May 23, 2003

From the edge of both lands Border Journalism Conference

“Words should fly like airplanes over custom offices and international borders, and should land in all the fields”

- Vicente Huidobro

By Mariana Martinez

As I walk through the hallways of El Camino Real Hotel to my attended appointment, I find a Binational Environmental Encounter on one hand, an infectious diseases and bio-terrorism Forum on the other and later that night, a concert with the famous Cuban signer Francisco Céspedes followed by Carmina Burana that same weekend.

Tijuana is ever so vibrant and the proof of it is all around me.

I’m attending yet another event going on, the Border Journalism Conference held in the same hotel in the middle of Tijuana’s established business district, El Río. The conference is held as a part of the work done by Homeland Productions -a US based organization that received a grant from the Ford Foundation- to develop a project along with Mexican journalists to create a series of documentaries about the border region and develop the idea of transborder-journalism.

This Conference is a way to develop a closer bond between investigative reporters along the edge of both countries and establish new relationships to help them get the work done.

About 70 people are at the conference, most of them young journalists looking for a chance to ask, how did you get that story? Or, what was the creation process on that great piece you did? The mixture of people was very interesting, there where people from El Paso, TX, Guadalajara, Douglas, AZ or Ciudad Juárez, most of them for the first time in Tijuana.

But first, ever pressing issues had to be addressed; first issue was the border images portrayed by the media, the perceptions and misperceptions reporters and journalists have when they meet the other culture and how that version filters into their final articles.

Panelists like Susan Ferris from Cox Newspapers and José Carreño from the México City newspaper El Universal expressed their views on the matter coinciding in the fact that, however diluted, the border is still an edge of some sort, a line to cross into another culture and however close, the media treatment to the same news are all so different.

“Unfortunately - said José Carreño- I don’t find interest in the US media to know how the US is perceived in Latin America” opposite to its coverage on European and Canadian views.

That discussion took the group into another direction, the very different views media portrayed in the US War against Iraq; where Mexican media focused on the civilian casualties and Mexican soldiers on the battlefield –like most non ally coverage around the world- US media focused on army strategies and city conquests.

American journalists agree the media coverage on the war made the press part of the conflict.

The same differences can be seen in the more immediate scandal about congressional representatives’ proposal to exchange the Mexican oil company Pemex for an emigration agreement. This was barely covered by the US press, who know it is not the official US point of view on such delicate issue, but was made in to a gossipy scandal in some México City newspapers, where mayor politicians felt the need to go against something the US government didn’t even suggest.

The fact is, the border region is where some of the critical binational issues condense such as the water shortage in Texas or the electric crisis here in California, but neither Washington D.C nor México D.F. Have a clear perception on what’s going on, in part because of deficient media coverage, designed to confirm the prejudice and preset ideas each of them have about the other culture.

But, where does the border end? And how is it that cities like L.A. or Chicago have a closer relationship-and interest-with some Mexican cities than some of this cities have among themselves? The border perception is changing, governments from both countries are learning the importance of Mexican-American votes during elections, discussing immigration agreements more openly and finally understanding the importance Mexican-American dollars have on both economies.

“We as journalists have a responsibility to shed light on delicate issues and not portray simplistic images of good guys and bad guys” said Susan Ferriss.

After the plenary session, two hour breakout sessions where held, one on computer assisted reporting and the other on coverage of violence in Ciudad Juárez.

The infamous Juárez murders, shaming and unpunished crimes.

Since 1993, the bordering city of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (colliding with El Paso TX) has received over 2000 missing persons reports, yet unsolved. 300 of them have been perceived by the authorities to have some connection with the city’s drug cartel but 340 more of those reported missing are poor, young woman either looking for work or employed in one of the many maquiladoras in the city.

Since the disappearances started, bodies of woman have been found in the dessert and all sorts of theories have been made, from snuff films to organ trafficking or initiation rituals to get in to the drug dealing mafia, but how is the media from both countries covering this ten year old story that only seems to get more turbid?

Cecilia Ballí from Texas Monthly; Diana Washington-Valdez from El Paso Times and Vanesa Robles, an independent journalist from Guadalajara where the chosen panelist, all of them have some way or another covered the Juárez murders stories.

Together they discussed issues like the sensationalist format in most media coverage of the murders, making them seem like isolated cases instead of an alarmingly common threat. Local media doesn’t seem eager to dig deeper into the issue, mainly because of threats to them and many editors from both sides of the border feel the issue is not up dated enough to be on the news. The FBI and Mexican Investigation Bureau seem to have no clue or simply refuse to target a problem that seems thingy linked with organized crime in both sides of the border, meanwhile the Juárez community has gone from the purest machismo- blaming the woman for wearing short skirts or going out alone at night-to total outrage and a deepening sadness.

Journalists are faced with a story that doesn’t let herself be told.

Literature was the belle of the ball.

Lunch was held while a Literature of the Border panel was being held.

Tuna or cheese sandwiches and grape juice did not take away from the attention of the audience, who even though they where tired –some arriving late the night before- seemed eager to listen to Bobby Byrd from Texan based Cinco Puntos Press and Gabriel Trujillo, a Mexicali born author. Both of them talked about the very peculiar language developing in the region, and how the border is a cultural sharing space, aside from the violence and blood shed that media often crave on when they visit a city like Tijuana or any other.

After lunch the session broke up again into two; a session about government information where US and México experts discuss the recent changes to the Freedom of information laws and the pros and cons it represents and meanwhile, the authors and subjects of some border stories shared their experiences with the rest of us.

While discussing the complexity of working together, sometimes for years, all of the journalists who participated agreed on the importance of postponing judgment and cultivating a relationship with the subject of your stories, especially those given to you by common people who have no public lives or wish for fame, the human part of the interaction, and the way some stories get you involved is part of the job, forget about objectivity, just tell the truth, they said, the best stories are the ones that mean something to you.

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