News Coverage of the Violence in Mexico: What is the Truth?
Murder By Media: What Misleading News Coverage Is Doing To Mexico
By Hugo Torres, Mayor
Rosarito Beach, Mexico
ROSARITO BEACH, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO---In Rosarito Beach, as in much of Mexico, we are fighting two battles these days.
One is against organized crime. The other is against misleading media coverage that wrongly implies that much of Mexico is unsafe for visitors and residents, and which is devastating our economy.
Some reporters, stories and outlets have been responsible and balanced, including some of those who know this area best. Many, perhaps most, have not.
The war that Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has launched against drug cartels (which are fed in part by a $38 billion yearly U.S. drug market) is indeed a serious one, one of vital concern for both our countries.
We welcome and invite serious and analytical coverage of this struggle. Such coverage can be of significant help to both countries, which have much at stake.
What we don’t welcome is inaccurate, sensationalized, unbalanced and unfair coverage, which provides no insight but only promotes fear and misunderstanding. There has been far too much of this and it continues largely unabated.
Some media reports are simply biased and inaccurate. They are from individuals or media outlets that have an agenda against Mexico and will publish anything to promote it, whether or not it is true.
What is more troubling are reports from mainstream media that present an unbalanced, superficial and worrisome portrait of what life is like in Mexico, including Baja, California.
This is sometimes done because sensationalism sells; other times because of lack of understanding: many reporters never even visit. At other times, the situation in one city is presented as if it represents all of Mexico, a vast country.
Reports repeatedly talk of 6,000 drug-related deaths in Mexico in 2008. (That surely is a troubling number, as is the existence of organized crime and the corruption it has caused. We’ve had to work hard in Rosarito to clean it up and it is a continuing challenge.) But what the reports don’t mention when they talk of killings is that Mexico is an immense country of 110 million people.
The reports often don’t mention that while some law enforcement personnel have been killed, cartel members primarily are killing each other as it becomes harder for them to do business, as they fight each other for shrinking territories.
What the reports also don’t mention is that in 2008, according to MSNBC, the murder rate in New Orleans was much higher than that of Tijuana. (Yet you will not see many if any stories warning people not to go to New Orleans. Much of the U.S. media uses far different standards when reporting stories outside the U.S.)
More troubling, the reports seldom state clearly that 90 percent or more of the killings in Mexico are drug-related. The typical resident is not targeted, nor is the visitor. As in New Orleans --- as in gang wars in Los Angeles --- the tourist is not the target.
Yet, those who watch or read many sensationalized media reports in the U.S. have become afraid to visit our region of Mexico, where tourism has dropped more than 50 percent, a reduction that has caused painful economic hardship here.
Sometimes reports cite, out of context, the U.S. State Department alert concerning travel to Mexico, indicating it advises people not to go.
In fact, while noting that drug-related violence has increased recently in Mexico, the alert (not a warning) in part advises “common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate businesses and tourist areas.’ That’s good advice for travelers most anywhere.
The U.S. State Department also notes that “millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including thousands who cross the U.S. land border every day for study, tourism or business).” You can read the entire alert on the U.S. Customs website.
Our many frequent visitors and expatriate residents (we have 14,000 in Rosarito alone) are among those who speak strongly of feeling secure here. They know the situation first-hand --- not from media reports.
This is not to say that Mexico does not have some crime problems, or that no visitor or U.S. resident will ever be victim of a crime in Mexico. With more than 20 million annual visitors and hundreds of thousands of expatriate residents, a crime will occasionally happen, just as it does in the U.S. and other countries.
But that is rare here.
More typical is the experience of Jack Flynn, owner of the Professional Longboard Association, who is a part-time Rosarito resident and has been coming here for decades to surf. He never has had one problem. He encourages people --- including fellow surfers --- to come see for themselves.
A graduate-level public affairs class at Emerson College, a prestigious communications school in Boston, recently began doing a study on U.S. coverage of Mexico. Already it has found many instances of sensationalism and bias, including from some prestigious media outlets from which better should be expected.
No one at Emerson is getting paid for this project. It is being conducted because the professor of the class, Gregory Payne, saw a vast difference between life in Rosarito, where his family has a home, and what the media was reporting.
He simply could not recognize the safe and enjoyable Rosarito he knows first-hand from the one he was encountering in media reports. He knows that with recent changes, Rosarito probably is safer than ever --- despite the impression created by many media reports.
We hope the Emerson project, along with other efforts and the media’s self-examination of its own reporting, will result in fairer coverage in the future. In the meantime, please talk to those who know the area first-hand --- or visit yourself --- to get an accurate picture.
Right now, you’re not getting one from many media reports.
(Hugo Torres is in his second three-year term as Mayor of Rosarito, which he began in December of 2007. Since taking office he has reformed the police force, adding a special tourist police force, and an office for visitor assistance.)