Panel One: The State of Bilateral Reporting
José Carreño, El Universal
Jerry Kammer, Copley News Service
María Martin, Gracias Vida Production and Latino USA (NPR)
Panel Two: Are There New Stories to Cover?
Rossana Fuentes Berain, Foreign Affairs en Español
Sandra Dibble, San Diego Union-Tribune
Mary Jordan, The Washington Post
Pedro Armendáriz, Periodistas de Investigación (moderator, both panels)
"We have lots of stories that shout [about the other country], but we need to find the stories that whisper."
"It is the story of this new world that we [as journalists] have the responsibility to tell."
The Symposium on Leadership in Mexico-U.S. Journalism brought together journalists from the United States and Mexico to discuss the role of the media in the bilateral relationship. Over thirty journalists from both countries participated in this first of several seminars organized by the Wilson Center Mexico Institute on journalism in bilateral affairs. The event generated an intense discussion among journalists about the extent to which news coverage of each other's country has grown over the past ten years; the limitations they face in trying to cover the other country's news; and the opportunities to improve the breadth and depth of the coverage. Several participants highlighted the specific opportunities of reporting for border television, radio, and newspapers at the border, since events in both countries often become local news. They also highlighted the growing importance of the Mexican community in the United States both as a consumer of news about Mexico and a subject for reporting in the Mexican media. Participants concluded that the media needed to find new ways of reporting stories about everyday life and politics in the other country that go beyond the dramatic tales that confirm each other's suspicions of the other.
Summary of the Presentations
José Carreño of El Universal addressed the state of U.S. reporting on Mexico by arguing that U.S. reporters often report stories about Mexico without fully understanding the context of the events. He noted that there is a prevalent attitude that "anything is possible" in Mexico, which leads U.S. reporters to pursue dramatic and often outrageous stories. He expressed particular concern that the events of 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq have taken a toll on the independence of U.S. journalism, and observed that the rise of right-wing talk shows in the United States has inflamed passions against Mexican immigrants and made it more difficult to pursue dispassionate bilateral discussions.
Jerry Kammer of Copley News, commenting on the state of Mexican reporting on the United States, observed the limited coverage that the Mexican media give to stories outside of Washington and New York. Even though he concedes that this is largely because Mexican journalists are rarely posted outside Washington or New York, he argued that more should be done. He also acknowledged that there was a disparity in resources between Mexican and U.S. media companies, which often did not allow for broader coverage, but felt that both countries were losing when stories outside these two cities were not covered. He concluded by remarking that Mexican news sources often seem to take reflexively anti-American positions, which mirror the attitudes of the country's political and cultural elite but do not allow for reasoned debate about key bilateral issues like migration.
Maria Martin of Gracias Vida Productions and NPR's Latino USA, explained that the manner in which citizens of either country see the other depends a great deal on where they live, whether they are bilingual, and what news sources they have access to. She noted that Mexican news coverage had improved dramatically over the past ten years with the democratic transition, and that U.S. coverage of Mexico and of the border had grown dramatically since the signing of NAFTA. Nonetheless, she observed that the U.S. coverage of Mexico still revolves around the "Holy Trinity"—drug trafficking, corruption, and immigration—which perpetuates stereotypes and misses a wealth of other possible coverage. Since the U.S. is increasingly a transnational society, with people who have roots in other countries, she argued that efforts should be made in the media to hire, promote, and retain those who understand this transnational dimension of U.S. society. She also highlighted the role of alternative media and the possibility of collaborative projects between U.S. and Latin American media as avenues for increasing understanding of each other's societies and politics.
Mary Jordan of The Washington Post argued that the most important new stories for U.S. media to cover in Mexico are the old stories: poverty and education. She felt that her paper had given her considerable support in pursuing these stories, and had accorded Mexico an especially significant place in their international coverage, even if 9/11 and the war in Iraq had made it more difficult to get Mexican stories on the front page. Instead, the pull of interests came in either following stories that had deep significance or in finding an interesting angle for the reader back home; achieving a balance between the two is still on her agenda.
Rossana Fuentes-Beraín of Foreign Affairs en Español stated several shortcomings and challenges in bilateral press coverage. She insisted that the Mexican media only write about Mexicans abroad when there is a dead body, glorifying the image of the suffering migrant while overlooking the real-life struggles and achievements of the Mexican community in the United States. She also found that there is little real coverage of each other's high-end culture in the U.S. or Mexican press, which creates a significant gap for understanding the other. Moreover she maintains that in sharing a border, México and the U.S. hold the responsibility to tell the story of this "new world," by using new and old frameworks of journalistic storytelling. Finally, in conclusion, "It is the story of this new world that we [as journalists] have the responsibility to tell," she affirmed.
Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune argued that border issues are both domestic and international. She covers Tijuana, for example, as part of the Metro desk of the San Diego paper, and has two other colleagues who cover Tijuana and binational issues for the paper. As a result of understanding the dynamics at the border, journalists are often able to look beyond "the line" and truly analyze transnational identities, communities, and people. The rising cost of living in San Diego has also led many Americans to live in Tijuana, which has generated a greater awareness of this city on the U.S. side. However, ultimately it is also important for editors to understand the complexities of the border and the importance of binational coverage, because otherwise this can limit the kinds of stories that emerge. She noted that often the stories that get the most coverage are those that involve crime and corruption, but it is important to give equal coverage to the kinds of stories that are less dramatic but have a greater impact on people's daily lives. She concluded by observing that "We have lots of stories that shout [about the other country], but we need to find the stories that whisper."
Major Issues Discussed
The symposium generated considerable discussion on a range of issues in binational press coverage. The following issues emerged as some of the key areas of debate during the roundtable discussions.
Dramatic Rise in Press Coverage of Binational Issues
The breadth and depth of U.S. press coverage of Mexico has increased exponentially. The number of U.S. reporters in Mexico has multiplied since 1980, from around five to around sixty. Mexico continues to be an important country for the U.S. media, even with changes in priorities after 9/11 and will continue to be so. U.S. reporters increasingly have the freedom and resources to do investigative reporting on stories off the beaten path in Mexico. The growth in U.S. media interest has been driven both by increased economic and political interaction since NAFTA and the growth of the Mexican and Mexican-American community in the United States.
Mexican press coverage of the United States has increased significantly in recent years as well, although less dramatically and it remains primarily concentrated in Mexico City and Washington. The quality of Mexican reporting has improved exponentially with the growing press freedom in Mexico as a result of the democratic transition. This has increased the number of reliable news sources in Mexico and freed reporters from constantly looking over their shoulders for the reaction from the government on their coverage.
The border represents an opportunity for a different kind of binational coverage. For border media, stories "across the line" are often local or regional stories. Television and radio stations on the Mexican side of the border broadcast to a binational audience that includes U.S.-based Mexicans and some U.S.-born Latinos. As a result, they tend to cover the whole region—U.S. and Mexican sides of the border—as one region. Similarly, local media on the U.S. side often cover news from the Mexican side of the border as local or regional stories as well, because of the intense interdependence and constant interactions.
Covering Stories of and for Mexicans in the United States
The presence of almost nine million Mexicans in the United States (and 23 million Americans of Mexican descent) may transform press coverage in both countries, although this has only started to happen recently. The Orange County Register, for example, is trying to find ways of covering human interest stories in Western Mexico, where many of its readers have roots. There is also the potential for Mexican papers to develop coverage of news affecting Mexicans in the United States as well, which might appeal to relatives and friends back home. This coverage has been limited so far, however. The Mexican press largely overlooks news of Mexican abroad and concentrates its efforts on major political events in Washington and New York (which have relatively small Mexican communities). There is, as of yet, no generalized sense that news about and affecting Mexicans living in the U.S. is of domestic importance. Meanwhile, the U.S. English-language press has generally not reached out aggressively to Latino audiences either.
Seeing Through Each Other's Eyes
Despite noteworthy efforts of leading journalists in both countries, certain kinds of stories continue to dominate press coverage of the other in both Mexico and the United States. The "Holy Trinity" of drug trafficking, corruption, and immigration continues to get the most mileage in the U.S. press, while the Mexican press tends to follow stories that confirm the bad intentions of U.S. policymakers and the suffering of Mexican migrants. Even when individual reporters wish to follow new kinds of stories, it is often difficult for them to convince editors to give front-page coverage to stories that do not fall within the usual categories. Thus reporting tends to respond to the stereotypes present in each country about the other and, therefore, to confirm these stereotypes as well. Moreover, reporters from both countries often "arrive late" to key stories in the other country, so that they become news only when there is a crisis, leaving readers without the context to understand how the stories developed.
Nonetheless, there is no question that the quantity and quality of news reporting between the two countries has increased dramatically in the past ten years. Each country is a priority in the other's coverage, and the presence of a shared border and a "shared community" of Mexicans in the U.S. creates possibilities for deepening this process. Moreover, fruitful opportunities exist for collaborations between Mexican and U.S. journalists to enhance the opportunities for true binational coverage. One Los Angeles-based youth radio program, for example, has begun broadcasting jointly with a Tijuana-based youth program. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists offers fellowships for journalists from different newspapers to work on temporary assignment in a newspaper in another country and to write joint stories with journalists from other countries. The border region, in particular, allows for multiple interactions among U.S. and Mexican journalists, and the growth of Spanish-language and Latino-oriented media in the U.S. provides another outlet for shared coverage with Mexican media.
Perhaps most importantly, both countries have reporters who are committed to overcoming stereotypes and limitations on coverage and finding new stories to cover that help Americans and Mexicans to understand each others' countries better.