How does someone consent...

... to be part of an international news story?

Dear friends,

Last year, after I’d done some stories on the migrant caravan that came through Mexico City in November, I felt some kinda way when a guy that I’d interviewed texted and said, “thankyou for listening to me.”

For the kind of journalist that I am, this is exactly what we want to hear; the kind of response that makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing. Listening, telling the stories that geopolitical power would suppress. But when the listener is reporting for the international media and has the power of narrative, translation and broadcast; we’re doing something more fraught than just providing a sympathetic ear and a space for someone’s unheard voice. Coming from the outside, publishing to the world, we can be making decisions about writing and publishing that impact directly on the the course of somebody’s life. We’re getting paid to do so.

In this, I need to educate myself as much as I can about any possible risk to people I interview and whose information I publish, and what precautions I could and should take to keep them safe. The onus is on me to learn and apply that information. Often, in such a tight media environment, nobody is going to do it for me– all parties involved have to trust that I’ve got this.

Matters of consent in international media reporting were particularly painfully highlighted last month when two anthropologists living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, accused a New York Times journalist and freelance photographer of publishing the names, photographs and locations of some people in the community without their consent. The community members, said the anthropologists, had been part of an extraordinarily brave, and ultimately failed, local effort to stand up to the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang, one of the most powerful in the region.

Of the NYT story, the anthropologists wrote that:

“One of the women from the neighborhood, whose role in the self-defense group was exposed and whose face (along with those of her children) was shown, swears she never gave permission to publish her name or her photos. She didn’t even realize when they were taken. Another resident who is featured and who had always resisted leaving his home, told me that now he too is preparing to flee the neighborhood. Me van a hacer picadillo, he says. They are going to make hamburger meat out of me.”

You can read their entire account in Latino Rebels article, where there’s also a link to the NYT story.

The demands of the power relationship between journalist and subject are always high, and in international reporting they matter in specific ways. As a public story circulated between those of us who do similar work, the accusations about the NYT story have been a reminder of the responsibilities of that relationship, the many relationships that go into making an international news story, and their many potential and actual disconnects.

The people of any country or context that is considered ‘third world’ or especially endemically ‘violent’ (a troubled region, you might say) have been dealing with the abuse of the reporter/subject relationship for as long as foreign correspondence and the international media–and indeed social sciences like anthropology–has been a thing.

No matter how well a reporter might know the terrain; the power of narrative, translation and broadcast is disproportionate to that of their subject, especially when, as in the story from San Pedro Sula, those subjects are positioned directly in the crossfire of the violence and impunity that is of such high international news value.

Commenting on the NYT story, Mexican human rights journalist Marcela Turati noted  that “the debate reminds us that in contexts that are abnormally violent, journalism costs and takes lives, and manuals are not enough.” Instead, “every report demands ethical decisions.” [my translation]

Some resources for thinking about doing a better job at this, from new(er) voices in foreign correspondence:

The subjects of international reporting speak:

That’s all for this edition, thanks for reading! Till next time.

Cheers, Ann.

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Jamie Larson