Five Things to do in Confinement
By Roberto Herrscher
For more than 30 years I have taught and practiced the art of telling true stories.
“Get your shoes dirty, feel the wind and the rain and the sun.” In Latin America and beyond, that was always the way we teachers and editors taught our reporters and students to get out of their so-called “comfort zone” and collect stories that would be as surprising to them as to their readers.
So what are we to do now? What do we teach now, when going out of our front door is dangerous for us and unadvisable as journalism practice for students?
This semester I teach “Crónica,” the Latin American word for a narrative feature piece, for both under- and postgraduate students. And for the first time, I can’t send them out into the world, but tell them to stay inside. How can they, how can any of us write a compelling story of what goes on in the world if we cannot get into people’s houses, sweatshops, temples or classrooms? How can we pretend to know how people live if we cannot go where they live?
It is hard enough to reinvent the classroom and teach and learn from screens. It is even harder to avoid the newsroom and work with colleagues and bosses from dining rooms and bedrooms transformed into working places. But one of the hardest things in this pandemic for journalists and journalism professors and students has been to tell the news and understand the dramas of today through the looking glass of a cold screen. In Latin America, finding what really happened or is happening and meeting the people who have stories to tell was always first and foremost a work of going out, especially to the downtrodden areas: shantytowns, rural areas, crime streets, hospitals, factories, markets. Staying inside, reporting through Internet or the telephone has always been seen as a recipe for getting the “official story” only.
Yet some lessons I have learned and tried to practice and teach from reading brilliant colleagues across Latin America. The pandemic has meant new possibilities and challenges, not only problems for these editors and reporters.
These are five tools and practices that existed long before we first heard of the term “coronavirus.” But for me, these colleagues have given them new meaning and value now, and I hope that by sharing these examples and pondering on what they became in these strange times, the journalism we build in the near future can be more humane, relevant and meaningful.
1. Find and Use Data: Alejandra Matus (independent journalist, Chile)
After many years of reporting from shantytowns, palaces, courtrooms, libraries, regiments and cemeteries across the country, Chilean reporter and writer Alejandra Matus, who was a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, recently got a chance to pursue a Master’s degree in the United States. And then the pandemic closed it all down and she is now stuck in an apartment in New York.
But from afar she felt there was something her country’s media were not doing. Very humbly, in her personal Twitter account (@alejandramatus) and from her apartment in the other end of the Americas, Matus managed to challenge the Chilean government and made the mainstream media follow her lead by installing a basic data journalism question in the agenda: how was is that few people died of Covid-19, but many more were dying of respiratory illnesses compared to the same months in previous years?
The numbers the government was giving and the media were repeating simply were not telling the story. Matus demonstrated that the respiratory cases had escalated, even if patients had never been officially diagnosed because most had died before they could be tested. She had written books on corruption in the justice system and human rights violations during the dictatorship; she was well known, but her relentless search for relevant data made her indispensable.
As I write this, Alejandra Matus is an omnipresent voice in print, radio and television in Chile. Everybody wants to have her talk or invite her to question ministers and experts. On August 22, together with her prestigious colleagues Mónica González and Mirna Schindler, Matus started questioning those in power in the Sunday noon political debate Pauta Libre at La Red TV.
A combination of independence, common sense, resourcefulness and good use of investigative techniques has helped her find out what was going on past the uncritical repetition of state propaganda.
And she did it all with a simple laptop in a rented apartment 5,000 miles from home.
2. Read: Hinde Pomeraniec (Infobae, Argentina)
Few journalists have cultivated the arts, literature, music and history of her own land as the Argentine cultural reporter and editor Hinde Pomeraniec. Her work has excelled in fields as diverse as writing stories for children, an erudite book explaining Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia and a series of television reports on the contemporary novel.
She currently juggles weekly programs on public radio and TV with editing the cultural pages of the vibrant digital paper Infobae. There Pomeraniec regales her followers with an exquisite Tuesday column.
The last one I read, Woody Allen’s memoirs and the “politics of cancellation,stressing that the personal failings of an artist should not lead to prohibiting or dismissing their work is a beautiful example of this journalist’s sharp mind and ethical compass.
In this and her dozens of previous letters to her readers (they all start with “Hi, there”) since the beginning of the pandemic, Pomeraniec has created a community of listeners, readers and watchers: we go back to the Impressionistic painting, the old Argentine movies, the new novel she invites us to read.
