Journalists are esteemed somewhere between used-car salespeople and politicians these days, but it is journalists like Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, who prove that esteemed or not, the profession sustains an essential component of democracy. Mr. Corchado was awarded Colby College’s Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism on Sunday.
The honor, awarded annually since 1952, is named for Elijah Parish Lovejoy, considered America’s first free press martyr. Lovejoy was born in 1802 in Albion, and graduated from Waterville College (later Colby) in 1826. In 1837, in Alton, Ill., he died trying to extinguish the fire a pro-slavery mob had set in the building where his press operated. It is that commitment to the journalistic principles enshrined in the First Amendment that the Lovejoy Award honors.
Mr. Corchado’s beat put him in the middle of the violent conflict between Mexican drug cartels and Mexican law enforcement. Members of the Lovejoy Selection Committee said he got death threats for his reporting about drug dealers, organized crime, the deaths of women in the Mexican town of Juarez, government and police corruption, and the violence that inevitably crossed the border into Dallas. One of the death threats was rather specific: “As we’re chopping you into pieces, we’ll tape it so we can send to your mother in El Paso.”
With the newspaper industry in transition from the primacy of print to the immediacy of the Web, the role of journalists is becoming cloudy. The lines between a blogger citing unnamed sources or documents of dubious provenance and a reporter ferreting out and confirming facts are blurred. Yet when commentators in all venues — Web, print, TV, radio — opine on the topic du jour, it is the work of the front-line reporter that serves as the setup for their harangues. So the beat reporter — whether he or she is covering Bangor City Hall or the Mexico-U.S. border — has become like the migrant worker, toiling away to produce the developments on which public opinion feeds, and then public policy turns.
Mr. Corchado’s beat is rife with moral and policy implications. This year alone, more than 7,600 people have been killed in the battle over turf and commerce, including dozens of journalists. U.S. policy on immigration, drugs, cross-border travel and other matters are tied to the violence.
Stephen Collins, writing for Colby, frames the issues: “Beyond Corchado’s own courageous efforts to illuminate the dark shadows of narco-terrorism and the inability of governments to deal with it, there’s a broader context. How does civil society, both in Mexico and places where the drug violence crosses the border, function with such brutal chaos in its midst? What is the cost of not knowing what’s going on when journalists are prevented from reporting who is killing whom and why they’re getting away with it?”
Important questions, important work.