News in the Line of Fire: Border editors
Anecdotes, watchwords and lessons learned offered by a panel of editors from both sides of the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez twin-cities area at the opening session of News in the Line of Fire, a bilingual two-day summit convened at the University of Texas at El Paso by the American Society of News Editors and the Inter American Press Association. Appearing on the panel were Armando Vélez, editor-in-chief of El Diário de El Paso, Alfredo Quijano, editor of El Norte de Ciudad Juárez and Christopher V. Lopez, executive editor of the El Paso Times. The moderator was Wendy Benjaminson, the Houston-based news editor for The Associated Press.
EL PASO, Texas – Covering ongoing life, so much death and whatever else one can in the war zone that is now Mexico's Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from here, has produced an alarmingly fearful strain of daily journalism, according to front-line editors on both sides of this strife-torn, binational community.
Reporters travel in pairs and rarely go out after nightfall. Editors trace the whereabouts of their reporters hour to hour, sometimes with the help of global positioning technology and where-are-you now text messages. Some Americans on assignment carry Mexican-issued work visas to avoid unnecessary conflicts with law enforcement officials that can turn menacingly sour.
One reporter, map-in-hand and seeking directions was advised, yes, that may be the shortest route to get to the scene of that story, but be wary: What looks like a security checkpoint, complete with uniformed personnel, has at times proven to be a front for a carjacking operation.
Simply covering the cops can be treacherous. Getting to the scene of reported killings before the police can be dangerous, or even fatal. Don't work the same neighborhood too often or too long. Buddy-up with local reporters when you “parachute in” for a story.
Yes, you can develop sources among informants, who often have more details about shootings than police. But be careful when using the information they provide lest you unwittingly become the messenger for their taunts to their rivals setting up the next hits.
These were just some of the anecdotes, watchwords and lessons learned offered by a panel of editors from both sides of the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez twin-cities area at the opening session of “News in the Line of Fire,” a bilingual two-day summit convened at the University of Texas at El Paso by the American Society of News Editors and the Inter American Press Association.
Appearing on the panel were Armando Vélez, editor-in-chief of El Diário de El Paso, Alfredo Quijano, editor of El Norte de Ciudad Juárez and Christopher V. Lopez, executive editor of the El Paso Times. The moderator was Wendy Benjaminson, the Houston-based news editor for The Associated Press.
Some 2,800 people have been killed so far this year in Ciudad Juárez, a city of more than 1 million, and editors who direct the local coverage wrestle with how best to balance it.
Sunday's meeting in the Tomás Rivera Conference Center opened as area newspapers reported that four policemen were killed when they responded to a call that lured them into an ambush. One newspaper played the story on the local front.
Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald, asked from the audience how that could not be front-page news. “How do you prevent the extraordinary from becoming the mundane when you have so much violence?” Sanchez queried.
The border editors responded that the choices indeed were difficult. “We could lead the paper every day with violence from Juárez,” said Lopez of the Times. “But I don't think I'd be serving my readers.”
“We have to keep readers from becoming inured to this drumbeat of violence every day,” said moderator Benjaminson. John Daniszewski, AP's senior managing editor in charge of international news, who was in the audience, agreed.
“If the only thing we hear about from Mexico is drug wars,” Daniszewski said, “then the narco-traffickers have won.”
Many of the reporting tactics described by the border editors are familiar to U.S. editors who have also made the gut-wrenching decisions that placed reporters and photographers in harm's way by sending them to cover turf wars and gang killings in America's cities and suburbs and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are differences.
“There is no such thing as a Green Zone in Mexico,” said Lopez of the El Paso Times. Reporters are not routinely embedded in police or military units and most often do not receive the kind of training in combat journalism given war correspondents.
Moreover, corruption is rife among those who are sworn to uphold the law and, presumably, to protect the press. “You can become a target of the police or you can become a target of the Mexican army,” said El Norte's Quijano, speaking in Spanish.
At the official opening of the meetings, the attendees rose for a moment of silence in honor of the 57 journalists killed in Mexico since 2000.
Twelve of those journalists — one of every five overall — fell this year, more than in any other country. One was Luís Carlos Santiago of El Diário de Ciudad Juárez, killed barely three months ago. The editor of his sister paper in El Paso was on the panel Sunday, representing both publications. Armando Vélez spoke of how difficult it was to continue after El Diário buried Santiago, a second of its own, only a year after it buried Armando Rodríguez.
“El Diario has been wounded in this war,” he said, adding, however, that the news goes on, as does the newsroom. “If we are not going to tell the story of what happened in Juárez, Vélez asked, “who else is going to tell that story?”
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