Collaborative Reporting Project Examines Organized Crime and Human Rights Issues in Latin America

October 29, 2012

Investigative reporters from online media outlets in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico are collaborating on a regional multimedia investigation into the human rights fallout of organized crime in Latin America, with support of InSight Crime and Internews.

The first round of investigative reports, The Mafia’s Shadow in the Americas, includes reporting from deserted Mexican villages to document overnight flights of hundreds of families from abandoned and graffitied houses in San Salvador to determine which gang currently reigns supreme and from haunting massacre sites in Petén, Guatemala to uncover how agro-industrials collude with local and international armed actors to seize land.

The second round of reports, Modern Slavery and Refugees, looks at how women, children and others are being trafficked for forced labor and sex.

Venturing into these underreported issues and places meant danger as well as opportunities to explore untold stories for these journalists, who already report from countries deemed most dangerous for journalists in the world. The second series of investigations, exploring the structures of modern day slavery, will launch at the end of October.

Online Sites Offer New Angles on Investigative Journalism

As in many parts of the world, media in Latin America face political and financial pressures that challenge their watchdog role. The region’s media has also had to grapple with escalating threats to freedom of expression by organized crime.  The result is that much of the mainstream media has reverted to superficial and sensational content to generate much-needed income while avoiding coverage of critical human rights issues.

Recent developments in digital technology, however, have allowed the emergence of several online investigative journalism incubators that are now leading the way in human rights, corruption, and organized crime reporting.  These initiatives are building advanced databases to track corruption and campaign financing, create visualizations to help the public understand the impact of government mismanagement, and in many cases bring an end to human rights abuses simply by putting information online. 

These experimental outlets – though unencumbered by oversight of media barons with multiple business and political interests and often not as vulnerable to traditional soft-censorship by government regulators – are by no means assured success, continuity, or survival in the current political and economic context.  Challenges include:

  • Lack of digital media and investigative reporting training opportunities
  • Dependency on traditional media to disseminate findings to a larger audience
  • Vulnerability of journalists due to lack of a support network or protection by a media house
  • Contained impact of reporting due to lack of coordinated regional investigations 

The Challenge of Working Collaboratively

Before teams launched their investigations they strategized about keeping sources safe across print, audio, and video, and about which security protocols to put in place when journalists follow stories into hostile environments, and even whether to purchase life insurance for participating journalists. Yet the challenges faced by the seasoned team of investigative reporters were similar to hurdles emerging in collaborative journalism. These included agreeing on topics, mode and depth of investigations, developing an editorial process, and navigating leadership roles. 

Many of these outlets expressed interest in working together at regional conferences but did not have the means to build these relationships.  Internews and InsightCrime, an online hybrid media-research publication dedicated to increasing the level of study, analysis, and investigation into organized crime in Latin America, coordinated with participating outlets.

“Let’s work through each theme and make a column for each one and list country-specific examples under each, look at it all from a regional perspective and from there choose the top two,” suggested Steven Dudley, Director of InSight Crime during a planning meeting in Bogotá. “Think about how to tell the story using multimedia so it doesn’t sound like just another story of victimization.”

As of the majority of the outlets have a national focus, they had to develop a regional perspective and reorient their thinking to explore how a topic covered through a different lens in each country could illuminate a complex regional trend. 

“We don’t just pick a topic where the phenomenon is happening in each place,” explained Oscar Martinez from El Faro, “rather each contributes a unique trend that leads to a more complex understanding of the region and the issue.” 

The collaboration created an initial list of topics that included displacement, women, human trafficking, and militarization of conflict. The process of writing a story involves pairing up for “bailes” (dances) in which each contributing team discusses their investigative process, the angle to their story, and the challenges they faced, and helps each other to strengthen the stories to make them regionally relevant.

Insight Crime, which coordinated and managed the editing and publication process,  launched the comprehensive story package on displacement by organized criminals on September 30 and developed a social media strategy to increase traffic. Each outlet offered a wider array of multimedia content on its own site.  Animal Político featured a video and infographics for displacement in each of three regions of Mexico that they investigated, for example, while Verdad Abierta developed an interactive Flash presentation.