Is This News? Reporting with Opinion on Plan Mexico

    by Benjamin Melançon
    November 4, 2007

    What is the public to do when an important matter such as $1.4 billion of military-police funding for a neighboring country head toward Congressional rubber-stamping with little media coverage?

    We take what we can get. And that tends to be reporting from people who have no steady income assured for their considerable journalistic efforts. When one does reporting out of a love of and a concern for humanity, one tends bring some of one’s own perspective to the task.

    And in part what we get appears to be what we want. Alternative sources and aggregators for points of view are doing pretty well on the internet. Investigative reporting (”all reporting should be investigative reporting“) is not.


    The NewStandard reported straight news, practiced resource-intensive reporting and editing, interviewed people with multiple perspectives for each article, researched these statements for veracity, and had extremely high vetting and fact-checking standards.

    In short, the NewStandard was an impressive antidote to most media’s bias toward authority and ‘he said, he said’ stenography. This impressive effort of several years of daily reporting never resulted in a enough financial support – or even acknowledgment – for the journalists who dedicated their time in this nonprofit pursuit to believe they could continue.

    So it is an important question, it is not hypothetical, and it has many possible answers: Is this news?


    Speakers at Plan Mexico Hearing Admit That Plan Will Not Curb Flow of Drugs to U.S.
    by Jennifer Truskowski (November 2, 2007).

    On Thursday, October 25, in Washington, DC the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing to discuss Plan Mexico, recently renamed the Merida Initiative in a PR attempt to distance this plan from the failed Plan Colombia, which hasn’t reduced the availability of drugs in the U.S., barely reduced the production of cocaine in Colombia, and devastated poor farmers whose food crops have been destroyed and who never received sufficient alternative aid.

      – This is not a lead sentence you would read in any Associated Press article (too long for starters, and against bipartisan political currents), but I argue it plays by most of the same rules. The summary provides context and every statement in it is backed up by facts in the article.

    Chairman Eliot Engels stated, “We should not be so naïve as to think that the defeat of Mexico’s drug cartels alone will significantly reduce drug consumption in the United States. Drug traffickers can easily pick up once again and move on to new routes.”

      – Again, a fairly well-established fact not given proportional play in establishment media, but direct quotation is I think still fair in all media.

    In the hearing, Chairman Engels stupidly used U.S. journalist Brad Will’s murder as an example of the kind of drug-related violence we must be fighting. In the fall of 2006, Brad Will was videotaping a conflict in Oaxaca that had begun months earlier when local police were sent by governor Ulises Ruiz to attack peaceful teachers gathered in the city square who were striking for better wages. From this event, a movement grew to overthrow the corrupt Ruiz. On the day that Brad Will was shot, local and federal police forces had been sent to attack protesters. He was shot in the conflict, and his camera recorded the moments of his own death. On the footage we see his alleged murderers. Photos of them were published in Mexican newspapers. They were two municipal police officers, two members of the local city hall, and the former justice of peace of a nearby town.

    Since then, Mexican officials have not investigated any of these suspects, nor anybody else for the murder of Brad Will. The U.S. embassy also has not pressured anybody to bring the perpetrators to justice. In fact, nobody has ever been investigated, tried, or punished for any of the 26 murders that happened so far during the Oaxaca struggle. Brad Will’s murder is a perfect example of how abusive and corrupt the Mexican government is, and just one reason why we should not be handing law enforcement aid to Mexican officials. Engel’s blatantly ignorant mention of Will’s murder was irresponsible and offensive, and I can only hope that he is receiving piles of angry letters.

    (If you would like to send one: Eliot L. Engels, Chairman, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, phone: 202-225-2464, fax: 202-225-5513, email: jason.steinbaum (at) mail.house.gov)

      – Contact information for a public representative? In a news article. Whoa. That’s more shocking to establishment media thinking than the two paragraph this-is-how-it-is-you-stupid-public-official-how-could-you-be-so-ignorant setting the record straight. Jennifer Truskowski’s accounting is factual from all I know from various sources, and that’s a lot, but a point of view (basically that the truth is really important here for the future of Mexico’s people) openly drives her writing, which is very different from most people’s experience with news reporting.

