Colombian journalist Álvaro Sierra believes the media today are not doing an adequate job covering the illegal drug trade. Reporters often treat it as a local police problem, rather than the complex global, social and economic phenomenon it is, he said.
“The media’s narrative about drugs is heavily influenced by the official narrative, which is very biased,” Sierra said.
These problems, along with ways to develop deeper and more complete stories about drug trafficking, will be covered in the free online Spanish course “Covering Drug Trafficking,” taught by Sierra and offered by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
This is the third time the Knight Center has offered the course, which began March 8 and continues through April 11, 2010. Applications were accepted Feb. 8-21.
For more details on the training opportunity, see the Course Information Sheet.
“Drug trafficking is one of the most complex and most dangerous issues that journalists are covering in Latin America nowadays. It is one of the biggest challenges for reporters in many of the countries in the region,” said Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “We thought that we could create a course to give reporters and editors more background information about the issue, to make them better equipped to understand and to inform about this international phenomenon.”
When the course was offered in April 2009, 100 percent of participants who completed a course evaluation said they found the overall quality of instruction to be either “good” or “excellent.”
One student wrote, “I learned from my peers in the course and from the instructor. This is the best part for me. Everything we saw during the course applies to coverage of these themes. In fact, right now I’m working on a story about drug trafficking and addiction prevention, and I think about the course, and what we chatted about among ourselves, about how to approach this in a more complete manner.”
The course, Sierra said, will help reporters go beyond covering just the deaths, the drug and money seizures and the horrendous crimes.
“It’s a complex social, economic (and political) phenomenon, and not merely a police or criminal matter,” he said. “If we take some distance from the official narrative there are lots of facets to explore in the coverage.”
Additionally, a basic theme of the course will be the so-called “war against drugs,” Sierra said.
“In my opinion, the current strategy of the fight against drugs is a failure that (almost) all of the world recognizes and (almost) nobody wants to change,” he said. “Colombia, Mexico and the United States are the best examples of this. Although this topic implies an evaluation, a value judgment, I think it is important for a course about drugs to broach an evaluation of what has been done in the last 40 years (100 if you take a broader view) to combat them.”
Along those lines, another student wrote after the last course, “From now on, I can assess more objectively the gravity of the topic and the urgency for journalists to place it on the national agenda of our respective countries. Surely our perspective in analyzing the drug trafficking theme will be very different after this group academic experience.”
Sierra, who teaches how to cover armed conflicts at the United Nations’ University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica, is the former editorial page editor for Bogotá’s El Tiempo newspaper. He also worked as a correspondent in Russia (1990-1997) and China (1998-2000), gaining extensive experience covering armed conflicts as both a local reporter and a foreign correspondent.
“We are lucky to have a seasoned Colombian journalist who became a professor at the United Nations’ University for Peace, in Costa Rica, and who has been studying and teaching this subject,” Alves said.
This course was offered in April and August of 2009. The August course was limited to Mexican journalists.
“It’s necessary that this course continues to be offered, not only in countries suffering from the drug problem, but in all of the Americas because this problem is advancing by gigantic steps, so it’s necessary to train as many journalists as possible for when they have to confront or cover drug trafficking,” one former student said.
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin was launched in 2002 by professor Rosental Calmon Alves. Thanks to generous grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the center has assisted thousands of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. For more information, contact the Knight Center’s program manager, Jennifer Potter-Miller at jpotterandreu at mail.utexas.edu or +1 512 471-1391.