Reports on school shooting in Mexico raise ethical debate between media, civil society and the State

Recent media coverage of a rare school shooting in Mexico has generated a large debate between the media, readers and the State, concerning the ethics of journalistic publication of reports with violent images.

The shooting occurred on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the American School of Northeastern Monterrey, when a 15-year-old teenager pulled a gun in the middle of the classroom and shot his teacher and his classmates before committing suicide. Three of the four victims are still in serious condition.

The incident shook all of Mexico, which as a country is not accustomed to seeing school shootings, something that is seen more often in countries like the United States. It has also revived the debate over gun control and, more generally, about the state of Mexican society.

The uproar caused by the dissemination of video from a security camera that recorded the shooting was so great that the Ministry of the Interior asked all the media in the country not to disseminate any type of image or audio related to the incident.

Authorities are still searching for those responsible for releasing the recording, for having committed a criminal offense.

The federal agency announced through the General Directorate of Radio, Television and Cinematography that the General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents prohibits the dissemination of images of minors related to the commission of a crime, even when they are edited or faces appear blurry. It also does not allow the publication of personal data of minors which reveals their identity.

One of the media that showed the controversial video of the shooting was traditional newspaper El Universal. In its defense, the Mexican newspaper published an editorial saying that the dissemination of these images served to "give size to the crudeness of the consequences of a society that loses its cohesion."

The video was also published by foreign media, such as the Spanish newspaper El País. This media outlet decided to publish the video of the shooting but edited it, without showing the faces of the children present and eliminating the part in which the student shoots his victims.

That newspaper said that its publication helped to highlight the dangers of weapons proliferation and insecurity in Mexican schools.

The warning from El Universal reads: The following material may harm the sensitivity of some people by containing explicit violence in images and language.

Regarding the media that published the video without any justification, the director of the Mexican digital newspaper Animal Político, Daniel Moreno, declared to the radio program "Así las Cosas" (As a Matter of Fact) of station WRadio, that it is regrettable that the media that decided to publish this video have not explained their reasons to the public.

"Any material like this should have an editorial discussion: Why do you publish this type of information? Why do you think it's good for your reader to publish this information? These kinds of decisions have to be explained to the reader, for better or for worse," Moreno said.

In his opinion, the video should not have been published by the media. Moreno said that an informative event as strong as this, in particular, did not need the video to understand the scale of the problem.

"[The image] shakes us. It is worth publishing such content when it is of public utility, as long as it brings some information, context to the reader. In this particular case I think it was not necessary," he said.

On the media’s treatment of the shooting, Mexican journalist Antonio Martínez wrote in the Spanish edition of The New York Times that in a world plagued with so much information, whether true or false, the ethical standards of journalism should be updated, so that the media will not only process the information itself.

"The inability to distinguish the public interest from the interest of the public and the use of statements as confirmed facts has already eroded the trust in the media, as intermediaries between the information and the public," Martínez said.

For professor and journalist Iván Lacasa - until recently vice-dean of the Faculty of Communications of the International University of Catalonia (UIC, Barcelona) - the case of the school of Monterrey in particular is a classic example of self-censorship that would have to have occurred in the media, to safeguard the privacy of the people who are in that video, especially since they are minors.

Lacasa, who also teaches a journalistic ethics course at UIC, told the Knight Center that journalists should have asked about the relevance of these images before publishing them.

"They had to ask if it was appropriate to publish the video, if it had an immediate relationship with regards to time, and a direct connection with the public sphere and the common good. It must have a transcendent utility to be published," he explained.

According to Lacasa, freedom of expression can not be a pretext to spreading this type of content.

"We now consume the image of the Mexican children. If when I am watching it, the morbidity predominates, it is debatable that [thanks to the video] I am understanding [the news] better. That's why I need someone to build a discourse for me," he said.

Almost always, the problems of journalistic ethics are problems of journalistic quality, the Spanish journalist concluded.

Lacasa said that with the change of media use, and in these particular cases, journalists have not yet developed new ways to protect the privacy of people.

Moreno also said on the radio program that the digital world makes the media privilege the number of visits as a key factor for income.

"The dictatorship of the click is causing us to forget our principles and for our priority to be this (type of) video," he added.

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.