On June 29, newspaper reporter Antonio de la Cruz became the latest journalist to be killed in Mexico, where as many as a dozen have been killed so far in 2022, according to press freedom groups tallying the carnage. De la Cruz's daughter, who was gravely injured in the attack, died two days later. His editor told Reporters Without Borders that de la Cruz frequently spoke out on social media about crime and politics in the the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
The bravery of journalists such as de la Cruz – and how their newsrooms respond – is the focus of “Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-first Century” (University of Texas Press, 2021), a book by professors Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine Relly.
Based on dozens of interviews with journalists, activists, government officials and experts, González de Bustamante and Relly detail the methods the journalists use to ensure their audiences have vital information and provide substantial context about the dangers posed by the drug cartels and others. The authors highlight the networks the journalists have built to support each other and call for more efforts to build such networks globally and strengthen international laws designed to protect journalists.
González de Bustamante, a veteran University of Arizona professor who begins work as an associate dean at the University of Texas this fall, and Relly, who directs global programs at the University of Arizona's journalism school, will receive three prestigious awards for their work at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which will be held Aug. 3-6 in Detroit. On Aug. 4, Kappa Tau Alpha, the national honor society for journalism and mass communication, will present them with the Frank Luther Mott/KTA Award named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former KTA leader. On Aug. 5, González de Bustamante and Relly will receive two additional awards from AEJMC, the James A. Tankard Jr. Award and the Knudson Latin America Prize.
The following is a Q&A with González de Bustamante and Relly. Colman Mitchell, a master’s student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, prepared the questions. The answers were edited for clarity.
Q: What inspired you to explore this topic? What is your connection?
González de Bustamante: We started our study in 2011, when the problem of violence against journalists in Mexico became too big to ignore. By then almost a journalist a month was being killed, a staggering and horrifying statistic. We had experience working as journalists in Mexico, and I had been conducting research on the history of Mexico as an academic for many years. We also had developed many colleagues and contacts in the region because of our previous work and involvement in an organization that we helped to found called the Border Journalism Network. We asked ourselves, what could we do? We wanted to do something for our colleagues in Mexico, and as academics, this is what we could do, examine the problem at a very deep level. We began to first analyze how conditions were changing for journalists around the country, and then we expanded our work to analyze how folks in newsrooms were responding to and resisting the violent conditions in their communities. What we found was truly amazing.
Q: Aside from journalists in Mexico, what other key stakeholders did you have in mind when conducting this research? Why?
Relly: When we began doing the research in 2011, we started by interviewing dozens of journalists in Mexico. Within a year or so, we recognized clearly that it was essential to look at as many dimensions of the issue as we could to contribute to not only studying how and why the situation for journalists is the way it is, yet also ways in which this situation has been, and continues to be addressed, by many inside and outside of Mexico. For these perspectives, in addition to interviewing journalists in some of most precarious states in Mexico, we conducted interviews with journalists in 11 U.S. cities and towns near the Mexico border. We interviewed Mexican and U.S. government officials, intergovernmental organization representatives from the U.N., transnational and domestic nongovernmental organization advocacy representatives of journalists, freedom of expression and human rights. We also interviewed academics who had done research on the issue of violence against journalists or done outreach and resilience building in those communities. Our perspective in the book on organized crime groups is derived from public records and accounts of journalists, government officials, lawyers, advocacy and support organizations, academic researchers, news accounts and other artifacts.
Q: Describe the greatest challenges associated with your research. How did you overcome these?
González de Bustamante: One of the greatest challenges involved navigating the constantly shifting environment of violence throughout the country. … the activities of organized crime groups in various parts Mexico, and how the government was responding to them, created a situation in which levels of and types of violence changed rapidly. This caused the conditions for journalists to shift. Because the environment was so mercurial, we had to make sure that the approaches we took while conducting our field work protected those involved in our research to the greatest extent possible. This meant ensuring that we met at places that would provide the least risk as possible for those involved in the research and for ourselves. Sometimes that meant we needed to meet in public places, on other occasions that meant meeting in spaces where those whom we interviewed were not seen in public. The process was very reflexive. One of the advantages of having a research team that communicates well is that you can bounce ideas off one another – and sometimes that happened in real time when situations were unfolding. We think that our reflexive approach helped to reduce risk for those whom we interviewed as well as for ourselves.
Q: Describe the greatest lesson(s) you took away from this experience in conducting research and writing the book.
Relly: There were many lessons from this research, and as time goes on, aspects of our findings resonate in different ways. For example, when we started this work, we thought journalists were living through what could have been the roughest time in Mexico for the profession. Yet in the last five months, there have literally been an average of two killings of journalists on average a month, twice the amount than when we began our research, a brutal and unfathomable death toll.
