Editors of news media in Latin America can contribute greatly to reducing the risks faced by reporters. Editors can help protect reporters from the discrediting and siege they experience from political forces if editors are trained on how to guide their teams to make journalism a public good, close to the people.
This is the opinion of Alejandra Xanic, director and co-founder of the non-profit organization that promotes investigative journalism Quinto Elemento Lab, from Mexico. Xanic believes that editors must learn to make decisions that reduce the risks for reporters when going out into dangerous terrain, to know how to monitor the movements of their team and to adopt communication and action protocols in case of escalating danger.
"What we want [as editors] is to give them [reporters] a lot of tools that on a day-to-day basis can be very useful to keep them safe when they go out in the field, for example," Xanic told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "What happens when reporters go out into an area? How do we assess the risks? How do we mitigate them? What kinds of things do we have to decide? And, what do we have to take into account in deciding whether or not to send them out?"
To train Mexican editors on this and other topics, the organization is about to launch its MasterLAB in Investigative Editing 2022, a program that aims to train about 20 journalists with at least two years of editing experience on the tools they need to conceive, organize, narrate, and produce powerful stories, and keep their teams safe.
Most of the more than 150 journalists murdered in Mexico since 2000, according to Article 19, were journalists who worked alone or independently, without monitoring or follow-up by an editor or their news outlets. Hence the importance of training editors to provide ongoing support to detect warning signs during coverage, Xanic said.
"We've been learning those kinds of things more through improvisation than knowledge," she said. "So we are going to have experts familiar with the situation in Latin America and in Mexico specifically, and who have been working with journalists in extremely high-risk areas."
The MasterLAB in Investigative Editing program, coordinated by Xanic and by former Associated Press bureau chief for Mexico and Central America, Kathy Corcoran, will run from July 13 to Nov. 15, 2022, and will consist of virtual classes with instructors, one-on-one mentoring with investigative journalists from Latin America, the United States and Europe, and an intensive in-person bootcamp in Mexico City.
The program will also seek to train editors on the technical, ethical and legal standards to support their reporters in carrying out solid and irrefutable investigations. And to help them resist the attacks and discrediting of many journalists in Mexico, carried out most of the time by groups in power and the President of the Republic himself.
"To the extent that we can also shield our work and make it more robust, more solid, it will be easier to respond or react to these allegations, or for more public support to be found," Xanic said.
According to Xanic, attacks on journalists in Mexico pay off for politicians because there is a distance between journalists and citizens. Through MasterLAB, the aim is to teach editors that through the quality of journalism and the relevance of investigative stories, journalism can be brought closer to citizens and weaken the impact of these attacks.
"Every time a journalist is killed, the ones who march are the journalists, no one else, and that speaks of that distance. We believe that editors have a lot to do to bridge that gap from the agenda, embracing editorial autonomy and bringing to the public stories that are more relevant, that are more important to their lives and doing it with rigor," Xanic said.
The idea for the MasterLAB in Investigative Editing came about when the founders of Quinto Elemento Lab realized that there were not many training opportunities in Mexico specifically for editors, unlike the multiple training options available for reporters.
According to Xanic, in Mexico a journalist becomes an editor by natural promotion in the hierarchy of his or her news outlet, but often without formal training and with only his or her experience in the newsroom and mentoring from other editors.
"One of our concerns was how to make media editors good companions for reporters when we do research," she said. "We realized that, at least in the case of Latin America, reporters have had an incredible amount of training opportunities. I think that perhaps this is a time in which reporters are better trained than ever [...]. And we found that for editors this was still lacking."
This imbalance in opportunities can have a negative effect on the reporter-editor relationship, according to Arnoldo Cuéllar. He is founder and editor of the investigative journalism website POPLab, from the state of Guanajuato, and was a member of the first MasterLAB cohort, in 2021.
"Negative synergies take place when an editor and a reporter are not in alignment. I felt we had a gap in that part of the process. Editors often say 'let’s train reporters,' but when the reporters arrive trained, sometimes editors tend to minimize the new skills or not take them into consideration, or not take full advantage of them," Cuéllar told LJR.
In Cuellar's experience, when an editor is trained, it causes the rest of the newsroom to replicate his or her practices, so it is easier for the team to align itself following the same dynamic. It also helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of reporters.
"It has a multiplier effect because, by targeting an intermediate organizational level, you're not just going to impact one person, but one person who oversees several people," he said.
In 2021, 23 editors participated in the pilot edition of Quinto Elemento Lab's MasterLAB.
Throughout 15 online class sessions, participants learned from 19 journalists from various parts of the world about editing and producing investigative reports, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Rashkuma of the AP; Ginger Thompson and Tracey Weber of ProPublica (United States); Gustavo Gorriti of IDL-Reporteros (Peru); and Paul Radú of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (Romania), among others.
