to support networks with media and journalists to practice professional and safe journalism. Training, journalism specialization, and university-citizen-media-journalists networks help it to be exercised more independently and freely.”
That free, independent style of journalism is pursued and celebrated in Mexican classrooms but remains rare in the field — especially for reporters just starting their careers.
Unless protected by the insulation of a massive media company, the limelight of a large city, or the intellect and security of cutting-edge digital reporting, Mexican reporters often fight an uphill battle from day one.
“The classical kind of investigating reporting in Mexico is a kind of journalism that is exclusive to a very small group, usually concentrated in the major cities like Mexico City, and to a lesser degree in Guadalajara and Monterrey,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative.
“Younger and less trained journalists are far more susceptible to the corrupting developments that are very prevalent in Mexico in the sense that they have less tools to work with, they have to deal with more censorship, and the security situation is far less favorable to them than for reporters who grew up when Mexico was just opening up about 20 years ago.”
The “opening-up” Hootsen describes was a series of early-21st century legislative advancements that helped revolutionize Mexican journalism and access to information about government affairs. A Mexican federal transparency law passed in 2002 blew a hole in government secrecy, setting up deadlines for information requests and establishing a principle of “maximum disclosure.”
A decade later in 2012, the Mexican government created the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, aimed at revolutionizing safety for journalists and mandating a level of attention to crimes against them.
This seems like laudable progress. But with a closer look, limitations and failures are evident.
Massive loopholes can help political parties dodge transparency requirements. The Protection Mechanism has frequently experienced staff cuts and low funding. And despite his pledges to improve protections for reporters, current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains publicly critical of the press, particularly about how it covers his administration.
Systemic breakdowns and governmental failures are a border-to-border issue, and yet, only part of the problem. Distinct complexities unique to all 32 states make threats to journalists in Mexico far from monolithic.
Whereas in Mexico City or Guadalajara a reporter may worry about corrupt government officials, reporters in more isolated regions — like Hernández in Veracruz — are more concerned with local politicians or crooked cops. In northern border states like Tamaulipas, organized crime is the main threat.
Meanwhile, rural areas of southern states like Oaxaca or Chiapas are often home to age-old land disputes and culture wars which pose far greater threats to reporters than cartels or systemic corruption.
What amounts to myriad problems facing Mexican reporters — violence, low wages, dwindling school enrollment, job insecurity, governmental incompetence — also acts as motivation for their continued progress. In short, it’s sink or swim.
Those who swim are now fueling a new age of press freedom in Mexico, through a broad swath of nongovernmental organizations, digital reporting startups, fellowships and internationally-funded initiatives all working to advance journalistic prowess in the face of unprecedented adversity.
The new-age Mexican journalist
Alejandra Xanic, like many top-tier Mexican journalists, has taken her work away from traditional reporting mediums.
“In more and more parts of Mexico, we were noticing many types of stories that couldn’t be told,” said Xanic, “either because media owners were no longer willing to publish stories and support reporters, or simply because it had become too dangerous.”
These barricades helped birth Quinto Elemento Lab, a nonprofit investigative digital outlet founded by Xanic and three colleagues to “encourage and conduct investigative reporting that empowers citizens, strengthens accountability, and helps build a more just and transparent society,” according to the site’s About page.
Xanic — the only Mexican reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism — came up as many young journalists do; as a newspaper reporter and radio broadcaster, covering metro and regional news in Guadalajara, where she had lived since age 14.
Now an industry veteran, she’s moving to help young people seeking a career in media. She teaches investigative journalism at Mexico City’s Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, and also employs students to help sustain Quinto Elemento’s reporting. Here, they can begin learning to navigate a career path that’s anything but standard.
“The certainty of the crisis in the media, means being a reporter, in terms of income, is the worst decision you could make,” said Xanic with a laugh.
“Is there any chance I get employment? Can I do thorough work?’ It’s really a trend that compromises the quality of information.”
While the students are often assigned to help with web design or background research, it’s also crucial to involve them in the actual reporting, conveying the realities they’ll be up against in the field.
“Including the students in real-life investigative projects with their own responsibilities is very important,” Xanic said. “They must learn to take secrecy and confidentiality very seriously when they’re starting up.”
But after they finish school, training or early-career internships, where do these budding media professionals turn for support?
Many continuing-education programs for career journalists in Mexico are centered in areas where press freedom is under less pressure, while media professionals in more isolated areas continue to lack support systems.
One unique program, titled El Programa Prensa y Democracia (known as PRENDE, Spanish for “Press and Democracy”), aims to correct that.
