Mexican government tries to change conversation as violence continues: U.S. correspondents discuss coverage south of the border

By Alejandro Martínez

Violence continues in Mexico but the new administration of president Enrique Peña Nieto is making an all-too-obvious push to disassociate the country’s image from drugs, cartels and bloodshed, according to three leading U.S. correspondents based in Mexico during an April 4 panel hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

During the panel "Covering Mexico for Texas: Correspondents in the Borderlands and Beyond,” Dudley Althaus, the former Mexico City bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, and Angela Kocherga, border bureau chief in El Paso, TX for Belo KHOU 11 News, talked about the challenges of being a foreign correspondent enduring two crises: the current wave of drug violence slamming Mexico and the shrinkage of foreign bureau budgets across U.S. media outlets.

Talking about the current situation in Mexico, the three noted that the violence has diminished in some hotspots like Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, but continues strong in states of Veracruz, Guerrero and Tamaulipas.

The big difference has been the recent change in administrations and their respective approaches to violence, Althaus said. In December last year, the six-year term of president Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party came to an end. The Revolutionary Institutional Party, which ruled Mexico for seven decades, returned to power when Peña Nieto took office.

In its four months in office, the new administration’s efforts to shape the narrative have been evident, Corchado said. Peña Nieto’s communications team has tried to change the conversation from drugs and violence to Mexico’s economic growth and potential.

Comparing the two administrations, Corchado said “one of the biggest problem with Calderón was that there was very little communication as to what his strategy was. Peña Nieto is very good at communication, but they want to push their story. It’s kind of like the old PRI days.”

Meditating on their role covering the drug violence story, the three admitted they did not see the time bomb that organized crime represented until it exploded.

“If you go back to Zedillo, even to De la Madrid, you could see it coming,” Corchado said.

In his soon-to-be-published book, “Midnight in Mexico,” Corchado describes his experiences as a journalist and a native of Mexico trying to make sense of what happened to the country and looking for hope in a tumultuous time.


Foreign correspondence today

The three also spoke of the shrinkage of foreign bureau budgets compared to the heydays.

Corchado said that at one point, the Dallas Morning News had the largest U.S. media team in the country, with 13 people working at their bureau. The paper also had offices in Monterrey, Havana, Cuba and Bogota, Colombia.

“Over the years, the industry started changing. Today it’s only me, a one-man bureau,” Corchado said.

Althaus said the crisis in the journalism industry has not been the only factor – the U.S. appetite for foreign news has dwindled as well.

Althaus said the Houston Chronicle currently has a policy of only publishing staff-writer stories on the front page. Since they no longer have a Mexico bureau, “Mexico has disappeared, basically,” he said.

“It’s not just about money. Interest in the world has evaporated,” Althaus said. “After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, people are tired of it, and also editors are tired of it.”

The situation is not entirely despondent. Kocherga said her bureau’s work is still high on demand. Many in Texas have family and economic connections to Mexico, and topics like demographics, trade and tourism are still very relevant for her viewers.

“The reason my bureau exists is because Mexico is viewed as a local story,” she said.

And while the number of foreign correspondence jobs may be getting smaller for young journalists interested in international coverage, Kocherga said that the media landscape continues to evolve and new models may emerge.

“We don’t know what the new thing is going to be”, she said. “We don’t know what form it will take but good storytelling in Mexico, I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

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.