UTEP journalism students learn real-life lessons in the field

Stephanie Sanchez

UTEP

It’s a story that affects the entire border region and beyond.

Journalists from across the country have traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to write about the relentless violence that

Zita Arocha

has plagued Mexico, specifically border cities. Among the topics that expose life in these violence-ridden areas is the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of residents to safe havens.

Many newspapers have touched the exodus, but few have extensively covered the topic. One student project, run by faculty at The University of Texas at El Paso, did just that. 

For nine months, half a dozen professors and members of investigative journalism groups from both sides of the border worked with nearly 100 students to create “Mexodus,” an elaborate project with photos, videos and investigative stories published on Borderzine, a UTEP student online publication. The student journalists documented the flight of middle class families, professionals and businesses to the U.S. and safer areas in Mexico.

“Nobody was really looking, in a large scope, (at) all these people fleeing … we have been seeing it here in our daily lives, in terms of restaurants, businesses, soccer fields and in schools,” said Zita Arocha, director of Borderzine and one of the masterminds of the project. “To me the most important part of this project was having collaboration from professors and students from across the border. That’s unprecedented.”

The students and faculty were from UTEP, California State University Northridge, and Technológico de Monterrey in Chihuahua and Mexico City. They received training from Investigative Reporters and Editors and Fundación MEPI in Mexico City.

Each student reported on various topics of the issue specific to their region. The U.S. students were not allowed to cross into Mexico, but some Mexican sources traveled to El Paso to speak to them. The Mexican students reported from safe locations.

However, even with the formal training from seasoned journalists, the students had to overcome many challenges to tell the story. Many had to file Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests and compile data from various sources because there are no statistics about the exodus, Arocha said.

Aaron Martinez, a UTEP print media senior and editor-in-chief of The Prospector, the University’s newspaper, said this was one of the most challenging projects he has worked on. He said not many people wanted to speak with him for fear of retaliation, and he had to file FOIA requests to get information from El Paso school districts.

“It was really hard because usually for the stories I write for the student newspaper, the sources are willing to talk,” said Martinez, who wrote a story about the number of students from Mexico enrolled in El Paso school districts. “It was really a good learning experience to see how to cover something like this and how reporters deal with sensitive subjects.”

Perhaps the most sensitive story was one about a teenage girl who was kidnapped in Juárez and now struggles to fit in at a U.S. public school. Mariel Torres, a UTEP multimedia senior, covered the story.

“My story was about a girl who got kidnapped and lives here now … She told me about her story, and it was pretty intense,” she said. “I searched for this story. At first, I couldn’t find anybody (to talk to) and then I found her. It makes me feel proud. It makes me like journalism.”

Torres said she learned many valuable lessons while participating in this project. The biggest: going through all the steps to get to the story and giving the story justice.

The stories written will be published in a special section of the El Paso Times on Aug. 7. Other newspapers also have reported about the project, including The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle.

For more information on the project, visit http://mexodus.borderzine.com/.

 

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