AP's Mark Stevenson: We need to level the playing field for reporters in Mexico

Associated Press journalist Mark Stevenson’s reporting from Mexico showcases the country’s natural beauty, rich history and modern struggles for readers around the world. His ability as an investigator has led to concrete results for residents of his adopted country where misdeeds often go unpunished.

The Cabot Prize recognized Stevenson and three other journalists for outstanding reporting in the Americas during a ceremony at Columbia University in New York City on Oct. 14. 

“He has ventured into some of the most remote and dangerous corners of the country, stepping surefootedly in areas where others fear to tread,” the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism said in the award announcement.

The prize highlighted a recent report the journalist produced about a mass killing in the rural south-central Mexican town of Tlatlaya. In June 2014, Stevenson and his colleagues followed up on a government press release that said 22 drug gang members were killed and just one army solider was injured in a confrontation. The journalists went to the site, interviewed witnesses, and according to the AP, “found little evidence of an extended shootout.”

Subsequent investigations have pointed to possible extrajudicial killings of the suspected gang members and others and several soldiers have been charged, though some have since been released.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with 2015 Cabot Prize recipients Lucas MendesRaúl Peñaranda and Simon Romero about their careers and the state of journalism. For the final installation of the series, we spoke with Stevenson about investigative reporting and challenges faced by the Mexican press.

Knight Center: When and why did you decide to become a journalist? 

Mark Stevenson: I became a journalist in 1992, with no formal training. I began working at English-language publications (a magazine and a newspaper) in Mexico, and then began working for the old UPI [United Press International] in 1994, before getting a job with the AP in 1997. In other words, I went to a country that fascinated me and began writing about it, rather than pursuing a career in journalism from the start.

KC: The Cabot Prize noted your investigative skills and successes in a recent investigation where you researched beyond a government-issued press release to find out what really happened concerning an alleged shootout between the Army and members of a drug cartel. How did you develop the curiosity and discipline that investigative reporters need for those kinds of stories?

MS: The biggest and most valuable skill any reporter can have —and the only skill that really can't be taught — is the ability to recognize what is a story, and what isn't. That might sound dismissive, but really the biggest challenge any reporter can face is what to write about. Noticing trends is key in that regard, and we had seen several instances in which the Mexican military had reported really lopsided death tolls in confrontations in the past, which made us suspicious that something else was going on. So when they reported a death toll of 22 dead to one wounded, we took notice, but still debated whether to go down to the scene for a couple of days, because it wasn't really safe in a conventional sense. So we decided to simply get as close as we could, asking locals along the way whether it was safe to proceed.

KC: In your acceptance speech for the Cabot Prize, you talked about dangers Mexican journalists are confronted with and said you planned to donate your $5,000 prize to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Why did you make that decision?

MS: I think that in many cases, the Mexican press can do as good a job, or better, in covering their own country, but they often fear doing stories like the Tlatlaya army massacre because the consequences of going into a cartel dominated area can be much more severe for them — including death — than for us. For some reason, the cartels have not yet killed or seriously threatened foreign correspondents yet. We need to level the playing field, and make sure no one is killed because of their journalistic work.

KC: What interests you most about Mexico?

MS: Mexico is fascinating because of its history, sociology and anthropology, but also because of the vertiginous rate at which the country is changing. Much of what we see in indigenous communities in Chiapas or Guerrero hearkens back to centuries ago, but within a generation or two much of that could change, both because of immigration, the penetration of information technologies, and the changing social structure, which allows women, youths and dissidents far more opportunities. Mexico is a country where you can see the struggle between the old and the new play out, physically and literally, before your eyes.

KC: What does it mean to you to receive this award?

MS: This is the highest honor I have been given in my 23 years as a journalist, and it is a valued recognition of the way we work at The Associated Press. The AP is one of the few media outlets that can still maintain a strong presence in countries around the world, and one of the few that is still in a position to send reporters out to sniff around crime scenes even if a story isn't guaranteed to come out of it. That is an invaluable resource.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.