Hacking legal journalism. That became over time one of the objectives of Cosecha Roja, an Argentine journalistic outlet that recently turned 10 years old and that in the last five years has managed to train more than 120 journalists from 18 Latin American countries so that they can “think about violence and security from a broad perspective, with a vision where human rights and gender equality prevail.”
"Yes, it is true that we have hacked them, right?", laughs Cristian Alarcón, founder and director of Cosecha Roja, to LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “In other words, we did hack the system a bit, because I think the situation changed a lot. Few areas of journalism have been transformed as much as legal journalism.”
The hack that Alarcón refers to has to do with changing the way in which the so-called nota roja is traditionally covered. La nota roja is considered by some as a journalistic genre of its own, while in some cases it is understood as a pejorative term to define a way of covering legal events (such as crimes) highlighting their bloody aspects.
The truth is that for years, covering judicial events has earned the reputation of being sensationalist because they appeal to people’s emotions and morbid curiosity. Cosecha Roja arrived, according to Alarcón, to restore the prestige of legal reporters. Through journalism with the highest technical standards and with a human rights perspective, the site is trying to change this tradition.
There are several facts that show Alarcón that they are achieving it. For example, that the Latin American Network of Legal Journalism – where you can find some of the beginnings of Cosecha Roja – currently has around 1,200 members. And according to Alarcón, "there are no police or crime or crónica roja journalists from Latin America who have a human rights perspective who are not linked to this network."
But, it is also demonstrated by the hundreds of applications it receives to participate in the Cosecha Roja Scholarship. According to Alarcón, for each scholarship, between 300 and 450 applications are received, of which 16 are chosen. "There is no one who comes to legal journalism today and wants to do the old legal journalism," Alarcón said.
This was the case of Colombian journalist Pilar Cuartas Rodríguez, currently a member of the investigative team of newspaper El Espectador and a Cosecha Roja fellow in 2017. At the time, she coordinated the night shift of the digital newsroom of that newspaper and she decided to apply for the scholarship because "[Cosecha Roja] was a media outlet that dedicated its journalistic work to issues that I always considered relevant, especially gender issues," she told LJR.
“After that experience, I ventured to tell the stories in a different way, especially in the narrative structure. I started looking for other approaches to news events and reinforced my interest in covering the issues of gender and sexual diversity,” Cuartas said. “In fact, after taking the scholarship, I started a project at El Espectador called ‘Sin Clóset’ (Without Closet), with the aim of telling video and text stories about LGBTI people. But above all, I understood that I should continue to prepare myself to cover these issues that are important in any newsroom, not only for editors in training but also for more experienced journalists. The gender approach is transversal and relevant for any journalist, regardless of their position or years of experience. It should not be underestimated.”
Alarcón's perception of change is also supported by María Teresa Ronderos, member of the Advisory Council of the Gabo Foundation and director of CLIP, for whom Cosecha Roja “has made a great contribution to changing the way crime is narrated in our countries.”
"Editors and journalists who have taken Cosecha Roja courses, which include story production, for covering crime and justice news, change their gaze," Ronderos told LJR. "They stop repeating the official story, and try to understand why things are happening and where these criminals come from, and expand their sources."
For Ronderos, the classic nota roja could be a great journalistic text. In fact, she remembered how great crónicas were made about famous crimes, however, Ronderos pointed out that the big problem has been covering the police source exclusively, "to imitate their biases, their prejudices, their limitations." “Cristian proposes to give depth to these stories, with greater understanding why crimes are committed and who commits them and what place society has given them. They can be the great crónicas again!” she said.
A beginning and a new way to cover crime and justice
The birth of Cosecha Roja, however, did not happen immediately. It was the sum of several events, or as Alarcón described it, “it was the consequence of a concern the Gabo Foundation decided to work on.”
At the time, Alarcón had been academic director of the Drug Trafficking, City and Violence Program for three years, supported by the now-Gabo Foundation and the then-Open Society Institute. He had also been investigating the urban war between Peruvian drug traffickers for control of the distribution of cocaine in Buenos Aires for six years, and the lives of thieves in Greater Buenos Aires for three years.
“This Drug Trafficking, City, and Violence training program tried to overhaul the ideas of prohibitionism, to transform Latin American journalism, which still had an exclusively prohibitionist vision and followed along, without criticizing, the discourse proposed by the United States concerning the fight against drugs,” Alarcón said. “Disproving this version according to which a 'mule' [person who traffics drugs], this father of five children who traffics to survive, is the same as the leader of a cartel or the money launderer who participates in the great chain of global trafficking."
The first meeting, which bore the same name as the program, was held in Mexico and the Latin American Network of Legal Journalism was born with 20 members. And from this network appeared what would be Cosecha Roja, first as a "site where we shared the work of those who wanted to be edited by a group of editors that I coordinated." Cronistas who had been trained in the workshops that Alarcón taught for years at his home in San Telmo.
“This space grew, it went from being a live workshop that published the work already edited in the workshop, to being a permanent consultancy for all those members of the network who were looking for a supportive space that would allow them to broaden their perspective on violence in America Latina with a human rights perspective,” Alarcón said.
Cosecha Roja continued to function in this way until it obtained the first financing to be able to cover daily judicial and police events in Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area.