In addition, each of the participants had the opportunity to take part in 14 mentoring sessions with a renowned journalist, such as David Hidalgo, director of CIPER (Chile); María Carrillo, of the Tampa Bay Times (United States); Salvador Frausto, of Milenio, (Mexico); and Carrie Kahn, of NPR (United States).
From the beginning, MasterLAB was conceived as a program specifically focused on investigative journalism, due to Quinto Elemento Lab's profile as an organization that seeks to encourage investigative reporting that empowers citizens, strengthens accountability, and helps build a fairer and more transparent society.
"One of the challenges editors have right now is to be able to balance the news and the news beat of the media with research," Xanic said. "We have newsrooms with more and more highly trained journalists who are able to do investigations of very complex topics. So, we need editors who know how to support, lead and mentor those reporters."
In the MasterLAB pilot edition, participants developed reporting projects throughout the course with support from their mentors. Ten of these investigations were published, with topics ranging from drug-related disappearances in Sinaloa and corruption in locating missing persons in Veracruz, to the inefficiency of protection orders for assaulted women and the unpunished violence suffered by women workers in the Riviera Maya.
For the 2022 edition, participants will also be required to develop an investigative reporting proposal. There will only be 12 class sessions this year. Classes will focus on the process of how to strategize for a story, how to formulate an hypothesis and how to lead reporters to make sure they follow adequate steps to document the facts.
Mentorships to develop individual projects will be shorter and more intensive than last year, while the bootcamp will focus on the post-publication stage, with topics such as multimedia production and audience engagement.
"We cover the whole arc, from conception to dissemination of the stories," Xanic said. "We're going to be talking about the different phases of research, the creative part, how to walk reporters through the writing process and how to narrate research, [...] how to reach audiences and make sure those stories get to where they need to go."
Some of last year's instructors, such as Ginger Thompson and Tracey Weber of ProPublica, will participate again this year. Journalists such as Tom Kent, author of the AP's ethical standards, are also expected to participate.
The deadline is June 19 and the cost of the program is 20,000 Mexican pesos (about a thousand U.S. dollars), although thanks to the financial support of the non-profit organization National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Quinto Elemento Lab will offer some scholarships.
Although the program, which will be taught mainly in Spanish, with some sessions in English, was created for Mexican editors, the call is open to any editor who feels the need to take it and who can travel to the bootcamp in Mexico City at their own expense. Last year's participants included Salvadoran Sergio Arauz, deputy editor-in-chief of El Faro.
"We know that journalists in general work in very precarious conditions, but the cost of tuition is less than half of what the program [actually] costs," said Xanic. "This year, half of the course’s cost is covered by NED resources and the other half by tuition."
After almost four decades of experience in journalism, Arnoldo Cuéllar had been doing some managerial work in recent years at the Journalism and Public Opinion Laboratory, better known as POPLab. His official title was editor of the news outlet, but he had done little editorial work directly with reporters.
So when he saw the opportunity to join the 2021 MasterLAB in Investigative Editing, he didn't hesitate.
"Many of my colleagues, especially women, have taken these types of courses and developed other skills. I wanted to update my skills, but also, as there are few of us [in the POPLab newsroom], I also wanted to actively participate by directing some investigations," he said. "I felt I had a lot to learn in the area of investigative journalism. And I also had a lot to unlearn from what one adds up along the way while practicing the profession."
Several months after completing the course, Cuéllar has been able to apply what he learned in his newsroom. He directed investigative news stories such as "Abuso y Despojo" [Abuse and Dispossession], about an operation to strip a public school of a piece of land to expand a businessman's house, or "Gobernar para los Cuates" [Governing for your buddies] about how a property tax increase in the city of Guanajuato would benefit people close to municipal authorities.
Such investigations were conceived by Cuéllar and his team as interactive multimedia reports from the beginning, and have had a greater reach and impact than traditional media reports, Cuéllar said. He added that what he learned at MasterLAB has allowed him to work better with his reporters to create an agenda that has an impact on the lives of the citizens of Guanajuato.
"MasterLAB] has allowed me to interact much more with them [the reporters]. They feel calmer, [and] are doing more in-depth work. In addition, they have been very motivated to come up with stories that call for this type of treatment. It’s not just my ideas anymore. Rather, they are thinking about what we should do, we bounce around more creatively the topics we are going to address, always aiming for a discovery," he said.
According to Xanic, some of the most important roles of an investigative journalism editor in Latin America are to look out for the public interest and guide his or her team in seeking stories that contribute to the community. But another fundamental function should be to help reporters identify flaws in political systems that perpetuate inequality and injustice, beyond just focusing on revealing scandals of abuse of power or documenting corruption schemes.
"It's not about exposing the thief, but [focusing on] the system that has allowed him and hundreds of others to take money from the public purse," the journalist explained. "Developing that sensitivity also requires some training because we reporters are very used to breaking news. Investigative reporting seeks something a little different, which is to focus on a system’s flaws."