A New Guide for Disaster Journalism in Latin America

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to work with journalists in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico: countries where the media are under fire for the watchdog role they perform.  I have been awed by their powerful commitment to the profession and to the public they serve despite great personal risk.  I always departed wishing I could do more.

The International Center for Journalists provided the perfect opportunity for me. 

I eagerly signed on when ICFJ invited me to co-author a manual “Covering Crisis and Disaster:  A Guide for Journalists” for colleagues in Latin America.  The publication, funded by The McCormick Foundation and directed by Luis Manuel Botello at ICFJ, appeared on the organization's website in February, building on the success of a 2008 program on crisis reporting for U.S. Hispanic and Latin American journalists also sponsored by the McCormick Foundation.  The need for this information was painfully obvious.

In a February 2009 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted “powerful drug traffickers fighting for turf in Mexico, paramilitary gangsters in Brazilian slums, guerrillas and paramilitaries in strife-ridden areas of Colombia, and violent street gangs in El Salvador and Guatemala are terrorizing the press.”  CPJ ranked Mexico among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and published lists of attacks against the media throughout Latin America.

Medical experts have warned that journalists who operate in countries where they are targeted for their work tend to be at higher risk for traumatic stress.  For media workers in Latin America, guidelines for dealing with emotionally bruised psyches could be a lifeline.

The manual includes two online guides.  The first section, written by Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, provides practical guidelines for delivering news in a professional manner while maintaining personal safety.

My assignment for the second section was to create a primer on journalism and trauma, including case studies; a definition of traumatic stress; suggestions for dealing with victims, survivors and eyewitnesses; and tips to media professionals for their own emotional self-care.

The guides are available in both Spanish and English, including a full text downloadable PDF alternative for those who want to delve deeper into these issues.  There are links to other online resources, among them the Dart Center's Spanish-language guide to help journalists report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves.

In my research, my direct experience with the Dart Center — I am on the advisory council and have written extensively about journalism and trauma over the years — was critical.  I turned to Dart Center founder Dr. Frank Ochberg and Executive Director Bruce Shapiro for direction.  And I turned to my files, already thick with Dart-generated materials.

Writing the guide, though, was in the end a highly personal mission. When I was in Bogotá, Colombia, to speak at a conference on “The Media, War and Terrorism,” I met with journalists who had been targeted for their reporting.  One of them had been kidnapped, gang raped and tossed in a bloody heap in a garbage dump.  I asked what those of us on the outside might do to help.  “Keep us in the spotlight.  Help us make our words heard.  Don’t forget that we are here,” the reporters said that afternoon. 

This manual is another sign that our colleagues in Latin America are very much in the hearts and minds of ICFJ and the Dart Center.