Founded in 2004 as a fellowship for mid-career media professionals throughout Mexico, the curriculum is designed to help participants navigate threats, maintain their skillset, and build a collaborative network of like-minded people.
Juan Larrosa Fuentes, associate professor and researcher in the sociocultural studies department at Guadalajara’s ITESO University, helps coordinate the program. He says it’s designed to cultivate a conversational atmosphere — something that many Mexican journalists, due to the everyday intensity of the job, may not have time to seek out otherwise.
“I think it’s a space for giving them a pause like okay, you’re going to stop your day-to-day routine and just calm down,” said Fuentes. “Start reading different things, knowing different people and just reflecting on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Still, Fuentes said that programs like PRENDE can only do so much. Journalists may hesitate to seek support from others in their field, and without an industry culture that supports self-reflection and self-help, the effects of isolation can be exacerbated.
Xanic and Fuentes have made helping other reporters learn “on the fly” part of their own journalistic mission. But those reporters have to start somewhere.
For teachers like ITESM’s Chapou, who’s won prestigious recognition for her journalism research and opinion writing, the chance to groom that next generation of truth-seekers on the ground level is a much greater prize.
“As a career director and journalism teacher, I have been fortunate to see graduates succeed, who are doing serious, useful, committed journalism,” Chapou said. “I have seen students who have won journalism awards, who have formed their own journalistic companies quite successfully. … I have seen former students return to the university to continue training new generations. All these cases are those that … have made me say that journalism is worth it.”
“Likewise,” she said, “there are more and more ways and resources designed to protect the journalists who cover these vulnerable stories, and efforts of national and international journalists’ networks that are doing an admirable job. That it is worth turning to see.”
No law will magically solve the impunity issue in cases of murdered Mexican journalists. No amount of incentive from schools could attract students at rates sufficient enough to revive shuttered journalism programs. Counting on either the government or the education system to save the day, as CPJ’s Hootsen puts it, would be “overly optimistic.”
To fill voids created by dead reporters and disinterested students, a collective uprising of media professionals is needed — emboldened by coming-of-age technologies, more access to information, and an undying need for more public accountability — to enable journalistic evolution.
“We have a highly-trained generation of potent, passionate journalists in the industry now, at a moment when we have more information available than ever,” Xanic said. “We have to seize this opportunity. We did so much with so little for so long, and what we have now is amazing.”
Run by these eager, empowered journalists, independent outlets like Quinto Elemento have ushered in a new era of investigative reporting and truth-seeking in Mexico. Now, Xanic says, more help is coming from unexpected angles.
“We’re seeing more and more very interesting initiatives coming from independent organizations,” Xanic said. “But we’re also seeing big media companies actually willing to collaborate, which is amazing. Collaboration is changing the media landscape in Mexico, moving things in new directions. I think that’s very inspiring.”
While coalitions within Mexico are proving to be the way forward, assistance also comes from north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. The University of Arizona’s Center for Border and Global Journalism conducts extensive research on Mexico’s media industry, but also goes a step further — promoting collaboration between young reporters on either side of the border.
“We created a network called the Border Journalism Network of about 15 academic institutions, which involves border-crossing projects with our students,” said Dr. Celeste González de Bustamante, lead director of CBGJ. “Water is a huge issue, environmental issues, social justice issues — there are a lot of subjects affecting both sides of the border that we can cover.”
The drive to tell those stories is fundamental, but not enough to sustain true progress for journalism in Mexico. A continuous slew of slain reporters, school closures and bleak press freedom status reports can easily paint a dark picture.
Those who remain, though, are as ardent and emboldened as ever. And as they continue to see value in banding together, they’re collectively building power.
“Part of the issue is all of this violence and all of these issues are fragmenting,” said Jeannine Relly, CBGJ’s director of global initiatives. “Who wants to go out? Who wants to communicate? So these sorts of confluences of journalists, bringing them together has helped strengthen the profession. They are reaching out to one another much more than before.”
A passion for truth-seeking pushes Mexican journalists to pursue leads and meet deadlines. But collaboration, resilience and camaraderie are what’s keeping journalism in Mexico — and the journalists themselves — alive.
This reporting was done in collaboration during the 2019-20 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.
Ashley Hopko is a staff reporter with Local News Now, based in Arlington, Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Christina Ausley is an editorial assistant and reporter with the Seattle P-I. She can be reached at email@example.com
Henry Brechter is the managing editor of AllSides.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published on Seattlepi.com and is republished here with permission.