When Journalists Lose Public Support, Violence Abounds

2022 was the deadliest year on record for Mexican journalists. And this, in turn, portends dark days for journalists the world over.

“It was the most beautiful thing,” President Donald Trump said at a 2020 campaign rally in Minnesota. He was describing an injury suffered by MSNBC anchor and correspondent Ali Velshi, who was hit by a rubber bullet while covering protests in Minneapolis. Trump went on to mock Velshi, calling him “that idiot reporter.” For traditional news outlets like the New York Times, this signified a frightening escalation from Trump’s generalized ridicule of the “fake news media” to an outright glorification of violence against reporters.

Trump’s counterpart in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), shares this disdain for the press. Since taking office in 2018, he has become notorious for his attacks on the media; indeed, 2022 was the deadliest year on record for Mexican journalists. In his morning press conferences, he has smeared critical reporters as “our adversaries” and refused access to those who have asked uncomfortable questions. Like Trump, AMLO has identified certain journalists by name, making them vulnerable to online and physical assaults by his supporters.

International organizations dedicated to freedom of expression, like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Article 19, see these verbal attacks as evidence of deteriorating free-speech protections in both countries. In Mexico, the president’s contempt for the press at best underplays the country’s continued toll of murdered reporters; at worst, his behavior even justifies it. In the United States, reporters no doubt operate under safer conditions. Even so, reported violence against media workers has nonetheless been rising since 2011. The CPJ reports that in 2020 “at least 110 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in relation to their reporting, and around 300 journalists were assaulted in 2020, the majority by law enforcement.”

But why compare the situation of journalists in Mexico to the situation of those in the United States? Normally, after all, conversations about press freedom in the two nations take place on parallel tracks and are rarely discussed together. But there are similarities that go beyond the discursive style of two controversial presidents.

In both countries, private companies dominate the media landscape, and content is shaped by the need to attract clicks and advertisers. Both countries have freedom of information laws that facilitate investigative journalism (although the Mexican government replies far more quickly; it is required to give a response within 20 days of the request). Such similarities across the border are evident in three new books: Katherine Corcoran’s In the Mouth of the Wolf, Celeste González de Bustamente and Jeannine E. Relly’s Surviving Mexico, and Margaret Sullivan’s Newsroom Confidential. Separately and together, these books argue that the declining conditions of press freedom in both Mexico and the United States share a common cause: a frayed relationship between the press and civil society. What is different, of course, is that Mexican journalists are paid far less, and operate under conditions of extreme violence. But, as these books show implicitly and explicitly, Mexico may portend dark days for journalists the world over.

According to the 2022 Gallup poll, only 34 percent of respondents expressed trust in US media, up just two points from a historic low in 2016. Surveys in Mexico reveal nearly identical results. The Instituto Nacional Electoral found, for example, that in 2013 only 32 percent of Mexican respondents reported trust in news media. Surveys from 2022 show a small increase, with 37% of respondents reporting confidence in news.

The reasons for this distrust are structural, according to Celeste González de Bustamente and Jeannine E. Relly in Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century. Privately owned conglomerates, oriented toward entertainment and profit, have dominated the media landscape for decades. Seeking rents and lucrative government concessions, they have been more than happy to “reaffirm the goals and initiatives of the state,” rather than generate solidarity with civic organizations and the public. In the United States, according to the 2022 Gallup poll, trust breaks down along partisan lines, with Democrats reporting much higher levels of trust than Republicans.

It is this loss of public support, demonstrate González de Bustamente and Relly, which can truly spell disaster for press freedom. At least 133 journalists were killed in Mexico between 2000 and May 2020. These staggering figures make the country the most dangerous place to do journalism in the world, even when compared to active war zones. Yet these murders have not sparked widespread outrage among the broader public. To guarantee a safe environment for the press, “the public must see the need for and demand credible reporting, and journalists should be responsive to their communities.”

The lack of public trust signals that the U.S. press should take cues from the on-the-ground work of local Mexican journalists.

The consequences of public apathy are soberingly apparent in Katherine Corcoran’s In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press. On April 28, 2012, Mexican reporter Regina Martínez was discovered dead—having been badly beaten and strangled—in the bathroom of her apartment in Xalapa, capital of the southeastern state of Veracruz. Martínez was a correspondent for Proceso, a national magazine known for its independent and critical reporting.

