Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Why the papers are hard to read

Spanish-speaking immigrants are being deported at twice the rate as last year, with little heed paid to the dangers they face back home and in the country they entered illegally.
    The nation doing the stepped-up deporting is Mexico. The deportees are from several countries in Central America.
    In January and February of this year, Mexico deported 25,069 Central Americans, a nearly 100% increase from the same two months of 2014, when 12,830 were sent back.
    The rise is even steeper for kids. Last year 1,605 minors were deported from Mexico back to Central America in January and February. This year the number was 3,289.
    Those figures are from the Mexican federal government, but they took a roundabout route to make the news here. The Washington Office for Latin America, a human rights NGO known as WOLA, put them on its site last week. They didn’t attract much notice.
    But a press release yesterday got the job done, especially with La Jornada, who picked up an AP version of the story based on the release and played it big on the front page with the lead headline: “WOLA: Deportation of migrants has doubled in Mexico.”
    The headline brings to mind two observations about news coverage in Mexico. One is the importance of Central American migrants as a topic.
    The troubles these people face as they work their way north make the plight of Mexicans crossing into the United States look like a Club Med vacation in comparison. Those who aren’t maimed or killed hopping freight trains can be robbed, beaten, kidnapped, exploited by human traffickers, sold into virtual slavery, impressed into criminal organizations, detained and often abused by authorities, or murdered en masse, as was the case in the horrific San Fernando massacre of immigrants in the state of Tamaulipas in 2010 and 2011.
    “Our concern is that Mexican authorities are not properly screening these migrants to ensure that refugees and victims of human trafficking or other serious crimes receive the protection they require and merit,” said WOLA spokesman Clay Boggs (referred to as “Bloggs” in the Jornada story).

The other observation is triggered by that “WOLA” in the Jornada headline. How many newspaper readers in Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter, know what WOLA stands for? Or even what WOLA is?
    With all due respect to the hard-working people at this fine organization, the answer is surely in the double digits at most, if not approaching zero. Yet there it is, the largest word-like grouping of letters on La Jornada’s front page.
    That’s par for the course, as you’ve surely noticed if you read Today’s Headlines regularly, or even occasionally. Here’s one taken at random from the inside pages of today’s EL Universal: “IFAI remits to INE four complaints against PVEM.”
    True, lots of initialized abbreviations are better known than the spelled-out versions — for example, PRI, PRD and SEP in Mexico, or GOP, GDP and NFL in the States. But most of them aren’t. So why are they there?
    Well, they make things easier for editors, of course. They fit better. Making things fit is half the work of a headline writer.
    But if the function of a headline is to make a connection with the readers, why is such a reader-unfriendly, connection-inhibiting practice tolerated?
    The answer, I’m sorry to report, is because the news and business sections of major Mexican daily newspapers are not targeted to general readers, and certainly not written for them. The hoi polloi is to be served by coverage of sports and popular entertainment. The rest is for insiders — public officials, executives and other media.
    It’s not that the writing aims high. It’s usually very bad, in fact, with some welcome exceptions. Rather, the newspaper's mission has nothing to do with creating an informed public. The mission is for the media company itself to have an influence, serve allies, be a player.
    To be a player, you don't need an informed general readership base. You just need the other players to be paying attention.
    There’s an upside to that — the papers can be real pests to the powers that be, especially middle- or lower-level powers that be. It’s mostly gotcha-type mini-exposés, but it beats the bad old days when a paper’s sole duty was to protect and serve.
    The rest is downside. We general readers — what’s left of us — are eavesdroppers on a private conversation. Which is a reason the news stories are hard to read, whether Spanish is your first language or not. They're not hard to read because they’re complex. They're hard to read because the general reader’s ability to understand them is not a high priority.
    A useful illustration of this is the dailies’ frequent lack of context in news stories. You can read a 30-centimeter story on a politician’s response to an insult and never be told what he or she is responding to.
    It’s not that we’re being intentionally left in the dark. If the reporter or editor happens to think of it, the context will get in there. But they often don’t think of it, because, as a result of the media culture they work in, our comprehension is not the priority. The readers that matter are the responder and respondee, and all the stakeholders in their squabble. Those more important players already know the context.

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