Sensationalization of violence or local watchdog reports gone viral? I talked to Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco, and now my mind is just a little bit blown away.
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When I first began researching how media writes about drug cartels, and the drug war, I conducted a content analysis to figure out what exactly was most prevalent among coverage. I read 30 reports–10 from the New York Times, 10 from from the Los Angeles Times, and 10 from San Antonio Express. I counted any references made to violence (in any form), corruption, public policy, and so on. In the end, and without going into great detail about the content analysis here, my count for the violence category was significantly higher than any other category.
Here’s something akin to my internal dialogue after adding up my categories:
“Okay, well there’s a ton of violence in Mexico right now so that would make sense. But–hm–New York Times doesn’t have nearly as many occurrences of violence in their reports as L.A. Times and San Antonio Express. And in addition to reading these 30 damn reports in–like–a day (I wonder if my eyes are bleeding?), I’ve done other research and I know that there are plenty of things that should be going into these reports, in addition to the violence, that are not.”
My internal conclusion was kind of like this: “wow, the media is just awful. They can’t even do their jobs right. No wonder the world is messed up.”
But there’s another reason at play other than sensationalization. And even though I’m sure sensationalization of the violence (read: only reporting on the violent aspects) was a calculated move to get more people to read, there appears to be something else.
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Here’s the part of the interview (below) that forced me to re-think the sensationalization of violence in U.S. reports on drug cartels:
Reportinl: How is mainstream media affecting the war on drug cartels?
Ioan Grillo: Um, there’s been…First the mainstream media, like, brought the level of violence to attention, to national and then to international attention. Because at first, the Mexican government wasn’t giving out the numbers of how many people were dying in these drug related killings–or drug cartel [killings] because it appeared to be drug cartel killings. It was newspaper reporters going out and arriving at these scenes, and through scanners, through following this and arriving–they started these things–with kind of a sickly name but–‘Execution Meters.’ [Execution-meters were] local newspapers [that] would count the number of people [who were killed in the drug war]. And they started arriving at thousands and 1,500 a year until it’s hitting like 6,000 a year. But it was the media which created that focus. So it created the realization of what was happening.
So these Execution-meters were local watchdog newspapers, and websites, in Mexico that were reporting–in detail–about the violence, namely the deaths so they could present the world an accurate picture of what was–and still is–going on with this drug war in Mexico.
The Execution-meters were like, “Hey, our Government really doesn’t want you to know how badly things have gotten over here, consequently they aren’t going to release any data on the death tolls for the ‘drug war’. But, World, we really want you to know that it is seriously bad out here and we are scrambling to put these reports together and track the death toll because if we don’t, no one else will.”
And then U.S. media was like “oh, that’s messed up!” So U.S. media started running these reports as well. BUT they (U.S. media) kind of forgot to mention in these reports the part about the Mexican Government not releasing death toll information.
U.S. media also forgot to mention the whole part about Execution-meters being responsible for coming up with the death toll figures, which would explain why estimates in reports tend to vary from about 50,000 to 100,000 dead.
I’m by no means the most knowledgeable person in the world on the subject of the drug war in Mexico, but you’d think that after a few months of intensive research on the drug cartels’, and the drug war’s, portrayal in U.S. media–well, you’d think that I’d have heard of the good ol’ Execution-meters, or about the Mexican Government withholding some pretty important information from the world. But, no.