Latin American journalists team up to cover organized crime, other cross-border topics

Motivated by shared experiences with problems like organized crime or the environmental impacts of transnational projects, journalists in Latin America are establishing multi-national teams to investigate topics that stretch across borders. Cross-border journalism, as it's known, has allowed its participants to report on common concerns in the region and reach wider audiences for their work.

In 2012, two investigative projects showed that by using social networks to raise funds and the support of not-for-profit organizations reporters in different countries could conduct simultaneous investigations as part of a common goal. "All collective work between reporters demands generosity, humility and a lot of professionalism," Colombian journalist Carlos Eduardo Huertas told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Huertas is a pioneer of cross-border reporting and a former Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

In October 2012, online media in four Latin American countries simultaneously published reports about victims of organized crime. Participants from InSight Crime, an organization dedicated to covering organized crime in the region, the websites Verdad Abierta in Colombia and El Faro in El Salvador, Plaza Pública in Guatemala, and Animal Político in Mexico produced investigations, videos and infographics about sexual exploitation of women in Guatemala and El Salvador; the recruitment of child soldiers by Colombian guerrillas; and the disappearances of engineers and other professionals kidnapped and forced to work for criminal organizations in Mexico.

"The goal was to show the same phenomenon exists and we can see ourselves in the mirror of other countries," explained over the phone Oscar Martínez, a reporter for El Faro.

Daniel Moreno, editor of the Mexican website Animal Político, added, "It was a project that got us away from navel-gazing." In his opinion, conducting journalistic investigations that cross borders helps identify common problems, trends and the consequences of global policies.

With this in mind, Huertas recently founded the non-profit organization Connectas, which seeks to develop journalism projects that address several Latin American countries. Its first project was La Autopista de la Selva, The Jungle Highway, an investigation into the environmental impacts of the Interoceanica Sur highway that connects the Peruvian Pacific coast with the Atlantic in Brazil, crossing through the Amazon jungle. The project pulled together the Peruvian news agency Infos, the architecture and urbanism organization SAP, and the Environmental Investigation Agency. The Connectas report was published in English, Spanish and Portuguese and has over 330,000 page views since its publication. Other media in the region reproduced the report, including Ciper in Chile; Clarín in Argentina; O Estado in Brazil; Infos in Peru; Semana in Colombia; Armando Info in Venezuela; La Prensa in Guatemala; Emeequis in Mexico; and the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The Knight Foundation provided funding for the project but 15 percent of the budget was raised by crowdsourcing funds online. "Having a group of donors added something usually not done for a report, the need to provide frequent updates on the project," Huertas explained.

The collaboration with other regional media organizations also cut down on the travel costs for an investigation in several countries. "We are small teams and assigning people to one topic is expensive but with this project we could conduct an investigation without neglecting the rest of the information on our website," Moreno explained.

These kinds of projects also draw greater audiences and prestige for digital media. For example, El Faro reported that the cross-border investigation tripled the number of page views on its website and became one of its 15 most-read stories in 2012. The project also included multimedia elements that lengthened the time viewers spent on the site. "It allowed us to reach another audience who prefers visual information through maps, interactive graphics and videos," Moreno said.

For the reporters involved in cross-border projects, the best part has been the opportunity to learn from their colleagues and the possibility of extending their network of contacts to other countries. "Besides identifying common themes, it helped us understand digital journalism models in other countries and enrich our work," Moreno said. "The project's success depends on picking the organizations that share the same quality and editorial rigor," Martínez advised.

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.