Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cover the war

How do you change the image of a country?

That's a question on the minds of many Mexicans these days. As Patrick Corcoran at ganchoblog points out, media coverage is "only a problem when you pull back and realize that 80 percent of the stories trickling to the States from Mexico are about security."

I lead with his point because it's the right one. These days, editors in the US are sending their correspondents down to Mexico with one instruction: "Cover the war."

Nothing else. Nothing about the arts, politics, lifestyles. And you wonder why the news out of Mexico is so grim. And once you get so set on one agenda like that, it's difficult to realize the difference between the reality of the situation and what you're covering. For instance: top officials have said that the homicide rate is actually lower in Mexico than it was a little over a decade ago. But you didn't see foreign journalists going crazy to cover every single killing then.

Today, when I go to any Mexican city, I look for drug-related news. I can't help it. I got caught up in the group-think and now that's the way I look at places. As a result, I'm having trouble finding interesting stories to write. Even if it's a positive story, correspondents tend to frame it in the context of the drug war these days. Which only contributes to the way the world looks at Mexico.

So how does one change the image of a country? First off, be responsible – that goes for governments and journalists alike. Don't pretend all's calm when in fact all is heading to hell in a handbasket. But be realistic, and contextualize. Mexico has always been a very dangerous country in comparison to the United States; but for more than a century, Americans have come here to retire, to travel, to enjoy the good life, to enjoy the warmth of the Mexican people. You can still do that these days, without any trouble. Step back and look at where and why the violence is occurring, and you'll see that there is plenty to do and see in Mexico without a worry. There are also many, many issues that resonate with the Mexican people other than security – most polls have in fact shown that security is not the No.1 concern, the economy is.

The government, too, needs to start a serious campaign. Mexico does run the risk of becoming a global pariah like Colombia was 20-odd years ago. When I wrote a story about Medellin's transformation 10 years after Pablo Escobar's death in 2004, it was the first English-language story to positively describe the city since the 1930s. (At least, according to my research.) It did wonders for the city, as news article after news article with the same angle followed; foreign investment followed that.

Mexico does not want to ever be in the situation that Colombia was in during the 1980s. But there is a risk it might fall that far. The Calderon administration needs to move the media in the right direction. It needs to acknowledge the violence, but also focus the media's attention on the positive. (There are some positives: social movements afoot in Culiacan, Ciudad Juarez and the like, for instance). It desperately needs to give the foreign press more access to its reform strategies – judicial changes, for instance, which are very promising. It needs to – without spinning in a blindly optimistic/naive way – highlight Mexico's steps forward, if it actually is taking them. (At times, I definitely believe it is; at others, not so sure.)

After that, I'm at a loss. I've tried to change people's minds about countries before, but in large part, even on a one-to-one basis, it hasn't worked. In this world, there are people who want to look at things the way they've always looked at things, and these are often the people with the most power/clout (in government or in any organization), in large part because they don't look at developments or changes or try to see things in a new light. They're the people giving orders; if you want to keep your job, you tend to just do what they tell you most of the time. So if they tell you to cover the war, you do just that.

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