Student Journalists Covering U.S.-Mexico Border Face Trauma, Danger

Journalists and educators came together at the University of Arizona to develop strategies for teaching student journalists to safely and ethically report on a region wracked by violence.

Journalists and journalism educators came together in a panel April 29 at the University of Arizona to discuss the challenges unique to reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The panel was the start of a three-day workshop for professors from nine southwest universities and colleges aimed at generating strategies for preparing a new crop of student journalists to safely and ethically report on a region wracked by violence. Sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the UA Center for Latin American Studies and funded by a Gannett Foundation Media Grant, the event highlighted challenges faced by media educators, students, and working journalists covering the U.S.-Mexico border.

More than 36,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and declared war on drug cartels in the country. 

The International Press Institute reports that 12 journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters.

With these numbers it is more important than ever that journalists be prepared to protect the emotional and personal safety of not only themselves, but also of their sources on the ground in the midst of continuing violence.

“First and foremost we want to teach our students to report ethically in the area,” said Dr. Celeste González De Bustamante, a University of Arizona professor who moderated the panel. “And, of course, to be safe.”

Panelists included Arizona Daily Star Border and Immigration Reporter Brady McCombs; El Paso-based NPR Senior Field Correspondent Mónica Ortiz Uribe; Angela Kocherga, Mexico bureau chief at KHOU in Houston, Texas; and Maria de los Angeles Flores, assistant professor at Texas A & M International University in Laredo.

 “It is very shocking, the amount of trauma you encounter,” said Mónica Ortiz Uribe, who covers the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez region for NPR’s Fronteras project. “First you have to digest it yourself.”

Uribe said she had to learn on the fly how to handle the trauma she encountered reporting in Ciudad Juarez and other border areas.

“I really jumped into this type of reporting,” she said. “I learned in the field and I’m hoping to share some of that knowledge.”

Brady McCombs, who has covered the build-up of federal government manpower and infrastructure along the Arizona-Mexico border since 2006, said the state of news outlets today allows student journalists opportunities to latch on to important stories.

“Because we’ve lost a lot of staff (at newspapers) there’s more of a window for student journalists to do big stories now,” McCombs said.

Maintaining balance between being emotionally moved by the stories you cover and removed enough to report with objectivity is key to covering border issues, said McCombs.

“It’s a balance because you don’t want to become so callous that you can’t tell an emotional story any more,” he said. “On the border you have to remember that there are people involved in these stories, but you also have to step back. It’s a balancing act.”

The panelists shared stories and discussed ways to maintain the kind of balance McCombs suggested.  Maria de los Angeles Flores shared her research on Mexican and cross-border journalists in the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, Texas, area. Bulletproof vests, self-censorship, personal danger and deadly consequences for inaccuracy in reporting on drug-related violence are the day-to-day realities for journalists who work there.

Putting a human face on the stories reflected by the numbers of dead, Angela Kocherga said, is the responsibility of journalists covering the border and violence in Mexico. 

Training young journalists to do that while maintaining their own physical and emotional safety is no small feat, but a necessary one, the panelists agreed. 

The cost of violence along the border is too high to leave stories untold. 

“It’s about more than gang members dying in the street,” Kocherga said. “People are trying to survive. People are trying to go about their daily lives in the midst of all this violence.”