This brutal murder of a high-profile correspondent came as a shock to Mexico’s media community. The country had endured five years of intense violence, sparked by the militarization of the drug war. Rather than pacifying trafficking organizations, the military rollout splintered criminal groups and sent violence spiraling out of control. Local journalists were among the causalities. (In 20 years, only two of all journalists killed lived in Mexico City.) Traffickers used many forms of intimidation to shape news coverage. They posted threats in public spaces and online, attacked media offices, and even planted their own people within newsrooms. In the early years of the drug war, in a moment of desperation, the editorial board of El Diario de Juárez famously published an editorial that directly asked traffickers, “What do you want from us?”

But Regina Martínez did not cover narcos. Her beat was Veracruz state politics, and her murder was one of the first to raise suspicions (since confirmed) that public officials bore equal responsibility for the rising toll. State authorities quickly dismissed that the motive was related to Martínez’s journalism. Instead, they declared the murder a crime of passion and identified a petty thief, Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva, as the culprit, reasoning that he had entered the home to rob Martínez. Hernández Silva received a 38-year prison sentence, and authorities declared the case closed. However, the shoddy investigation and the refusal to consider other motives left many unconvinced that the perpetrator had been caught.

In contrast to Mexican journalists, foreign correspondents enjoy a position of relative freedom in the country. Perhaps for that reason Katherine Corcoran, former Mexico City bureau chief for the Associated Press, thought that she could solve the case when her local counterparts could not. With more than a little hubris, she expected to show Mexican journalists “how it’s done.” This, she admits, was “American naïveté.” Corcoran discovered the limits of doing investigative journalism in a context in which officials refused to conduct a good-faith investigation and informants feared for their lives.

Her account is compulsively readable as it follows the twists and turns of her years-long investigation. Corcoran interviewed seemingly everyone with knowledge of the case—from the neighbor who found Regina’s body to Veracruz politicians. Corcoran’s most trusted sources and allies, importantly, were Martínez’s closest friends and family members.

Corcoran paints a portrait of Regina Martínez that avoids hagiography while offering a sensitive ode to the fallen reporter. Regina was serious, reserved. She spent her weekends holed up at home working on stories. Her journalist mentees, whom she trained in personal safety and ethics, admired her toughness and were fiercely loyal. Her colleagues respected her dogged reporting style; her nephew viewed her as a maternal figure. Despite her small size, under five feet tall, she seemed fearless, tracking down evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the state government. But months before her murder, Martínez told her friends she was planning to take a step back, that she did not want to die for journalism.

Martínez’s assassination drew national scrutiny to the state of Veracruz, where an unprecedented number of reporters were being threatened, attacked, or murdered, under the thuggish administration of Governor Javier Duarte. However, the public appeared generally unconcerned by the rising death toll of media workers. Corcoran notes that protest events were organized and attended mostly by journalists.

Despite her dedication to the case, Corcoran’s murder investigation ultimately ends with a big question mark. She chased down multiple leads but could not find the smoking gun to assign responsibility. Most of her sources reached a point at which they would speak no further.

For Corcoran, this result is deeply unsettling. Perhaps seeking to find a satisfying explanation, she expounds that “a society without truth is a scary place to live.” Is Mexico really “a society without truth”? There are undeniably massive lacunae of information. Look no further than the soberingly low rate of homicides that lead to convictions. The vast majority—95 percent—are never solved or even investigated. Similarly, the families of the over 100,000 disappeared people remain ignorant of what happened to their loved ones. The state’s refusal to share information has led multiple civil society groups to begin their own investigations, including the formation of brigades to search for missing people. But over the past decades, there also have been myriad scandals, well documented, that have come to light due to hard-nosed investigative journalism like the kind conducted by Regina Martínez. Unfortunately, these exposés often do not result in accountability for responsible parties. That points to a lack of justice, not truth.

Corcoran missed this, though, because in an effort to dispense a satisfying conclusion, she falls into the common trap of insisting that the present moment is unprecedented. Drawing connections with the United States, she writes that “truth became optional; and information, a weapon used to control and manipulate.” This conclusion is based on an imagined halcyon past. Corcoran, like many US reporters of her generation, holds a deep-seated nostalgia for the Watergate era, which she associates with impactful watchdog journalism and widespread respect for the press in the United States. But this romanticization ignores the structural conditions that made exposés like Watergate possible. As much research, including my own, has shown, scandals do not emerge in a vacuum; they require political will, a society that will be scandalized, and institutions that will follow through to bring about accountability.