The cultural commentator’s letter is not a new genre, but I for one had not realized how much I needed such a distant friend until I started reading hers. Few have made us look inside and though screens and books as Hinde does in these letters from her open-eyed confinement.
3. Listen: Hacemos Memoria (UdeA, Colombia)
Hacemos memoria (We Make Memory), a joint project of one of the oldest and most prestigious public universities in Colombia, Universidad de Antioquia, and the German public broadcasting institute for journalists, Deutsche Welle Akademie, has been promoting, teaching and telling in its digital page the stories of whose who dare to remember the dark past of one of the most tragic countries in South America.
One of the outstanding features of this journalistic project is the section of “voices,” a collection of interviews, dialogues and monologues of the people usually left out of the mainstream media: indigenous leaders, victims of state and drug crime brutality, relatives of those who disappeared, academic experts in history, sociology, anthropology and yes, even philosophy, who are collectively needed to understand and try to put an end to the cycle of violence in Colombia.
These brave voices tell stories of crimes and sorrow, and also of ways to cope, rise up and refuse to forget. Collective patchwork projects, photo essays, the sharing of traditional food, all kinds of creative means are used to “make memory.”
We all agree that talking in the distance, through phones and laptops, will never be the same as getting together. But an empathetic team led by seasoned journalist and professor Patricia Nieto has managed to keep contacting researchers and victims of new crimes (right now is an especially grueling season of massacres in the Colombian hinterlands).
Not being able to travel or meet does not prevent them from interviewing, and the voices are sometimes more eager and open now than ever. Listening is something we can and must do now, and this project is a reminder of how far the ear can go when we can’t get our shoes dirty in the mud of reality.
4. Bond Together: Distintas Latitudes (Mexico)
One of the most disturbing features of the current situation is that the same drama, the same fears and deaths and shortages and horrors are happening at the same time in so many places.
Latin America is a region where the same language crosses extremely different lives, from Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. During the last decade, dozens of transnational projects have shown crimes of the past, like the Condor Operation for exchanging illegal detainees among Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s, or from the present, like the Panama Papers, which shows the extended network of tax evasion among the rich.
For the past five years, a group of editors and reporters from across the Americas, led by Jordy Meléndez Júdico from Mexico, have formed the Latin American Network of Young Journalists (Red LATAM de Jóvenes Periodistas). They invited promising junior reporters to work together to reveal the common ills of the region.
Now they have two transregional projects that show how the pandemic has affected women much more than men: one about the rise in domestic violence against women during confinement, and the other, about the terrible situation of pregnant Venezuelan immigrants.
5. Keep a personal (or better still, collective) diary: Ojo Público (Perú)
The last decade has also seen a boom of independent digital media across Latin America. Some are joint adventures owned by their own editors and reporters, others have members, donors or are funded by academia, foundations or NGOs. Ojo Público in Perú has grown in content and prestige due to its focus in health and public accountability, the talent of its young newsroom and the eagerness of the Peruvian readership, which grew tired of traditional media and state corruption.
During the pandemic they started collecting the first-person accounts of common citizens who represent the various dramas of COVID and confinement. In their Diary of Quarantine: Everybody’s Stories, nurses, street vendors, mothers and fathers, students, overexploited or fired workers, people living alone or in overcrowded quarters write a short first-person narrative, one a day. They are glued together by the whimsical and moving drawings of Claudia Calderón. They form the record of what we go through in these times. This creative project is unsual in tone and content for Ojo Público, but it makes sense in the way they have provided character-driven stories of health, environment, human rights abuses and the plight of the downtrodden. Its last project was a series of profiles of those who died of the virus: Till life do us apart.
Just like Matus seeks, finds and matches databases, Pomeraniec reminds us of the beauty of reading to understand the present, Hacemos memoria gives the unheard a voice and Distintas latitudes finds the common thread in apparently local problems, Ojo público shows how personal narratives can bind us together in brotherly fears and hopes.
There must be many more exciting examples out there. These are but a few that give me strength and hope in these dire times.
Argentine journalist Roberto Herrscher (MSc in Journalism, Columbia) is the director of the School of Journalism at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Chile. His last book is Periodismo Narrativo (University of Barcelona Press).