The University of Arizona

UA Study: Cartels Squeezing Information Flow by Pressuring Journalists

By Johanna Willett, School of Journalism | October 2, 2012

Two UA journalism professors have interviewed Mexican journalists along to U.S.-Mexico border to determine how drug cartels affect news reporting in the area.

Celeste González de Bustamante, UA journalism professor
Celeste González de Bustamante, UA journalism professor
Jeannine Relly, UA journalism professor
Jeannine Relly, UA journalism professor

Two researchers in the University of Arizona School of Journalism have traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border interviewing 39 Mexican journalists to find out how the drug cartels are affecting what news people receive.

Professors Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine Relly have found that the killing of Mexican journalists (more than 80 in the past few decades) by the cartels, particularly since 2006, is causing journalists to exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and nervous breakdowns. Said one: "I wake up at night seeing the dead, smelling the death, and shaking and crying. I try to forget."

Among the journalism professors’ other findings:

  • In some places, the cartels dictate what will be written and what information will be held back.
  • Journalists report being threatened at gunpoint, by phone and being followed. They are kidnapped and sometimes disabled for life. Some wear disguises at crime scenes. Bylines are removed from stories and photos to protect the journalists.
  • The cartels aren't the only problem. Increased government censorship is stifling the free flow of information. Also, cartels pressure advertisers to pull ads from newspapers.
  • Some news organizations have banned coverage of organized crime, and some print only the information that comes from government press releases.
  • The deluge of killings has led to some journalists having to write 14 stories to cover as many as 20 separate killings – all in one day.

Relly and González de Bustamante will discuss their findings on Oct. 11 at a public forum titled “Journalists Under Fire: Bullets, Censorship, and Coercion Along the Mexican Border,” which begins at 7 p.m. in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, Room 202.

The two journalism professors will be joined by Rocío Gallegos and Sandra Rodríguez, who both worked as investigative reporters for the newspaper El Diario de Júarez. The School of Journalism is honoring the two reporters with the John Peter and Anna Catherine Zenger Award, which recognizes journalists dedicated to the ideals of freedom of the press and the people’s right to know.

Gallegos works as the paper’s news coordinator, specifically focusing on drug trafficking and the murder of women. Rodríguez has covered everything from immigration to urban growth and crime to maquiladoras.

Publishing in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, the newspaper has challenged the information crackdown spurred by growing violence among drug cartels. Since 2008, two of the newspapers' staff members have been killed, yet El Diario continues to publish critical investigative reports, said González de Bustamante, who nominated the reporters for the award. 

In 2011, Columbia University awarded the El Diario news team the Maria Moors Cabot Award, one of the oldest, international journalism prizes. Gallegos and Rodríguez also have received the Knight Award from the Center for International Journalists, among others.