In many ways, the Watergate era was an anomaly in US media history. These were two short decades sandwiched between the partisan, sensational, or government-friendly media that preceded it and the centrifugal forces of the internet, partisan news, and deregulation that succeeded it. Nor was information deployed solely to enrich democracy. These were the waning years of the Cold War, after all, when the US intelligence agencies notoriously weaponized disinformation to manipulate politics abroad.

Margaret Sullivan, in her new memoir, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, is also very concerned with the question of truth in the United States. The word shows up on 39 out of 269 pages. She reflects back on her journalism career, from editor-in-chief of the Buffalo News to public editor at the New York Times and then columnist at the Washington Post. Sullivan laments that the US public no longer holds “hard news” in high regard, and that the media landscape is now divided between a “reality-based press” and “propaganda outfit[s].” She shares Corcoran’s nostalgia for the Watergate era of journalism and concerns about the loss of public confidence.

Sullivan, unfortunately, does not offer novel explanations for strong public distaste for media. Instead she blames Trump and his allies at Fox News. This is dissatisfying on a number of levels.

First, declining trust in news media has been evident for the last two decades. And the appeal and success of a figure like Trump did not emerge in a vacuum. In 2017, Sullivan traveled through red states and districts that had flipped for Trump, determined to “listen more than talk.” But in recounting her experience, she never mentions the economy once, nor the hollowing of the society safety net, the abandonment of rural America, or economic factors that shaped Trump’s appeal. She can only return to the problem of political polarization.

Second, she does not give great weight to the changing regulatory environment that allowed talk radio and Fox News, Trump’s most potent allies, to build a following based on partisan news. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would no longer enforce the Fairness Doctrine, which had required that broadcast media present different perspectives on divisive subjects. Talk radio, primarily targeting conservative listeners, exploded, and by the late 1990s Fox News followed their cue. As Kevin Kruse and Julian Zeliser argue, “[media] fracturing and polarization can be traced, in large part, to the end of the Fairness Doctrine.” But Sullivan remains persistently focused on the present, as if all the media partisanship emerged in the last eight years.

Third, she writes surprisingly little about the disappearance of local news outlets. This was the subject of her 2020 book, so she is no doubt well aware of this issue. Local newspapers historically built close-knit relationships of trust with their communities, but these networks have evaporated with so many local newspapers going out of business.

Finally, what of an entire generation of media consumers—Gen Z—that reportedly get their news from social media like TikTok and Instagram? This has more to do with a platform preference than partisanship or a rejection of a “reality-based press” as such. But Sullivan is allergic to structural explanation and returns instead to her oft-repeated question: “Did truth matter anymore?”

To these narrow US–centric critiques, González de Bustamante and Relly offer a refreshingly alternative perspective. And they do so by actually documenting, through hundreds of interviews with local Mexican journalists, the myriad ways in which reporters endured intimidation, low wages, threats, and violence. What I, and other researchers, find most puzzling in fact is that, despite all of these challenges, Mexican journalists continue to publish investigative reportage at all.

One of the key ways in which they have been able to do so is by forging connections with civil society organizations. This has allowed for a strong tradition of investigative journalism to thrive, even in some of the most dangerous states like Sinaloa, according to research by Grisel Salazar Rebolledo. Moreover, news outlets collaborate on big exposés, buffeting themselves against one individual or publication being targeted. Such collaborations have emerged out of necessity because, despite many new laws and programs, the government still fails to guarantee journalists’ safety.

The fate of US journalism is unlikely to follow Mexico’s path. The US justice system, for all of its flaws, is infinitely more effective. But the lack of public trust does signal that the US press should take cues from the on-the-ground work of local Mexican journalists.

Instead of wringing their hands and asking, “Why don’t they believe us?” or lamenting the bygone Watergate era, US journalists need to see their work as responsible and connected to local communities. As local outlets shutter and news outlets once again become more concentrated, this will be no easy task. But journalists cannot just wait for ordinary people to recognize their value. icon

Featured Image: Mexican journalists protest against rising violence in March 2010, photograph via the Knight Foundation / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)