Bias on the Border

Fernanda Santos
6 min readJul 23, 2019

I spent a few days this summer training a group of journalists in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, how to report on the Central American migrants stuck there because of Trump. This is the English translation of an op-ed I wrote for Mexico’s Animal Político, where I talk about the bias I found in the coverage and how I suggest addressing it.

“Gangs,” “illegals” and “delinquents” were some of the words that journalists in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, thought about when I asked them to think about the Central American migrants they had been covering.

For six years, I covered the U.S.-Mexico border for The New York Times, based in Phoenix. Many times, I traveled to the Mexican side of the border, bringing my sensitivity as a Latin American living in the United States to stories I reported in Spanish and wrote in English for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. Months into the Trump presidency, I spent days in Sonoyta, a tiny border city where the western ends of the states of Sonora and Arizona meet, investigating rumors that Central Americans, mostly young men traveling alone, were stuck there, discouraged to push north because of Trump’s threats of detaining and deporting more migrants.

I returned to the border in late May, though to another city — Ciudad Juárez — and in another role. I’m now a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and I was there to help teach local journalists to insert more fairness to their coverage of the Central American migrants at their door, a joint initiative with Mexico’s Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación, or Conapred.

Our goal was to telegraph what the future could be like if Mexican journalists covering the migrants in their backyard take their cues from their American counterparts. It is fair to say that the situation faced by Mexican border communities such as Juárez is a direct result of policies enacted on the other side by a president who governs more like a bully than a diplomat. Just recently on Twitter, he threatened to impose a 5-percent tariff on all goods from Mexico “until such time as illegal immigrants coming through Mexico, into our Country, STOP.”

Thousands of Central Americans have arrived in Ciudad Juárez in recent months, fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. One estimate is that there are roughly 13,000 of them there, trapped by Trump’s requirement that they stay in Mexico while their requests for asylum in the United States are pending. As I was riding from the airport to the hotel, the taxi driver, a sexagenarian named José Quintana, told me that local residents used to bring food and supplies for the migrants, but that their benevolence — and patience — has worn off.

“People are angry,” he said. The migrants “are not our responsibility.”

While I was in Juárez, I saw the animosity in evidence on the pages of El Diario de Juárez, the only daily newspaper serving this city of 1.4 million. One of its most prolific interlocutores is Mayor Armando Cabada Alvídrez, who just the other day declared that “antes de los derechos humanos de los migrantes están los intereses de los juarenses (before the migrants’ human rights are the interests of the people from Juárez)” and said the federal government ought to “ponga el recurso para que se regresen (put up the money so that they can go back)” to their home countries.

I told the journalists at the training that I believe fairness can only be achieved when we recognize our own biases and that instead of striving for objectivity, they should focus on controlling their subjectivity. In other words, they should build a personal checks-and-balances system with their beliefs and opinions and use it to modulate their coverage.

So I set out to discover the beliefs and opinions they had. I handed each of them a piece of paper and asked them to write the first words that came to mind when they heard “migrante centroamericano,” urging them not to stop and think about it. “Let your thoughts flow onto the paper before you run them through the filters inside your head,” I instructed.

Here’s what some of them wrote:

“Pobreza. Maras. Delincuentes.” (Poverty. Gangs. Delinquents.)

“Maras. Ilegales. Delincuentes.” (Gangs. Illegals. Delinquents.)

“E.U.A. Gente que vive en la calle. Probablemente me miente.” (U.S.A. People who live on the streets. Probably lying to me.)

“Pobreza. Desesperación. Ilusión.” (Poverty. Desperation. Illusion.)

Prior to this exercise, my colleague Andrés Martinez had spent some time talking about the politicization and polarization that have defined the coverage of immigration by U.S. cable news channels, in particular Fox News, a favorite of President Trump’s. Trump and Fox have operated as close allies since his days on the campaign trail. He often shared the stage with one of Fox’s highest-rated on-air personalities, Sean Hannity, working in tandem to fire up the crowds with tendentious questions and comments about a border wall that was going to be paid for by Mexico.

Martinez, a former editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, titled his talk, “El Reflejo del Espejo: ¿Qué podemos aprender de la cobertura de migración mexicana en E.U.?” At one point, he showed a picture of Trump during a White House event in June, surrounded by families of American citizens killed by undocumented immigrants. That was Trump’s way of capitalizing on a lie that he has been hammering on since his days as a candidate: that “year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens,” as he declared in his 2019 State of the Union address.

Statistics and studies have proven otherwise, but the story has taken a life of its own, frightening people who live far away from the border and to whom the crisis that’s unfolding there is consumed in hyperventilating news bites delivered all day and night.

The training also included local communications professionals and members of civic organizations working directly with migrants. One of them, Hermana Esther, a nun who runs Casa del Migrante, the largest migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, took to the microphone and said, “This type of rhetoric that Trump has used against Mexicans, the Mexican media is using against Central Americans.” Then, she noted that when Central Americans say they have been mistreated by Mexican law enforcement authorities, “the journalists don’t get interested in it.”

The journalists, for their part, face their own obstacles. One is that government has a heavy influence on the media in Mexico because government is still a big advertiser and it is its advertising money that sustains many a print and broadcast media enterprise. There are also challenges that are all too familiar to U.S.-based journalists, like a 24/7 news cycle, the requirements that they write fast and often, and the demands of promoting themselves and their news on social media, which favors the most alarmist of angles and headlines.

In our workshops — there were three, one for each cohort — Martinez and I highlighted how we’ve really messed things up in the United States, to the detriment of Mexicans. The vilification of immigrants has created errant shortcuts in the minds of many Americans, to whom “immigrant” has become synonymous to “illegal immigrant,” which, in turn, has become synonymous to “Mexican.”

“The voice of the person who speaks is very powerful,” Marcela Azuela Gómez, of Conapred, told the participants. Yes, theirs are powerful, influential voices, but it is the journalists who have the loudest megaphone. And journalists in Mexico have the opportunity to chart their own course toward a fair and responsible coverage of migration, one that fosters understanding, not division, as it has in the United States.



Fernanda Santos

Award-winning author of “The Fire Line.” Journalist. Professor. Immigrant. Mother. "Overall Badass." Writer of random things, published here.