You may not realize it, but the news media plays an enormous role in shaping how the public views and responds to crime. As Vincent Sacco states in his paper, “Media Constructions of Crime”, the way that news agencies present information about criminal activity sets the tone for public consciousness about unlawful events and determines how a crime’s urgency and pathways toward resolution are perceived.
Because of their power to strongly shape the narratives around criminal activity, reporters have a moral responsibility to detail all the essential information about a crime and accurately detail the events that transpire. In the upcoming paragraphs, I conduct a case study of current reporting on crime in Mexico. Through my analysis, I highlight critical shortcomings which currently plague media reports about violence. I also advocate that news agencies must change their writing techniques in order to provide more in-depth analyses of criminal issues, which can then better inform public opinion, policy decisions, and police intervention in on-going conflicts.
Political scientists Francisco Gutierrez-Sanin and Elisabeth Jean Wood provide a framework which investigators can use to create high quality reports about patterns of criminal violence. In their piece, “What Should We Mean by “Pattern of Political Violence”? Repertoire, Targeting, Frequency, and Technique”, Gutierrez and Wood stress that using homicide statistics as a metric for crime levels gives incomplete depictions of the actual violence that is occuring. They instead recommend that when documenting patterns of violence, researchers identify 1) what method of violence is being used by a criminal group (repertoire), 2) who is the criminal group specifically targeting, 3) with what frequency are the attacks taking place, and 4) what techniques is the criminal group using to carry out their violent acts. Gutierrez-Sanin and Wood claim that by answering these questions, authors can provide their audiences with more multidimensional understandings of crimes, which can then empower citizens to take more informed political and social action.
To analyze how well the media currently reports on crime, I did a case study of the news coverage of recent crimes in Northern Mexico. For more than a decade, there has been a growing trend of cartels committing large scale massacres at rehabilitation clinics. This trend began in 2010 when 19 patients from the Faith and Life center in Chihuahua city were assassinated by gunmen associated with a local cartel. This phenomenon has continued numerous times throughout the decade. The most recent attack on a facility occurred on July 2nd, 2020 at a facility named “Recovering My Life,” in Irapuato, Guanajuato. The attack was committed by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in an attempt to “even the score” with the rivaling the Santa Rosa Cartel in their continuing turf war over the city of Irapuato. Gunmen killed twenty six patients at the clinic in one of the most deadly attacks on a rehabilitation center ever.
Upon reading about this decades-long pattern of violence, I decided to investigate the reporting of such incidents to see if the media was documenting the attacks in accordance with Gutierrez and Wood’s guidelines. I also wanted to see if media outlets were ethically and effectively “shaping the narrative” around these attacks to promote investigation and policy changes in order to reduce violence.
To examine how journalists documented and described patterns of violence against rehabilitation centers, I examined 4 different articles concerning the attack on the “Recovering My Life” center in Irapuato. The articles came from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Noticias Telemundo, and BBC Mundo.
Upon examining these articles, I noted that all of the authors relied heavily on homicide data to demonstrate how the Santa Rosa and Jalisco New Generation Cartels were increasing violence in the state of Guanajuato. Each article rattled off statements about the murder rates. Noticias Telemundo claimed that Irapuato was one of the “five most dangerous cities in the world” with 1,903 homicides already occurring between January and May of 2020. The New York Times stressed that with over 3,000 murders on record, March was the deadliest month that the current Mexican president had seen during his administration. While the authors attempted to use these murder statstics as numerical proof of increased violence, the sole use of homicidal statistics does little to educate readers about what issues are causing such murders to occur. While one can assume that cartel violence is at the root cause of this phenomenon, none of the articles fully and confidently implicated cartels in increasing murder rates. The reports also failed to describe how cartels have disrupted daily life with non-lethal acts of violence, even though they all imply that a “reign of terror” has befallen the community. Therefore, while these articles acknowledge the violent aftermaths that are occurring in Irapuato, they fail to offer any details or specific content which could spark ideas about policy changes or proactive solutions that could be implemented to prevent further violence.
In continuing to analyze the news stories within Gutierrez and Wood’s framework, I found that the information news outlets presented about the targeted groups was lacking. While all the publications outlined that attacks occurred at drug rehabilitation centers, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and BBC Mundo failed to establish a strong narrative as to why these attacks on rehab centers were occurring. Noticias Telemundo was the only news outlet that described in detail how a lack of regulation of Mexico’s rehab centers, combined with an infiltration of the facilities by cartel members looking for new recruits or a location to hide, led to historically large massacres at these locations. The additional information that Noticias Telemundo provides about the problematic relationship between rehab centers and cartels grants readers greater insight into the systemic problems which have caused violence in Northern Mexico. These details are then able to spark new ideas for policy reform in the public mind, empowering local leaders and activists with the knowledge they need to make greater changes in their communities.
In regards to the “repertoire” and “techniques” portion of the Wood and Gutierrez’s analytical framework, these articles satisfied these requirements, aptly detailing that all twenty one men were shot and killed (method of violence) by gunmen armed with rifles (technique). Overall the description of frequency was also satisfactory. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Noticias Telemundo stated that violence against rehab facilities was a common trend over the past few years. However, BBC Mundo did not mention that rehab facilities were a frequent target of cartel violence. This omission of frequency by BBC Mundo lowers the quality of the article and deprives the reader from understanding the pervasive pattern that this form of violence has taken within Northern Mexico.
Overall, the reports given by the media concerning the July 2nd massacre in Irapuato are lacking important information, and poorly depict patterns of violence occurring within Northern Mexico. News outlets have the incredible power to frame social problems and offer prospective solutions that publics are receptive towards. Media organizations must publish news stories about violent events that describe crimes in nuanced ways and propose solutions or possibilities for reform from which their readers can organize around. The media’s reporting on Mexico’s rehab massacres must veer away from using general homicidal data, and instead focus on providing detailed and constructive accounts of violent events in order for journalism to begin providing positive contributions toward further peace in Northern Mexico.
Great blog! I really liked the key points you brought up surrounding the media, especially in Mexico, when it comes to violence often being underreported and sometimes just scratching at the surface. Homicide and cartel violence in Latin America have always been a huge problem, but I never knew about the trend on attacks on rehabilitation centers. Some points I feel are worth looking into are how the government and cartels can have such a huge impact both socially and monetarily in institutions such as the media, especially since cartel violence is a very touchy subject. Corruption between the Mexican government and cartels has been an ever-present issue and could impact how the media chooses to self-censor based on fear and/or funding. For instance, I read an article on how current president AMLO had a significantly lower budget than former president Peña Nieto on media/advertising. Alongside of lower funding, Varol in her research on Stealth Authoritarianism mentions how media platforms and the people tend to self-censor as to not step over their bounds with current political leaders and elites. With lower funding instated by AMLO, the media could self-censor or choose not to properly report as they could find themselves under pressure to not paint the country in a further negative light. A similar argument can be made for Nieto in providing extra funding for media platforms that tend to paint him in a positive light. Regardless, your point on how addressing the four questions put forth by Gutierrez-Sanin and Wood is important in keeping up to date on current issues and potentially have the people push for policy reform.