    But her statements (wrapped between the far from neutral adverb “stupidly” and conclusion ‘this is bad, here’s why it matters now, and you all should do something about it’ are the facts, and if it takes someone reporting for free on the open-to-everyone Chicago Indymedia site to correct the public record in Chicago and the United States, how can we insist that her voice be left out as not news?

    (If it means people won’t accept those facts as facts, then the answer of even advocates of advocacy journalism is most certainly yes. But I’d like to leave that question – which is not cut and dried – aside for now.)

    The facts of agents of Oaxacan government repression killing Brad Will had to be presented in any honest account of the hearing, as did some other background information included by Jennifer Truskowski in her report. This is important information that had to be included. It is also difficult to tell people this information in a neutral third-party matter when you don’t have the resources to directly hear from sources in, say, Mexico.

    So here we have important facts and context presented, with no more lack of sourcing than is common to many traditional newspaper articles (this is bad in both cases but isn’t a point of distinction). The presentation is very different in one sense: Truskowski reported on the event with a strong first-person voice.

    Is it news?

    What can we expect from people putting blood, sweat, and tears into reporting the truth as they understand it?

    What should we demand of the same?

    How do we define what is news, and how do we make sure we get what we need (or at least know what that is), for stories with many lives and billions of dollars on the line?

    Tagged: Indymedia journalism mexico opinion truth voice

    8 responses to “Is This News? Reporting with Opinion on Plan Mexico”

    1. Amanda says:

      I think a better question than “Is it news?” might be “Is it journalism?” Or perhaps even “Is it good journalism?”

      Jennifer Truskowski’s writing highlights some of the problems I see with Indymedia as a news source overall.

      For one thing, I had to read that intro seven times to tease out the basic facts: Plan Mexico is now called the Merida Initiative, but nothing else about the plan has changed (or has it? I’m not sure yet.) Plan Columbia devastated rural farmers and didn’t have anything like the desired impact on the flow of cocaine into the US. And a congressional subcommittee is holding hearings on the Merida Initiative.

      I had to study the contact information at the end to sort out that this is a House committee, not a Senate committee and I still don’t know some basic things about Representative Engel. If I hadn’t looked it up, I wouldn’t know that his name is “Engel” not “Engels.”

      I’d tend to agree that the link to Brad Will’s murder is bizarre at best, especially since Rep. Engel failed to articulate the connection to the drug trade there. “Stupidly” isn’t the word I would have chosen (an editor could be a real asset here) but I think it is reasonable to note when a congressional representative draws an unexpected link between two events and no one else can explain the connection.

      However, it is not entirely true that no one has been investigated for Brad’s murder nor that the US Embassy has not gotten involved. The Mexican Gov’t did launch an investigation into it and they recently released a report which says that they still don’t know whether his killers “belong to the People’s Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), or a group that could be linked to the state government, or whether they were ‘infiltrators’.”

      I don’t speak enough Spanish to cross check that translation, but it does suggest that Truskowski missed the point a little bit. There is a difference between no investigation and a sham investigation, and saying there’s been no investigation just opens a fairly obvious door to a canned response (“We investigated and here is our report.”)

      The IMCs and other radical political news outlets are invaluable, but they aren’t a substitute for good journalism. We shouldn’t be leaving reporting on foreign policy to volunteers: people need to be able to devote real resources to their reporting and they need editors to challenge them to make their reporting stronger.

      All of that said, I haven’t seen this kind of depth of coverage of Plan Mexico or the Merida Initiative in the mainstream press (try searching the NY Times archives for either term …) and it is clear that writers like Truskowski are filling a real void.

      The question is whether they’re enough. Is the void filled now? The Times doesn’t need to get on the case because Truskowski and the Chicago IMC have us covered? The Nation is irrelevant because the left can get all the reportage they need online? I don’t think so.

    2. Jennifer Truskowski says:

      First of all, thank you Ben for posting my story here. Second of all, thanks Amanda for your comments. I am indeed a volunteer journalist by all means – complete lack of training or experience whatsoever. In fact, this is only the third article I’ve ever posted on Indymedia. I’m also horribly embarrassed that I “stupidly” misspelled “Engel”! (I have since gone back and corrected that – thank you.)

