Fear is just a word: journalistic challenges in Latin America

Elda Cantú and Azam Ahmed, New York Times
7th February 2024
13:00 - 14:00

The speakers

Elda Cantú, an editor in the New York Times' Mexico City bureau, writes El Times, a newsletter in Spanish. She has been with The Times since 2018, when she joined The Times en Español as a deputy editor.

Azam Ahmed is an investigative correspondent with the New York Times whose work on corruption and the illegal use of spyware, Pegasus, helped launch federal investigations in México and was submitted for a Pulitzer Prize. His recent book 'Fear is Just a Word' followed the story of one mother's attempt to take on Mexican drug cartels.

Cantú and Ahmed discussed violence, fear, access to victims and mental health issues across Latin America and whether these conditions of violence have the potential to mobilise voters in Mexico's upcoming election.

The video 


Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion 

1. Reporting in Latin America is a dangerous job. Both Cantú and Ahmed described the physical dangers that come from reporting in one of the most dangerous regions in the world for journalists. Ahmed, who has also reported from Afghanistan during the war, described having more sleepless nights in Latin America than in Afghanistan. There are often high levels of impunity and low protection mechanisms for journalists. 

Cantú points out, however, that it is also important to think about the safety of sources and the impact your reporting might have on their lives. “It's just being really aware of your surroundings and approaching every situation with an enhanced presence of mind and thinking, not only about what you want to do for your story, but thinking about the people that you're covering and the risks involved for them when they talk to you,” she said. 

2. Maintaining safety is an added layer to consider for journalists on the ground. For journalists wanting to report in Latin America, Ahmed recommended thoroughly preparing when it comes to taking safety precautions: talking to people on the ground to understand the dangers, thinking about logistics like how long you have to be in the area, and trusting your gut feeling if things seem off. “There are so many layers in the Latin American context that it's essential to really try and do as much of your homework as possible to talk to people and the best people to talk to often are local journalists,” he said. “Sometimes they're not going to want to help that much, but you should reach out and try because they're going to know a lot more than you coming in cold.”

Digital safety mechanisms are another layer to consider when reporting in Latin America. Cantú said that journalists don’t necessarily need to invest a lot of money in order to maintain digital safety protections. "Approaching things with mindfulness, understanding how your data is stored, turning off your devices at the right moment,” she said. “I would say those are digital hygiene habits that are really, really important and that don't cost a lot of money.” 

3. The dangers faced by the news industry are not only physical, but also financial. “There's a lack of resources everywhere,” said Cantú. “And so, deciding what stories to cover and how to best cover is really the main challenge as we can cover stories in a way that's meaningful for people.” One of the biggest challenges journalists in the region are facing is being able to put the stories they want to tell out there. Ahmed concurred that in many countries where support of the free press is not a given, securing funding is even more precarious. Both himself and Cantú argued that a better business model for news organisations in the region needs to arise. 

As Ahmed explained: “One of the biggest challenges is the marketplace for journalism in the region. There's no shortage of good journalists, and there's no shortage of stories. I think there is a shortage of financing mechanisms.” 

4. Thinking about how to frame your stories is key to getting Latin America to the front pages. Cantú urged journalists to think about the editorial needs of a newsroom when it comes to pitching their stories: a long-term project might not be as feasible to accomplish for a publication that has a demand for daily stories, for example. 

In Ahmed’s perspective, it is difficult to bring stories on Latin America to the forefront in our current, over-saturated news ecosystem. He recommended looking at what is of interest to broad audiences and finding a way to say many things with one story. "For me, when I did have success in bringing Latin America to the front page or getting to do long term investigations or 6,000-word stories, it was finding a way to situate a story in the biggest way possible," said Ahmed.

5. It takes conscious effort to maintain resilience as a journalist in the region. Both Cantú and Ahmed have different strategies when it comes to maintaining resilience. For Ahmed, it is about envisioning publishing the story and the impact it can have. For Cantú, it is about maintaining a healthy separation between work and personal life. “Understanding that it is a job and it has hours and then you need compensation for it,” she explained. “You have to shut down your computer or turn off your phone and just go hang out with people who are not journalists and spend time with their family and not be talking about work.”

The bottom line 

Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world for journalists. In order to report important stories from the region, journalists must take precautions to maintain their safety and the safety of their sources. The news industry needs better financial mechanisms in order to finance stories from the region, but for now, journalists must think about how they frame their stories to attract the attention of media houses.

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