A report tackling public displays of brutality by Mexico’s criminal groups has found that media coverage of these acts has actually encouraged more violence.
The study, titled “Media effects on public displays of brutality: the case of Mexico’s drug war,” was authored by Johanna Rivera of the Inter-American Development Bank and Viridiana Rios of Purdue University. Published in October 2018, the study examines press coverage of cartel atrocities that have grown increasingly common in recent years.
Throughout Mexico’s current era of combat with organized crime, acts of violence aimed at creating spectacle have grown increasingly common, and media organizations often must respond to them. Coverage of dead bodies left hanging from bridges or in public spaces has become commonplace. The corpses, often mutilated, are typically accompanied by a threatening “narcomantas,” or “cartel messages.”
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According to Rivera and Rios, media coverage of these ghoulish events has created a perverse feedback loop in which criminal groups respond by engaging in further violence. To prove this hypothesis, the two researchers examined 1,731 reports of narcomantas by criminal groups from 2007 to 2010. Of these messages, 857 were paired with a dead body, which the authors class as a public display of brutality.
Rivera and Rios found that when there was a spike in media coverage following such a display of public brutality, the probability of additional acts of violence also spiked. The effect remained statistically significant for four weeks.
While this was outside the scope of their study, the authors also pointed to another negative impact of covering atrocities: Normalization of the most violent acts could numb people’s instinctive rejection of bloodshed, thereby making them more vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs.
From the criminal group’s perspective, the logic driving such acts of violence is clear. Media coverage contributes to a reputation for ruthlessness, which, in turn, makes it less likely that authorities or residents will do anything to challenge their control. In other words, press accounts of atrocities both increase a gang’s potential for revenues and reduce its vulnerability to government countermeasures.
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This study comes at a time of extreme vulnerability for Mexican journalists. According to the press advocacy group Article 19, 131 Mexican journalists have been murdered because of their work since 2000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press. Despite promises from the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to protect reporters, the problem appears to be worsening: 11 journalists have been killed in the first 9 months of his presidency, including three in August alone. The killing of journalists, however, has persisted over the course of four successive administrations, making it a failing shared by political movements of every ideological stripe.
Whether to cover organized displays of cartel violence presents the press with a dilemma: If it reports on incidents that are obviously newsworthy, it encourages more violence, but if it ignores them, then it fails to fulfill its journalistic mandate. (This is one of several impossible choices placed on the Mexican press, the most obvious of which is whether to self-censor or risk retaliation from criminal groups eager to avoid coverage of certain stories.)
There is no obvious solution to this dilemma, but Rios and Rivera’s findings suggest that the press would do well to omit salacious details. A dead body appearing in a public plaza is clearly a newsworthy event, but newspapers could avoid any detail about the body’s condition—and in so doing, deny the killing some of its value as propaganda.
Similarly, they could adopt much stronger restrictions on the dissemination of the messages included in narcomantas. As it happens now, even mainstream outlets often transcribe portions of the narcomantas. If not transcribed, news media typically paraphrase the general thrust of the message, including the identity of the authors and their rivals. While the decision to do this is justifiable, the practice turns newspapers into megaphones for criminal groups.
As Rios and Rivera note in their study, in 2011, more than 700 Mexican media outlets signed what they termed the “Agreement on Media Coverage of Violence,” which was partly aimed at concern about the press “becoming an involuntary spokesman” for criminal groups. It called on outlets to omit information that criminal groups sought to disseminate as propaganda.
The informal pact was a wise idea, but its provisions were overly vague, and they were ultimately not followed by all signees, leading to the agreement’s collapse a few years later. Revisiting the agreement and reaffirming the pledges to protect themselves against exploitation by organized crime — both in their specific coverage of atrocities and in their general reporting on violence — would be a positive step.
There is no guarantee that a new version of an idea that already failed once would work. And there is no way to ensure that every narco-focused blog — or private social media account — follows the strictures adopted by the media industry. But at the very least, the publications with the largest reach could ensure that they opt out of this vicious circle.