      I just want to add that Amanda touches on something very important: mainstream media does not cover this issues, or similar issues, in depth. I was very frustrated with the lack of coverage on this particular issue, and that’s exactly why I wrote this. I was just an inexperienced, concerned citizen who felt a need to get this information out in some form. Would I rather that The Nation, or some other news source, cover this in depth? Absolutely! But even shoddy inexperienced journalism is better than none. (Ha, ha… there’s my ringing endorsement for Indymedia.)

      I hope to improve my writing, because I intend to continue to do this since it does, in the end, fill a void. To that end, your comments are very valuable, and I appreciate them. I didn’t know about that recent Brad Will report, for example, so now I will definitely double-check my facts in the future.

      Thank you.

    3. If we agree:

      1) Important stories like Plan Mexico are not being covered extensively enough by established commercial and public media.
      2) Reporting in open publishing and low-entry media is often of insufficient quality.

      Then a logical question is which do we expect to be able to improve?

      Given Jennifer’s post, i’m leaning toward independent media.

      (Amanda’s own Gotham Gazette fits common definitions of independent media but could be considered a third category in this division.)

      Amanda, I think you’re right: I should split up my quest to define news into “what is journalism” (what practices and standards must reporting employ) and “what is news” (what – to bias the question toward my answer – is important).

      I suggest that defining the former, clear guidelines for journalism, will help us have a broad enough pool of news to provide the latter, coverage of things that matter.

      Toward that end, I recommend to Jennifer and anyone in Indymedia or other independent media outlets the excellent handbook on doing good journalism created by the staff of the NewStandard. Their (archival) site is down right now, so I’ve posted the handbook myself:


      (Later, I’ll be pushing the same handbook for what it can teach established media and paid reporters!)

    4. Jennifer Truskowski says:

      Thanks for the handbook link, Ben. I downloaded it and browsed it, and it looks like a very useful tool.

      I also want to add an appeal to journalists everywhere to consider their role in serving the public interest. I spend a lot of time in Mexico, and activists I know and love in Mexico are about to be gravely affected by our tax dollars. It tears me apart to sit and watch this happen while people hear little to no news about it. News is no longer prioritized by how important it is, but rather by how many ratings or hits the advertisers can get. As long as this system is so flawed, it appears that volunteers like me will have to continue to try to balance things out. I will do my part to improve the quality of my writing.

      In the meantime, please consider things you can do to fix the system, such as working to change media ownership laws, writing with a conscience, and giving helpful, constructive criticism to inexperienced journalists like me. (By the way, the struggle over media ownership is yet another topic that has very little mainstream coverage.)

      Thank you!

    5. Amanda says:

      Jennifer raises another key point: “News is no longer prioritized by how important it is, but rather by how many ratings or hits the advertisers can get.”

      This is a real issue when it comes to funding for news reporting. Investigative reporting is a lot of work, and that work takes time. The kind of policy reporting that we do at Gotham Gazette, reporting that is thorough and consistent and not light diversion that attracts lots and lots of readers, doesn’t sell a lot of ads. Sites like IndyMedia that depend heavily on volunteer labor are at a serious disadvantage and yet we’re relying on them, and on bloggers and other non-traditional web-based news sites, to be our watchdogs. That makes me nervous, especially in the face of real threats to the assumption that common carriage extends to bandwidth.

      And, point taken on the “helpful constructive criticism” part. I could have started with a few kinder comments about Jennifer Truskowski’s writing, first among them that I haven’t seen any coverage of the hearings she reports on elsewhere, and that her core observation, that the House openly knows that Plan Columbia hasn’t stemmed the tide of cocaine into the US and they aren’t addressing that in new plans to extend the same policies to Mexico, is a valuable contribution to a discussion that isn’t happening elsewhere to begin with.

    6. Jennifer Truskowski says:

      No offense taken with your not-so-kind comments, Amanda. It was really the kick in the butt I needed to examine my own writing. It’s often the hardest comments and criticisms that help us the most. Thanks for your kind observations as well.

    7. This exchange, by itself, has made blogging for Knight worthwhile.

    8. Harry says:

      Great discussion, and energy can be channeled into being the media, being involved and implementing directly suggestions and ideas so w can expand our impact and not rely on a few “experts” or specialists!

      See our website and PLEASE get involved on a regular basis to stop the murderous ‘Plan Mexico’!

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