We studied, in part, the history of this violence toward journalists and from that, you can see how important it is to document the present, for if it is not documented, in some ways, in decades to come, it is as if it didn’t happen. We also studied a period of nascent hope and structural renewal in law and policy In Mexico, which laid the groundwork for institutions to protect journalists in the country. Over time, we learned that these institutions were chronically underfunded by the government and many of the issues were at the state and local levels and not impacted by the national level changes, either. We also came to wonder how with all the energy and great minds focused on this issue and its relationship to public policy, whether the profits are so great for all connected to illegal enterprises running in an almost parallel society, that the deaths of journalists and others are just considered “negative externalities,” or collateral damage.
Lessons learned lead to the question, What will it take to effect change for journalists in Mexico?
That all said, the biggest lesson learned for me was how in this unspeakably unsafe context, journalists came together collectively and resisted the conditions in large and small ways. Different methods worked for different individuals in different times and depended on the amount of trauma individual journalists had been through, yet in the end, many were there for one another, and they did create a sense of collective resilience. Some of this was possible through funded training, workshops and bringing large numbers of journalists together to plan strategically how to move forward given the sometimes-grave contexts.
González de Bustamante: I echo what Jeannine has said, and I would add that after this study, I have an even deeper admiration and respect for those who are continuing to do the work to inform and hold the powerful accountable under such untenable conditions. The level of journalists’ commitment to the profession is inspiring and very heartening. The notion of journalists as change makers and as activists became clearer to me, as well. In the Mexico context, a journalist can be an activist for freedom of expression, press freedoms and other human rights and continue to produce high quality work. We saw so many examples of this through our research and you can continue to see today with publications such as La Verdad, an online publication produced by the Juárez Journalist Network, El Quinto Elemento, and many others.
Q: How has your research influenced your approach to not only journalism but your role as professors?
Relly: I teach courses in freedom of expression and the right to information, media and humanitarian crises, research methods, disinformation and information security and media and global terrorism, and everything that we have learned through our work has influenced the approaches to how these courses are taught. I also have done and am doing research in other dangerous contexts for journalists in conflict zones in the Middle East and in Southwest and South Central Asia, so the similarities and differences in these contexts that we have to share with students, other researchers and communities around the world is notable. I also think my approach and awareness about research fieldwork has changed significantly and my understanding of trauma-informed interviewing has grown.
González de Bustamante: In my role as a professor, I’ve had the privilege of developing courses that focus on reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as press in Latin America. What we’ve seen in Mexico is important for understanding the lack of press freedoms throughout the region. I try to help my students understand that geography and history matter when it comes to understanding how and why journalists are being killed or attacked. In Mexico, there is a federal law that makes it crime to attack a journalist or a human rights worker, but the acts of aggression tend to happen on a local level and in what we consider the economic and political periphery of the country – and along many of the geographic peripheries is where organized crime prevails. There are similarities in other countries in Latin America such as Brazil, Guatemala, and Paraguay, where journalists working along the periphery are the most vulnerable.
Q: What is the greatest takeaway for readers? How does your research create a call to action for readers? What work remains?
González de Bustamante: We hope that after reading “Surviving Mexico,” folks will have a deeper understanding about the situation that journalists are facing in Mexico and have encountered over the past 20 years, and that they recognize the amazing ways journalists are resisting societal pressures. Since we embarked on our research, dozens of local, regional, and national journalist networks and collectives have emerged. These are networks that have been created by and for journalists. One of the strongest is the Juárez Journalist Network in the state of Chihuahua. We can’t quantify how many journalists are now safer as a result of the formation and work of these collectives and networks, but they’re certainly having multilayered and multilevel impacts. Perhaps in some cases, lives might have even been saved. In other cases, journalism has improved through the training and support that the networks have provided. As far as calls to action, we would encourage folks to learn more about the journalism networks. Most have websites and have started critical publications, and they could all use more support.
There is so much more work that needs to be done. We touch on the issue of ownership and who controls media in Mexico, but there is much more research to be done in this area, specifically on local media owners, including who controls the many digital platforms that have emerged recently. We found that in many cases, local owners do not provide enough support for media workers, and in some cases, have put their employees at greater risk.
Another area of research includes how violence against journalists has influenced journalism programs across Mexico. We know of programs that are under threat or have been closed. Some of the closures have been attributed to a decrease in students. In other instances, journalism programs continue to thrive. Why? We need to examine and understand under what circumstances are journalism programs thriving or withering? Obviously, this has serious implications for the future of journalism.