Guest post: Faced with violence in Mexico, editorial standards help journalists avoid information blackouts

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  • April 21, 2011

Guest post by Javier Garza Ramos, editorial director of the newspaper El Siglo de Torreón in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila.

The commentary Kowanin Silva, of the newspaper Vanguardia de Saltillo, wrote here last week [April 18] about the use of social networks to break the information blockade, was very correct, as publishing on Facebook or Twitter helps a newspaper to get information out immediately.

Social networks have been very useful for compensating for the information “blackouts” that occur because of threats from organized crime, but it should be pointed out that the "blackouts" are relative and the threats are very diverse.

The experience that Vanguardia in Saltillo is living is the same we have here at El Siglo de Torreón in the same state of Coahuila, since the wave of violence began four years ago.

Through "trial and error," we have elaborated safety protocols to protect our reporters, editors and buildings. We have not been exempt from attack, but we have managed the risk through policies ranging from how criminal news is reported to how it is edited and even how it is presented.

I say this because the media's first instinct, when faced with an attack, always is to shut off information and stop publishing about violent acts, which is the step that Vanguardia has taken.

However, it is possible to get around the blockade if you have adequate standards to manage the information: if you make sure reporters get solid information about a fact, that the news doesn't "bleed," and that the images published aren't scandalous.

And if we media are going to adopt these criteria, we also should apply them to news that happens outside of our cities. For example, in our case at El Siglo de Torreón, it would be incongruous to publish on the front page a shootout in Ciudad Juárez or Monterrey if, because of fear or threats, we wouldn't do the same for those that happen in Torreón.

The discussion about protection measures for journalists must touch on all these themes in order to transcend the focus on physical safety for reporters, as if they were covering a traditional war. (For more on the discussion of providing bulletproof vests for reporters who cover police news seems superfluous and mistaken to me. A vest will not stop an attack against the media, nor the murder of a reporter who has been kidnapped).

It was encouraging, for example, the announcement of La Prensa de San Pedro Sula [a Honduran newspaper] about the shift in its treatment of violent news, with measures such as banishing photos of people who have been killed. This shift occurred after a workshop organized by the Inter American Press Association, in which I had the opportunity to participate and which presented alternatives for addressing news about violence.

The challenge we have as Mexican media is to balance our own security with the duty to inform. It is true that no news is worth a life, but also true is that we need to deepen the measures we take to avoid losing relevant information.

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.