Lively debates, one to two-hour chats and enthusiastic participation were the hallmarks of Alvaro Sierra’s “The Coverage of Drug Trafficking” course. Student demand encouraged Sierra to extend the course for nearly two weeks. “It’s already the second week and they keep sending messages in forums and things,” said the instructor. “I still get messages from some of them.”
The course, which was taught in Spanish, was organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas as part of its distance learning program. Thirty students representing 10 countries logged in from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Germany, Paraguay, Peru, Mexico and the United States.
They debated, chatted and sometimes “stayed for two hours, two hours and a half in each chat,” said Sierra. “When they begin to realize that there are lots of moral arguments behind the story… the discussion becomes really interesting.”
Teaching assistant Rachel Barrera credited Sierra with generating the students’ enthusiasm. “Alvaro takes a lot of time with his students. He gives a lot of personal attention…and I think that helps with motivation and participation.”
Sierra, who has covered armed conflict and drug trafficking for years, believes that the reason students get so immersed is that he teaches them to look at the problem from a global perspective. “This is not a Mexico problem; it’s not a Colombian problem, or a Guatemalan one. It’s a global problem,” he said. “This is much bigger.”
Sierra encourages them to get away from reporting “on killings and massacres and cocaine intercepted by authorities.” And, he added, “The students react in a very interesting way to this approach because most of them were saying, ‘Hey guys we did not know this; we didn’t think about that before and this is a really good tool for our everyday job.’”
Rodolfo Montes, a reporter for Mexico’s Milenio Diario and Milenio Televisión wrote, “Having taken this course on the coverage of drug trafficking expanded and consolidated a new view as to how press coverage should be dedicated to this global issue.“
Other topics covered in the class were decriminalization and safety. “I also learned that there are different alternatives regarding the decriminalization that can begin to control this problem,” said Irma Londoño who fled Colombia to the U.S. in 1999 after threats were made on her life.
The course not only helped her to “study the security measures that reporters must take when covering the news in highly dangerous places,” but it also gave her an emotional lift. “For me the courses have been my therapy,” she wrote. “You know how difficult it is to be in exile and this last one (course) helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone and that other journalists have suffered, continue to suffer, will suffer threats, persecution and indifference while covering drug trafficking.”
This is the fifth time that the Knight Center has offered the course. The center was founded in 2002 with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation by Professor Rosental Alves with the goal of helping journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean improve the quality of journalism in their countries. The center also receives contributions from other donors such as the Open Society Foundations and the University of Texas.