Tijuana, Mexico — one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with 141 homicides in January 2022 alone — two of them journalists. “Risk and Reward” sets out to discover what drives the city’s journalists to keep reporting in such a volatile environment, and whether their work has a lasting impact on their target audience. Through the lens of Angeles García, a veteran photojournalist who gave up a job taking wedding photos to document crime for one of Tijuana’s papers, the package seeks to show the physical and emotional toll of such coverage, and how the community responds to the reporting.
To achieve that, the package combines graphic-novel style artwork with long-form journalism to engage readers and elevate the emotional elements of the piece. The artwork had to act both as a visual bridge to an earlier package “The Mechanism,” which exposed the vulnerability of Mexico’s media, and to the various assets in “Risk and Reward” including infographics and animated scenes replicated for the video element.
Planning and detailed conversations between the lead reporter, editor and illustrator were key to the project. Lead reporter Cristina Caicedo Smit conveyed details from her interviews to inform the direction of the artwork and assist VOA illustrator Brian Williamson with forming realistic renderings of key scenes.
The artwork acted as a jumping off point for the story, with a dramatic moment recounted in interviews used as a device to introduce the reader to the main person profiled, and the core themes of the package,
Preliminary interviews with journalists and contacts in the city helped pinpoint the people to profile and the key issues: a distrust of authorities; efforts within the journalist community to protect themselves; and community groups who relied on and benefited from media coverage on crime.
To ensure a personal viewpoint, the feature focused on core interviewees: a photojournalist covering crime; a community watch leader who could address how media fostered trust and discussion between citizens and police; and a victim support group member who exemplifies both the impact crime and violence has on Tijuana residents, and how journalism helped ensure that survivors have access to support and resources.
Before Caicedo Smit traveled to Tijuana in April 2022, the team had extensive discussions around locations, preliminary interviews, and how artwork would be incorporated.
At VOA, comics are used as a way of pushing visual journalism and connecting with a younger audience. As a low bandwidth alternative to video, and a medium that works well across browsers and devices, the style allows VOA to not only create a defining style to its features, but also content that adapts easily for use by the network’s 40-plus languages.
When Caicedo Smit filed her first draft, she, Williamson and lead editor Jessica Jerreat identified sections that would translate well in that style, and Williamson provided sketches to determine composition and flow. This helped identify visual questions the team needed to answer. Caicedo Smit followed up with the sources to secure details including their location at key points in the narrative as well as what they remembered seeing and feeling.
From there, the sketches evolved into detailed illustrations.
The artwork further allowed the package to relay traumatic or emotionally heavy aspects of the project that would be difficult to present through photography. An example being the descriptions of trauma from lead character García, as she described flashbacks to scenes of murder and torture that she was tasked with photographing.
With media killings on the rise in 2022, the feature offered a different and very personalized route into the usual coverage of violence directed at Mexico’s journalists, and worked to underscore the important role that local journalism plays in keeping communities informed, and in some cases, safe.
Released simultaneously on VOA’s websites English and Spanish, the package featured in the VOA 5pm newscast of El Mundo al Dia—a show that regularly attracts audiences across platforms of about 49,000.
An interview with Caicedo Smit on her reporting for the feature appears in a media freedom edition of VOA’s Inside Story news magazine broadcast in November 2022, and Caicedo Smit discussed her findings during a panel for the Society of Professional Journalists conference in Washington, D.C. in late 2022.
After publication, García, the main journalist profiled in the piece, contacted VOA to say she had received numerous emails and calls about the feature and her work. Her newspaper featured the article in its internal newsletter, saying:
“Through an interview told in a series of extraordinary and various digital formats, the great work of our fellow photojournalist … is recognized, a woman who has been a first-row witness through her lens of the violence that for years whips our country.
This great example also serves to remind us that sometimes we don't we have to go too far to tell stories, and in our editorial house there are real legends of the trade, we just need to find the right way to tell their stories."
With media killings on the rise in 2022, the feature offered a visually striking and different take on the usual coverage of violence against Mexico’s journalists, and worked to underscore the role that local journalism plays in keeping communities informed and in some cases safe.