Author explores narrative process of journalists covering violence and 'the ordeal' they go through along the way

The new book “Unwanted Witnesses” explores the experience of journalists who write long-form crónicas or books about victims of violence and the suffering of others, along with the emotional and psychological burden that the process entails.

Gabriela Polit during the presentation of her book “Unwanted Witnesses”. (Photo: Teresa Mioli/Knight Center)

Gabriela Polit during the presentation of her book “Unwanted Witnesses”. (Photo: Teresa Mioli/Knight Center)

With the suffering of others, Polit refers specifically to the victims of armed conflicts, domestic violence, the displaced, survivors of natural disasters and wars, relatives of the disappeared, and others.

In her book, in addition to analyzing this narrative process, she delves into the work of journalists Marcela Turati, Daniela Rea and Sandra Rodríguez Nieto from Mexico, Patricia Nieto from Colombia and María Eugenia Ludueña from Argentina. Polit also carried out various ethnographic interviews with journalists during her investigations.

For years, Turati, Rea and Rodríguez Nieto have covered the violence unleashed by drug war and organized crime in their country and have published several of their stories in different print and digital media, in addition to publishing their own books. Among other texts, Nieto has published autobiographical crónicas about the armed conflict in Colombia, specifically in Medellín, her hometown. Ludueña has been covering and writing for several years about the disappeared, their families and the endless trials for crimes against humanity for the military juntas of the Argentine dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s.

According to Polit, there are not many books that analyze the material conditions in which journalists work, nor the emotional challenges they face when writing about violence, suffering and trauma. "I explore that universe," Polit, an Ecuadoran researcher and professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, wrote in the introduction to her book.

It’s not a coincidence that journalistic narratives from Mexico were included. Globally, it’s the most dangerous country not engaged in a war to practice journalism, and is where journalists become “war correspondents without leaving our land,” as Turati told the Knight Center in a previous interview. Nor is it an accident that the book includes Colombia, which experienced decades of internal armed conflict with the FARC guerrillas (1964-2016), and Argentina, where they continue to count the thousands of disappeared left by the military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Polit told the Knight Center that when “Unwanted Witnesses” became a more defined project (2014), Mexico entered a "spiral of violence and of course, Colombia, in that sense, was a part of that story." Turati, Polit said, has repeatedly said how the work done by her colleagues in Colombia is a reference for her, it is a way of predicting what could happen in Mexico.

“My book is also a kind of chronological history of the different moments of violence, of its historical and emotional aftermath. In that sense, the three countries [Mexico, Colombia and Argentina] give a very good account of this,” she said.

In that sense, the author explained that long-form crónicas are opportunities for journalists to tell a complex story including all its nuances, independently and from a more personal perspective.

"..What drives the creation and shapes the form of these narratives are the journalists' affective responses to the events they describe and the people with whom they speak: their feelings of empathy, solidarity, compassion, indignation, frustration, and rage and their attachment to the subjects of their stories. Their crónicas are motivated by a profound commitment to promoting social justice,” the author wrote in her book.

In this regard, she stressed that with the changes the profession has gone through in recent years, it is no longer enough to be a great journalist. “There is no longer being the journalist of this or that media outlet. Having a book is a main requirement for professionalization,” she said.

"Unwanted Witnesses" is divided into seven chapters. “I divide the chapters of my book in this sort of chronology of the moments of pain, the crónicas of the first reaction to violence (Nieto, Turati); those that give a broader view of that violence (Rodríguez Nieto, Rea), and those of ambiguity. One is the reflection on the ambiguity of covering the trials for crimes against humanity (Ludueña) and another is the aesthetic to address this ambiguity, (Nieto),” Polit said.

She also pointed out that it was not intentional that the narratives analyzed in her book are from female journalists. "When I started to talk to journalists who covered stories of suffering from the point of view of the most affected, I found myself mostly with women journalists."

“What I did, in writing, I emphasized the fact that, in their professional work, women fulfill the gender mandate, and I see this as something positive because, although they write about terrible events, they do it from listening, from respect, from care and not from reckless glances,” she said.

Rosental C. Alves – professor at the UT Austin School of Journalism and director and founder of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas – presented and directed a discussion about Polit’s book at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, LLILAS Benson at UT.

After an audience member asked about training for all professionals, including journalists, who work in violent situations, Alves stressed the importance of including security training for journalists and tools for confronting traumatic situations in journalism education programs.

The journalist, who was also a correspondent for Jornal do Brasil in Spain, Argentina, Mexico and the United States during the turbulent 70s and 80s, said that nobody prepares you as a journalist to face difficult situations, as they are not always predictable. "Sometimes hostile situations came to us" while reporting, he said.

"Security and trauma are two relatively new subjects in the training of journalists," Alves later said. "Initiatives to include these issues in the training of journalists began in the 1990s. Before we were the only actors in hostile situations, such as wars or street conflicts, for example," he said.

Cover of “Unwanted Witnesses”.

Cover of “Unwanted Witnesses”.

Polit mentions in her book that the first journalist whose work she once analyzed was Mexican Javier Valdez Cárdenas. "...From him, I learned about the need to understand the conditions under which journalists do their job,” she wrote.

Valdez, a renowned journalist and one of the protagonists of her former book “Narrating Narcos. Culiacán, Medellín” (2013), covered organized crime and drug trafficking in northern Mexico for many years. On May 15, 2017, Valdez was shot dead, in the middle of the street and in the middle of the day.

Chilean-Argentine journalist Cristian Alarcón was also a great influence for Polit in her research, according to the author, and was the one who invited her to participate in several workshops for academics and journalists organized by the Gabo Foundation. Alarcón is founder and director of Revista Anfibia, a digital magazine of crónicas and narrative essays, and director of Cosecha Roja, a Latin American network for judicial journalism.

For Polit, one of the most terrible consequences of violence is silence. Her book goes through many types of silence, "that of the state that is silent, that of the journalists who are forced to be quiet, that of the perpetrators of the crimes, in the Argentine case, and the definitive one, which is that of death," the author said. “That is the defining silence. The absolute. But I think the cruelest is what living journalists have to keep, even though they know the answers to many questions, but they cannot say them, because it would cost them their lives.  I think that this silence is the cruelest.”

Polit dedicated her book “to all the journalists who have been disappeared, abused, raped, and threatened and all those who are imprisoned. To all of the journalists who continue to do their job despite the risks.” Below that dedication is a list of all the journalists killed in Latin America from 1992 to 2018.