What Drives the Brave Journalists in ‘Reportero’?

Reportero is a must-see documentary that forcefully demonstrates the importance of the press.

A frank confession to begin: I don’t always support the freedom of the press.

There are some days, for instance, when I turn on CNN or Fox News and wonder how sensationalism and speculation can be accepted as news. I attribute my general disposition to the 24 hour news cycle in the United States and more recently, the lynch-mob mentality that spreads throughout Twitter. Then comes along a documentary like Reportero (2013) to remind me once again of the significance of the media’s legal right to report information to a mass public.

The documentary, which premiered on PBS on 7 January 2013 in association with the network’s POV series, focuses on Zeta, a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, and the difficulties its writers and editors face when trying to deliver the news. As the film shows, more than 50 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2006 December, when former President Felipe Calderón launched a government offense against Mexico’s drug cartels and organized crime groups.

The newspaper’s intention is to expose the corruption of the drug cartels and government in Mexico. Founded in 1980 by Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor Félix Miranda, Zeta is independently owned and at the time differed from most Mexican media by being one of the few publications not controlled by the Mexican government. In one fascinating scene, we are told that Blancornelas and Miranda initially decided to print the newspaper in California to ensure that the Mexican government didn’t intervene and censor its pages. The Mexican government regulates the paper manufacturers in Mexico, and if they don’t approve of what is being printed, they won’t distribute the material.

As a result, the journalists associated with Zeta risk their lives to present the truth. In some cases, reporters for Zeta have been murdered for doing so. Miranda, for example, was shot to death by individuals who worked for Jorge Hank Rhon, the son of one of Mexico’s most powerful families, on 20 April 1988. As the documentary notes, Rhon was never investigated and ended up becoming the Mayor of Tijuana.

However, the film is less concerned with exploring Mexican politics and instead focuses closely on the intentions and ideology of Zeta. Bernardo Ruiz has written, directed, and produced a powerful portrait of individuals who aren’t afraid of speaking out, and Reportero should serve as a testament to the brave men and women in Mexico who fight to distribute the truth in a sea of propaganda. If the American media has forgotten that it has a responsibility to its people—and I think it has—then the Mexican reporters who work for Zeta remind us of the importance of journalistic integrity.

Like most programs on PBS, Reportero aims to be both educational and entertaining. For the most part, it succeeds. The documentary depicts an important part of Mexican history clearly and concisely for students to follow, but at 72 minutes, it also moves like an intense thriller. Therefore, if you’re familiar with the history or don’t particularly feel like engaging on an intellectual level, you’ll still be moved by stories of the reporters’ courage and resilience.

The majority of Reportero is in Spanish, and the English subtitles are presented in all-white lettering, making it difficult to decipher the words on the screen. This obviously isn’t the filmmaker’s fault, but the subtitles are frustratingly barely intelligible. I don’t speak Spanish and found myself missing significant portions of the dialogue, and I wish that those responsible would have used easier to read yellow lettering for the subtitles, instead.

However, the DVD more than makes up for this by providing a discussion guideline and lesson plan for teachers who wish to use the film in their classrooms (or those who want to learn on their own time). By simply inserting the DVD into a computer’s DVD player, a teacher will be given instant access to these useful materials that can supplement a classroom screening. The discussion guideline and lesson plan should be of particular interest to journalism courses and Mexican history courses.

Ultimately, Reportero is a must-see documentary that forcefully demonstrates the significance of the press. Journalists are often the unspoken heroes of this world, and although some waste their careers covering Casey Anthony murder cases and Woody Allen scandals, there are many who try to change the world one published article at a time. The reporters for Zeta are among them.

RATING 6 / 10