"And as we began to work on these events, the need for a new focus began to emerge, a new perspective that raised the transcendental importance of feminism or the gender perspective in crimes," Alarcón explained. “And that led us to become a unique and innovative space for Argentina and the rest of Latin America. To promote writing that continued to honor journalistic investigation and narrative, but now as a feminist narrative where femicide was the first battle, because crimes against women were not yet called femicide.”
From there, other types of coverage were tackled, such as hate crimes against members of the LGBTI community, and crimes against the youngest in society "who are the main victims of violence in Latin America." When they realized that they were on the right track to “deconstruct” legal journalism with new ways of narrating crimes against women, sexual minorities and youth, they created the Cosecha Roja Scholarship.
"Our goal was to somehow hack the system from the inside, creating real power from the teaching of not only journalism, but also theory," Alarcón explained. “The great key to the growth of Cosecha [Roja] and the transcendent and profound change that has occurred in legal journalism in many important Latin American media has to do with the fact that journalists understood the importance of theoretical readings for building new scaffolds that allow them to analyze the facts beyond the facts. In other words, ask about the crime taking into account that behind the criminal plot there are rationales of death that are cultural and social policies.”
Indeed, for Cuartas, the theory learned in the master classes on law and violence that she received during her scholarship helped to broaden her gaze while writing. “They reaffirmed the idea that journalists never stop learning. Everything we study helps improve our work. The experts who taught us were lawyers or specialists in issues such as violence," she recalled.
Alarcón is convinced of the important role that legal journalism plays and, amid laughter, he remembers the bad reputation that the reporters of la nota roja had. That is why his site also seeks to provide a place that reporters who cover one of the most difficult beats and in which in some places they put their own lives at risk, must have.
"Police journalism is crucial in the deconstruction of this proposal of hatred towards those who have the least, towards the poorest, who are always being crafted as villains and murderers," Alarcón said. “Because police journalism can make visible the fact that violence always has to do with two central issues. On the one hand, economic inequality. On the other hand, the patriarchy. To which we must add, with increasing force, racism.”
It’s an exercise that became particularly important during this COVID-19 pandemic which, in addition to the health crisis, demonstrated the levels of violence against women with an increase in femicides in some countries in the region. “The homes became prisons, death traps for many of them [women],” Alarcón said. "Witnessing this was harrowing and required more conscious, persistent and systematic coverage of violence against women and femicide."
Alarcón believes that part of the duty of this type of coverage should somehow lead to changing the reader's perception.
“The only thing left is to try to do the best possible journalism so that on the one hand the story is attractive. But on the other, it provides readers with at least a slight awareness that we are part of the plots of violence as citizens and we are not exempt from civic responsibility in the face of this 'spectacle,' in quotation marks, which we can see as fiction in our comfortable armchairs without feeling compromised or only as possible victims,” he said.
“This is the struggle of Cosecha today: the idea of producing an intersectional journalism that understands the processes of violence as the result of these hierarchies, these modes of discrimination functional to the reproduction of an unjust system where millions and millions of people live in poverty and very few in the maximum of riches,” he concluded.
One brand, several projects
Talking about Cosecha Roja is not possible without naming its “sister,” as Alarcón calls Revista Anfibia. The fact is that the two sites were born barely a year apart, and are under the umbrella of Cronos Lab. That is why Alarcón sees himself as "a leader of a dynamic process, which is more Cronos than Cosecha.”
It’s a process in which Anfibia magazine has become the flagship media outlet of the Latin American crónica that raises “the need for this intersection with academia” and has taken it to the level of a narrative essay, according to Alarcón.
For this reason, this year the scholarship became the Cosecha Anfibia Scholarship, which is coordinated by Leila Mesyngier and Sol Dinerstein, in addition to Alarcón. For the first time, it is a program aimed exclusively at directors. On this occasion, the 16 people will write an essay on the journalism of the future that will become a book.
One of those chosen was Sergio Rodríguez-Blanco, Spanish journalist and editor-in-chief of the Mexican site Perro Crónico, who applied with a project on queer narratives in Latin America. These months, since the scholarship began in August, have been very satisfactory for the journalist due to the theoretical level in the master classes, as well as how active the selected team is.
“We are advancing in our project, with which we applied and with which we were selected, and at the same time we are receiving a fairly deep, very multidisciplinary training. With top-level specialists in each of the issues and also generally characterized by having a fairly renewed, critical, a little subversive vision. And that allows us, from our media outlets, to change our gaze,” Rodríguez-Blanco told LJR. “Also a fundamental part is the mentoring itself. Both Cristian Alarcón and the editors and editors of Revista Anfibia. The sixteen of us are divided with several editors, there are six more editors, in addition to Cristian Alarcón, with whom we have a perhaps closer and more specific conversation about our work. And well, that also enriches the project a lot.”
For Alarcón, the creation of this new scholarship perfectly sums up the development of these two media in a single brand.
"There are two media and each has its own public, its own audience and its own agenda, but where there are permanent intersections, right?", he explained. “Intersections that have to do with perspective, with the gaze and with some products that merge into the Cronos brand. Cronos in short, it is emerging and it is becoming clear that it is the apex of many and dozens of different projects.”
This story was originally written in Spanish and was translated by Teresa Mioli. It has been updated to include comments from María Teresa Ronderos.