Almost 10 years ago, I was one of the first journalists to reach the island of Grenada after it was hit by Hurricane Ivan.
My trip lasted one day, including six hours traversing the island. The Caribbean paradise looked like a battle ground. I hurried to write a story in 45 minutes, then ran back to the airplane that had brought in food and water. The next day, my story was on the front page of the Miami Herald. The newspaper’s archives are not publicly accessible but the text of my story is available.
What would have happened if, a few months before Ivan hit the island, I had proposed to my editor that I report and write a story on how the Caribbean prepares for natural disasters? Hard to guess, but that would have been a long and costly assignment, and I doubt it would have had the impact of my post-hurricane story.
My colleagues in the news media face a similar challenge reporting on crime prevention programs. They all recognize that such programs are important, but many view them with a (sometimes) justified level of skepticism and doubt as to whether such reports justify the time and effort required. Besides, no professional journalist writing about crime prevention wants to seem naïve or to belittle the terrible toll of violence on its victims.
There are exceptions, of course, such as the excellent report by the El Tiempo newspaper on Bogotá prisons. But few news reports have explored alternatives for preventing crime or the often-hidden roots of the problem.
So, can journalists report on crime prevention in a way that is relevant and real for citizens? Or does the news media, by covering the results of crime more than its root causes, aggravate the citizens’ sense of insecurity?
These issues were addressed during a panel discussion on the role of the news media in crime prevention that was part of our 6th Intensive Citizen Security Clinic, held in May in Mexico City. Among the participants were Eduardo Sánchez Hernández, spokesman for the presidency of Mexico; Stephen Handelman, director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College; Rafael Fernández de Castro, editor of Foreign Policy in Spanish; and Bruno Paes, blogger, University of Sao Paulo investigator and former correspondent for the newspaper Estado de Sao Paolo.
The panel agreed that journalists should report more on crime prevention efforts, but should take three key issues into account:
- Any report on prevention programs should take into account these guiding principles for journalists (aside from reporting the news, of course). One is the principle of accountability, or “fixing the situation for people who have no power,” as Paes noted in a comment that drew applause. Second, the media must foster knowledge and understanding, and help to dispel myths and stereotypes – for example, that longer sentences are required to reduce crime. The state also must ensure the physical safety of the journalists so they can perform their work, an issue that Fernández de Castro noted in his comments.
- The government has the first word. “It was the federal government (of Mexico) that broke these stories,” said Sánchez, referring to the photos of captured cartel capos surrounded by guns and cash and flanked by police that were made public by the government. For many Mexicans, the photos showed the power and success of the capos, not the authorities. Handelman, a former journalist, said that authorities use the media for their own interests and that journalists, under the pressures of deadlines, sometimes use the information without the required checks.
- The rise of social and digital media requires caution, but provides opportunities Traditional news media no longer have the monopoly on informing public opinion. Paes said he felt “liberated” when he blogged about violence after many years working in a newspaper with an “industrial” style. New media projects on covering crime from different perspectives are growing. And the role of responsible journalism, whether in traditional media or blogs, is more important than ever because although social media can provide key opportunities for communication and even prevention, it also may carry risks such as those shown by the tragic lynchings in Brazil.
The problem of crime and violence is real in Latin America and the Caribbean. That’s been shown by the many studies on homicide rates and surveys on victimization. It is wrong to blame the media for the prevailing sense of insecurity. But it is also important for journalists who cover violence to understand why some prevention programs work and others do not, as well as the role of elements such as information and statistics in the prevention of crime and the limitations of programs based solely on repression.
The challenge for authorities and civic organizations that work on crime prevention is to communicate their stories in a language and a narrative that are attractive to journalists – and to their audiences. That is a conversation that we at the IDB want to facilitate, with the participation of journalists and authorities, including police. In that way, as Handelman put it, “instead of covering the problems, we also will be covering solutions.”
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