Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab Accepts the Knight International Journalism Award

It was 2012 and violence was intensifying all over Mexico. There I was taking a deep dive through thousands of pages of government records. I was working with New York Times reporter David Barstow, trying to find out if Walmart had paid bribes to open the way to expand in my country.

We were still months away from finding proof when I confided my feelings of guilt. Here I was looking at zoning records and construction permits when my colleagues were documenting violence and cruelty never seen before in Mexico. I felt like a deserter in times of war.

In his soothing voice, David responded: “And who is watching over all the other things that are going on in Mexico?”

After letting this idea settle in, I recovered my determination.

I felt a similar sense of dislocation when I learned that ICFJ was honoring me with the Knight International Journalism Award.

My first thought was, “Why me?” As other colleagues were covering the disappearance of 43 young students, apparently by local police, I was deciding what message to share with you tonight.

I resisted the temptation to point out the many other reporters who may be more worthy of this award.

Instead, I launched an internal audit, unleashing my personal squad of ruthless accountants to examine my own work.

The self-examination went back to clips dated 1992 and on, with stories on migration, corruption, poverty, the drug world and health.

I cannot stress how cruel reading ones’ old stories can be!

I had intuition, but I didn’t have a clue of what a nut graph was all about.

I don’t want to bore you with details of the audit. But some of the thoughts I arrived at allow me to stand before you tonight.

A lot has changed since my years as a young reporter. We now have free elections, access to information laws, and a vigorous and growing community of NGOs and think tanks scrutinizing it all.

Democracy is in the making. But journalism hasn’t served it that well.

As has been the case for decades, many media in Mexico still feed off and serve as a loudspeaker for the voices of a very small elite. They devote time and space to bickering politicians, letting public relations experts dictate the agenda. You would be amazed to see how little attention media pay to issues that really affect the lives of the public.

We are further hindered by the way Mexican media operate. Reporters scramble to hand in three or more stories every day. We have few chances to do basic corroboration, let alone follow up on a lead, or investigate.

Other obstacles to a free press remain. The media depend heavily on government advertising. And of course, they are affected by the corruption and drug-related violence that threaten to silence us all.

Who is looking at all that is going on in Mexico? The internal audit made me realize that this same question has driven me for years. Many other disobedient reporters have also stepped off the well-worn path and are taking a hard look at the tough issues.

I thank my parents for injecting me with curiosity and awe and my husband Jorge for his partnership and loving encouragement. I thank David for reviving my commitment to investigative reporting.

And I thank ICFJ wholeheartedly for this award. I believe it recognizes the work of journalists who still feel a debt to our audiences. Reporters who want to produce independent, rigorous and insightful pieces.

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