Media Downplay Social Movements, Study of Mexico Massacre Coverage Shows

Disenfranchised college students in Mexico were ignored by the news media during the deadly protests of 1968, a new study shows. And because students didn't have Facebook and YouTube, they used the social media of their time – posters, street theater and songs – to oppose policies of the authoritarian government.

At the time, Mexico was the first country to broadcast the Summer Olympics live and in color, and it was an opportunity for the government and media to portray the country as modern and progressive. However, a growing student movement opposed inequities in Mexico, particularly when the country was spending $176 million (U.S. dollars) to host the Olympics while half the population of Mexico City lived in squatter settlements.

On Oct. 2, 1968, when college students and other citizens protested, Mexican troops converged on the Plaza de Tlatelolco and began shooting. An estimated 500 people were killed and thousands injured in the Tlatelolco Massacre.

Celeste González de Bustamante, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Journalism, traveled to Mexico City to study the television reports, archived at Grupo Televisa's news archive, for newscasts aired before and after the massacre. González de Bustamante is the only U.S. scholar to be granted access to and conduct research at this archive. Grupo Televisa is the country's largest TV network and the world's largest Spanish-speaking network.

Her content analysis, published in the current issue of the journal Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, indicates that broadcast journalists rarely included the students' protests in their stories. They didn't mention the large demonstration planned at the university, focusing instead on coverage of the Olympic Games.

The night of the massacre, Channel 2 in Mexico City aired stories about the Pope, the Baseball World Series and the upcoming Olympic ceremony, but nothing about the massacre in their own city. By 11:30 p.m. that night, Channel 4 aired a story about the killings, focusing on a few injured police officers. Most of the sources were officials from the military or government.

"For decades citizens have criticized members of the media for downplaying the massacre at Tlatelolco, and this study offers some hard evidence, showing exactly how this happened. As a historical study, this research is also important for understanding how the media in Mexico have changed since 1968," González de Bustamante said.

Because opposing messages were not being aired on television, protesters turned to non-mainstream newspapers and even street theater to voice their opinions. They created art and posters criticizing government corruption, and they sang songs and chanted in the streets.

González de Bustamante said the lessons learned from 1968 Mexico can be applied today in the U.S., where the mainstream media might ignore people who challenge the government. Undocumented migrants, for example, are rarely included in media stories about Arizona's immigration laws, such as Senate Bill 1070.

"Like those students involved in the protests in ‘68, Arizona youth are getting their messages out through alternative means of communication," González de Bustamante said. "In this case, they are using social media and Internet websites such as altoarizona.com, a grass roots campaign to overturn SB 1070."

González de Bustamante said that through these alternative means of communication, citizens are creating their own hybrid messages about social struggle. Further, she said, "their messages don't necessarily coincide with the messages being disseminated by big media."

Journalists should take a close look at themselves to see who they are promoting and who they are excluding, González de Bustamante said. Despite the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, which urges reporters to "Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so," and to "Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid," sometimes journalists fall short.

González de Bustamante's research includes the history and development of television news in Latin America, primarily Mexico and Brazil. She worked as an anchor, producer and reporter for 15 years in commercial and public television before joining the UA where she teaches television news reporting and covering the border.

The study: Gonzalez de Bustamante, C. (2010). 1968 Olympic Dreams and Tlatelolco Nightmares: Imagining and Imaging Modernity on Television. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 26(1), 1-30.
By University Communications June 9, 2010