There were a total of 68 news stories that ran in the Grand Rapids Press during our 6-month survey. There were also 85 Briefs, short summaries that were only a few sentences long, but we will only look at the content of the full news stories.
There were a number of stories (21) that dealt with disasters, both natural and human. In fact, in the last 10 days of the study the Press ran 4 stories and several Briefs just about a plane crash in Brazil. Comparatively, most serious news stories did not receive that kind of follow up after an initial incident. Even the Roman Catholic Pope’s visit to Latin America in May only garnered 5 stories in the Press. There were also 11 stories that are labeled as “Fluff,” since they dealt with items such as the Anna Nicole Smith saga in the Bahamas (Feb. 19) or the 14.5 lbs. baby in Mexico (Feb. 1). There were also 11 stories with an environmental/archeological theme that tended to focus on scientific finds that relied primarily on US-based spokespersons.
Topics that generated more coverage were drugs, trade/economic policies, political violence, and the Bush visit to Latin America between March 8 and March 14. With the stories on drugs or the so-called “drug war” most of them dealt with isolated arrests. Not one story mentioned or evaluated the US funding of the “war on drugs” in the Andean region, nor the drug crop eradication program. Stories with a political violence theme tended to report on isolated actions or human rights violations, but again no substantive reporting on US military aid to the region and its use.
Economic themes were reported in stories/briefs a total of 22 times, but again the stories were mostly of isolated economic outcomes without much context or examination of policy. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) are never mentioned in the coverage even though these trade agreements involve 7 Latin American countries. The very first story in the study is a good indication of how economic issues were reported on. The February 1 article reports that thousands of Mexicans were protesting the increased cost of tortillas, but the story provides little information on the reasons for the increase in cost or how the organizers of the protest understood this issue. the Grand Rapids Press version of the AP story excluded most of the protestors’ positions, but even the original full-length story did not include any economic policy context.
President Bush’s visit to Latin America in the second week of March was reported on in 7 articles during the study. In several of the stories it is reported that Bush was meet by protestors. The first story that ran in the Grand Rapids Press was on March 8 and included these comments from Bush, ‘”The trip is to remind people that we care,” Bush said in an interview Wednesday with CNN En Espanol. “I do worry about the fact that some say, ‘Well the United States hasn’t paid enough attention to us,’ isn’t anything more than worried about terrorism.’ And when, in fact, the record has been a strong record.”‘ The reporter never verifies Bush’s claims that the US indeed has a “strong record” on caring about the people of Latin America. Most of the reporting on the Bush visit also tended to frame them as Bush vs. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The headline of March 8 reads “Chavez plans to bedevil Bush on Latin tour,” March 10 “Bush, Chavez duel amid protests,” and March 12 says, “Chavez pushes for socialist counterattack against US.” In these stories the primary sources used were Bush and other Latin American heads of state, rather than the individuals and popular movement groups that organized the protests.
In looking at which countries received the most attention in the study, Mexico is first with 35 stories/Briefs, followed by Cuba (27) and Venezuela (25). The Mexico stories covered a variety of topics – economic, drugs, immigration and President Calderon’s policies, but the stories on Venezuela and Cuba tended to focus on the leaders of those countries – Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Many of the stories on Castro (14) were updates on his health, but there were also stories that were critical of the economic conditions in that country. Some examples were an April 29 story headlined “Life in Cuba long, not always good,” and a June 10 headline that read, “Cuban meals include rations.” The June 10 article was to announce a plan by the AP reporter to see how it is like to live on a fixed Cuban income for a month. The question to raise here is why do this experiment just in Cuba? Why didn’t the Associated Press have reporters do the same thing in countries like El Salvador, Haiti or Colombia? The way that Cuba and Venezuela were reported on in this 6-month period is in line with the current US State Department’s position towards Cuba and Venezuela. Does this mean that the Associated Press does not act independently of US policy or did the Grand Rapids Press decide to run stories that were reflective of the government position?
Lastly, there were a limited amount of sources used in stories, with the emphasis on government spokespersons and people in other official capacity – scientists, business people, and entertainers. When citizens of Latin America were cited it was either in isolated instances of trivial matters or as people protesting government action. Rarely did the perspectives of women, workers, indigenous people, people who work the land, human rights workers, and those involved in popular movements. This is worth noting, especially since there is a tremendous amount of civic engagement throughout Latin America with popular movements participating in everything from worker run factories in Argentina, to indigenous organizing in Bolivia, or the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. If one were to rely on the Grand Rapids Press as the primary source for reporting on Latin America they would have a very limited and somewhat biased understanding of the region and its relationship to the US. We encourage people to communicate with the Grand Rapids Press about these findings and have included a list of recommendations for future reporting on international news.