December 7, 2009

Hispanics in the News

Mexican Drug War

The next most prominent Hispanic-related storyline, at 15% of the newshole, was the drug war in Mexico, which was at the height of its intensity in February. Much of the attention to the drug war was tied to specific events along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The story filled just 1% of the total newshole during the period studied, but with inherent ties to Hispanics, it was a major element of Hispanic-related news during the period. Coverage here was less about the larger Mexican or Hispanic population and more about increasing violence and leaders’ actions in response.

While the subject is hardly new, media attention grew in the spring of 2009, with increased drug-related violence in the U.S., questions of new border controls, and an eventual visit by President Obama. After taking up a negligible portion of the media’s newshole from early 2007 through February 2009, coverage more than tripled (to 2.3%), in March and would remain high through April. That made it the number four story in March and the number nine story in April. Coverage of the drug war hit its peak in late March, when it became the second-biggest story in the media for the week of March 23-29.

A substantial portion of the coverage, 43%, made explicit references to an Hispanic dimension of the story, mostly to the cartels themselves and their activities in both Mexico and the U.S.

And this was very much a U.S. story. Most of the coverage, fully 79%, considered the actions in Mexico or along the border as they related to the United States—first, largely in terms of increased violence that was spreading into the states and second in terms of U.S.-Mexico relations. Only one-fifth (21%) focused solely on the drug war’s effects on Mexico. Similarly, any discussions of the Hispanic population as a victim of the crimes—either as a whole or as individuals—were rare.

In February, increased crime and other “spillover violence” in several U.S. cities also drew media attention. A February 12 piece in the Los Angeles Times highlighted the scope of the problem: “Arizona has become the new drug gateway into the United States. … One result is an epidemic of kidnapping that many residents are barely aware of. Indeed, most every other crime here is down. But police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports last year, and 359 in 2007. Police estimate twice that number go unreported.”

Then Mexican President Felipe Calderón took strong action to regain border control, calling in 7500 Mexican soldiers and 1700 Mexican federal agents to Ciudad Juárez —the area with the worst of the cartel fighting. The first of these reinforcements arrived on March 3, and as USAToday.com noted that day, Americans in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Juarez, welcomed this action. El Paso mayor John Cook told USA Today, “I’m relieved … It shows President Calderon is serious about winning this battle with the cartels.”

The next day, March 4, the NewsHour aired an interview with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano who distinguished between what she considered normal levels of violence from cartels and new spillover violence that might specifically target Americans. “There’s always been a certain amount of violence and crime associated with drug trafficking per se. … In terms of the spillover violence that you’re referring to, I think what you’re really talking about is this big war between these big cartels and between these big cartels and the Mexican federal government. Is it spilling over in terms of intentionally identifying individuals on this side of the border to kidnap, murder, and the like? We haven’t really seen that yet,” said Napolitano.

Meanwhile, some outlets began addressing the topic of U.S. culpability in the drug war. On February 27, CNN’s Situation Room commentator Michael Ware, reporting live from Mexico, emphasized that “all of this is fueled by America’s demand for illicit drugs, and is being fought on both sides—government and cartel—with American weapons.”

Likewise, Mexican President Felipe Calderón told NPR’s Morning Edition on March 11 that he considered the U.S.’s sizable demand for drugs a driving factor in his country’s drug-related violence, and as such, he called on the U.S. as one of the world’s largest drug markets to shoulder part of the burden.

In considering whether to send reinforcements, U.S. concerns about the effects on civilians also grew. The State Department issued a travel alert, warning vacationers away from Mexico. Not all travelers heeded this advice, as depicted in a March 12 NBC Nightly News package about U.S. college students on spring break in Cancún. “I feel very safe,” one student told NBC. “I wouldn’t even know that there’s a drug war going on.” However, NBC correspondent Mark Potter was quick to point out the presence of “two Cancúns”: “There’s the famous hotel strip…for the tourists and spring-breakers, and there’s the city center, miles away, where the drug-related violence and corruption are present.”

The storyline evolved further in April when President Obama made a visit, following visits by three other top U.S. officials: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Attorney General Eric Holder. The attention from the administration sparked heavy coverage from many news outlets as they examined how the U.S. might stop the flow of guns, drugs, and money across the border.

But Obama’s trip also inspired an April 16 story on Morning Edition that looked at the drug war and larger Mexico-U.S. relations from a different perspective: Morning Edition spoke to Mexican-Americans about their hopes for Obama’s visit to Mexico and found the drug war to be deeply troubling to many of their interview subjects. “The main concern here,” said NPR reporter Mandalit del Barco, “is the same as for many south of the border: stemming the deadly violence being waged by deadly drug cartels.” One Mexican-American citizen told del Barco, “Juárez, yeah, it’s really bad. A lot of people are dying, and it’s tough. It’s tough. Hopefully, [Obama and Calderón] can work something out.”