Morality is probably the vaguest concept in the world, especially when it comes to the media. The code of ethics a journalist adheres to is not necessarily the same code we would expect humanity at large to conform to.
For example, when Pulitzer Prize-winner Sonia Nazario wrote “Enrique’s Journey,” a nonfiction account of an undocumented Honduran immigrant’s attempt to reunite with his mother in the U.S., she agreed to the rules of journalistic integrity.
She upheld these rules: rules that require you to distance yourself from the subject. Though dozens of Central American immigrants could have been saved from limbo — a time spent in between their homeland and the states — with a simple phone call or even half of the contents of her wallet, she stood by a set of, what some would say are arbitrary, guidelines.
So why did she do it?
Nazario spent close to five years researching and composing this odyssey. She was the child of Argentinean immigrants, and after shadowing Enrique in Nuevo Laredo at shelter for migrants, she retraced his trek from Honduras to the U.S. It was a 1,600 mile journey, the majority of it on the top of freight trains called “los trenes de la muerte” (the trains of death). Each trip took about three months, and she felt the need to enlist the assistance of Mexican police for her own safety from the “maras” (gangs). So to say she didn’t reach out a helping hand because she didn’t care about the plight of the immigrant seems a bit of a stretch.
The only possible conclusion is that she, like so many other people before her, believes strongly in the journalistic code of ethics. Though it is frustrating at times, it keeps papers safe from issues such as bribing sources to speak. Had she broken down and handed over her wallet on the top of that train, she would have saved half a dozen people, but the discourse that Nazario introduced with this book is invaluable.
Every writer is an idealist. We write to change and to believe that mankind is even vaguely capable of change is an incredibly ideal school of thought. I know how idealist it must seem to say that a book is more important or more beneficial than practical assistance in a crisis, but a discussion this groundbreaking surrounding immigration needs a voice and without women, like Nazario, who are willing to play by the rules, this would never be realized.
The goal of every writer should be to expose the truth, and though it’s difficult to tell how to do this ethically, it seems fairly easy to identify unethical behavior, and that must also be brought into the light.
In El Salvador, channel 12, the former employer of my friend Francisco Menjivar has recently faced a wave of very serious armed threats against its journalists. In this small country, this threat is bigger than just journalists. It compromises free speech and pulls at the tensions that already existed between the fighting political parties FMLN and ARENA.
I have seen the work Menjivar and his coworkers have done. I watched him lie flat, his tie brushing against the filthy cement floor of a Salvadoran prison. He looked up, holding a microphone with a nearly steady hand and tried to speak as though the prison guards ducking behind him in a makeshift barricade were a distant memory, the prisoners darting around above him with stolen guns only an allusion.
He told me about putting Vick’s vapor rub beneath his nose to help drown out the scent of the burned bodies when he covered the Honduran fire that killed 300 prisoners last year.
I have nothing but tremendous respect for good journalists, and I am truly blown away by the work that this station does, and these threats are an insult, but more than that, they make me fear for morality in media as a whole. It’s hard enough to find good, hardworking, brave people willing to lie on a prison floor and report during crossfire, but they aren’t being supported. Not at home or abroad.
In the U.S. or even European sources, it’s difficult to find a story about something like armed threats to the media. Had the story involved a prominent gang or drugs, I’m sure it would be splashed all over the place, but because it’s about neither, it won’t get the time of day.
This is a problem with ethical journalism at home. Our coverage tends to be sensational. Yes, drugs and gang violence are important topics, but Central America is more than one gigantic drug dealing, gang-banging machine, and it’s time that we recognized that.
In the words of Menjivar*, I stand “in solidarity with the team of channel 12 in their struggle against these threats…and this obstruction the constitutional right of freedom of speech.” I sincerely hope that something good may come of their struggle.
*This conversation has been translated from Spanish.