ICFJ Voices: María Paula Murcia Huertas, Answering Questions Audiences Are Really Asking

By: Stratton Marsh | 03/26/2024

ICFJ is celebrating our 40th anniversary and our long history of supporting journalists. Throughout the year, we will be showcasing network members from around the world.

People searching for information online are faced with a challenge: there is so much information out there that it is often difficult to find resources you need – and to know what to trust. María Paula Murcia Huertas and her Bogotá, Colombia-based news outlet are working on a solution for their community.

With funding and mentorship through ICFJ’s news innovation lab, Murcia Huertas’ team at Mutante developed what it calls the Comments Library. The team systematically gathers comments to Mutante’s social media posts, adding them to a spreadsheet and classifying them by topic. They use this reservoir of topics from users to develop useful coverage and resources, such as support for survivors of gender-based violence and legal resources for those pushed out of their apartments as a result of gentrification.

Murcia Huertas is the analysis and impact editor at Mutante, a digital news outlet that believes in participatory journalism as a tool for social change. She has a unique interdisciplinary approach to journalism, using anthropology in her work to analyze broader cultural and political themes. 

Here’s what Murcia Huertas had to say.

How have you been involved with ICFJ over the years? 

I had the chance to participate and lead Mutante’s team in ICFJ’s Leap program through 2022 and then accompany the development of what we envisioned there during early 2023. The program led to the launch of the Comments’ Library, a product that allows Mutante to facilitate the participatory journalism we promise our audience. It is a tool in which we can register relevant comments that readers post on our social media and offer information to respond to their questions, prejudices, misinformation, debates or recommendations. This way, we can ensure that our journalism responds to people’s actual needs, not only to what we think they need.

What was the biggest outcome from participating in the program?

The biggest outcome of participating was launching a tool that makes it possible to monitor how, when and why we choose to make journalism that is inspired by the actual needs of the people who engage with us. We had the initial goal of answering 20% of the comments we registered in the Library during the first year. As of today, 26% of the comments have been answered with researched and verified journalistic quality content. This means we are achieving what we promised: be a project that has participatory journalism as a maxim.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring journalist?

Listen to what the people who read your work have to say. Make them feel seen. Work in a way that what you publish shows that you take into account the people’s needs. Only then will the issue of mistrust in the media begin to be transformed.

What have you been working on since then?

Working as a team, we have researched useful content for people who engage with us. Some examples include a directory of free or low-cost mental health and legal support for women who have suffered gender-based violence. This research came from a comment on our Instagram profile during coverage of sexual violence against girls in Latin America, in which a woman asked for affordable counseling to work through her trauma from suffering abuse during her childhood.

Another example comes from a series of very similar questions regarding a conversation we sparked around the issue of gentrification that some major Colombian cities are facing: People asked frequently what to do when rent was upped illegally. We researched and published a handbook with strategies on how to combat abusive landlords who were trying to take advantage of gentrification trends to make more money off their rented properties.

Why is it so important right now to provide the kind of support to journalists that ICFJ does, especially in Colombia, and for journalists working on the issues you work on?

Leap equipped us with the theory and the mentoring that we needed to materialize an idea that we had been forming in our heads. It also funded this idea. Without ICFJ’s support, it wouldn’t have been possible in the current state of the media ecosystem in Colombia.

As a country that has to be constantly reporting on really pressing issues, life or death issues literally, other types of ideas or developments remain in the background. Although this is understandable, it doesn’t mean other pathways are not necessary. ICFJ’s support, rather than perpetuating colonizing logic in which organizations from the Global North impose their agendas and ideas on media outlets of the Global South, supports our own ideas and solutions for the context that we live in. This very much increases the chance that the idea will succeed. The support we receive from Leap acknowledges our capacity.

What’s the most impactful/meaningful story that you’ve worked on in your career?

As a journalist, the most impactful and meaningful story I’ve worked on is about a community in northern Amazonia in which there are generations of kids, who are now young adults, who were born with physical malformations because their mothers were sprayed with glyphosate when pregnant, in a time where this herbicide was widely spread in a dosage way higher than advised to eradicate coca crops in the region.

As a journalist and anthropologist, highly influenced by the ethnographic method, probably one of the most meaningful and impactful things I’ve worked on is the Comments’ Library. This tool is the materialization of a method that, although very time-consuming and requiring a lot of attention and manual work, guarantees that the journalism that we do really listens to the people who are interested in it. We care for them. We care for their needs. We are genuinely curious about what they think and say and why they think and say so. The tool makes it easier to keep track.

Do you continue to use what you learned, or to utilize ICFJ resources today? If so, please explain.

Since Leap, I have been in touch with ICFJ, participating in amazing opportunities in events like the Media Party held annually in Buenos Aires. As for the tools that ICFJ provided during Leap, I have been using them to enhance my product management skills.

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