BOB GARFIELD: In the last five years, 66 Mexican journalists have been killed and another 12 have disappeared, making that country one of the most dangerous places in the world to report. This is, of course, mainly the toll of drug violence, which endangers reporters and every other part of Mexican society. Many, many reporters and papers are abandoning coverage of the violence for fear that they will be caught up in it. Those are the findings of a recent study by MEPI, an investigative journalism project based in Mexico City, a project which has for the first time quantified just how small a percentage of Mexico’s regional papers is reporting on drug violence. Ana Arana is the reporter who directs the project. Ana, welcome to On the Media.
ANA ARANA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Why did you undertake this study?
ANA ARANA: Well, we had always heard of reporters who were called and told don't write this or we'll kill you. One case that I had heard was in one town one of the local drug gang leaders coming up and forcing the editor to bring down the front page so he could red-pencil what stories should go on and which ones shouldn't. People were saying, you know, we're getting hit by both sides. Either the Army comes after us or the narcos come after us. So I thought, let's measure how much they're saying because of what’s happening to them.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s easy to quantify coverage. It’s impossible to quantify non-coverage. What is the methodology that you use to try to demonstrate stories that aren't being written or, if they're written, aren't being put in the paper?
ANA ARANA: We came up with a set of terms that our team of interns used to track the newspapers in 11 cities. We wanted them to find how many stories mention violence generally and how many stories mention the cartels or mention slang words that have become part of reporting in this country, which are tied to drug trafficking, which include cuernos de chivo, which is how you call an AK-47, levanton, which means just when you’re kidnapped by a drug gang, and a set of other words that they use. The problem was what did we compare it to, because the government doesn't issue every month fatalities or shootouts; nobody has it unless you do your own counting. We had to find a figure that we could use, and we thought gangland executions, which are big, and the three major newspapers count them every year. So what we did is we went back and looked at national newspapers and tried to find how many executions were for that area that we were looking at and how many were covered by the local paper. And that’s when the findings became even more startling.
BOB GARFIELD: To summarize, what were the findings?
ANA ARANA: Places where there was a lot of coverage, there was three out of ten stories. And in the places where there was less coverage, there was one out of ten or in places like Nuevo Laredo, which is right on the Tamaulipas and U.S. border, one of the most violent areas, it was zero. Stories that they did cover were mostly about Laredo, Texas, and they were all about interdictions and arrests of people on the other side, not in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
BOB GARFIELD: So you were able to demonstrate that well more than half of these incidents were not finding their way into the local papers, I mean, in some places, as you said, zero. But were you able to figure out what precisely was happening to keep them out?
ANA ARANA: It varies. What we did is we took strategic trips to different cities, and I had a, a meeting with people from the Northeast, with several reporters who came from several cities. What they were telling me was in some places the traffickers have meetings with them where they give them directives. In other places they send messages and they call them up. In other places they can't cover anything. The other thing we found, which we had heard as anecdotes throughout the last couple of years, is that some newspapers in some areas have come up with tacit agreements where everybody knows what they should write and what they shouldn't write.
BOB GARFIELD: As newspapers shy away from this sort of coverage, is there anyone filling in the vacuum?
ANA ARANA: There are lots of bloggers. Everyone follows one called El Blog del Narco, and Facebook does and YouTube. And what you have is a bunch of people who – young people mostly – who follow where the events are happening. The problem with this is that nobody’s really controlling for what reason are you showing this. And so, there’s a lot of suspicion here that is being used by people linked to the traffickers or government forces.
BOB GARFIELD: Your report makes very clear that locally and regionally the press is cowed for the most part by the cartels. What about the national media? Are they doing a better job of covering this violence and of the drug trade, in general?
ANA ARANA: Yes, they're doing a better job. The problem is that if you don't have correspondents, local correspondents feeding you the right news, then what do you have to put in your paper, you know. So there are limitations in terms of some areas where the reporters cannot report anything. What we hope, and thus one of our mandates here, is that by doing this kind of work where we work in teams with different people from different places, that it raises the ante and more people start doing this kind of stuff. If you don't put it in the context of what’s been going on, it’s very hard for people to see the gravity of it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ana, thank you so much.
ANA ARANA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ana Arana is director of MEPI, an investigative project that works with journalists in the U.S., Mexico and Central America.