Puente: binational, bilingual project aims to cover the border with nuance | US immigration

Editor Bob Moore sits at his desk in El Paso, Texas, and turns up the volume on his Zoom meeting English-language channel, where a simultaneous interpreter helps him understand his Spanish-speaking counterpart, Rocío Gallegos, who also sits at her desk, across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

It’s Monday, time for another editorial meeting at the first binational, bilingual border journalism project in the US – or maybe anywhere.

Called “Puente,” or “bridge”, the newsgathering collaboration consists of seven digital, TV and radio outlets from the area. “We have long talked about El Paso and Ciudad Juárez as being one region,” said Moore, one of the project’s directors. “But this has never been true with journalism.”

That has had consequences. “National media covers the border badly, with a distorted view that comes from what it means in the context of current political views,” said Moore, who was an editor at the El Paso Times for 25 years before one too many corporate-driven budget cuts drove him out of newspapers in 2017 and toward non-profit, digital news.

With most national and international coverage, Moore said: “We lose the richness and nuance of the border.”

The Puente Media Collaborative hopes to change that, and the project, only several months old, may have come about at just the right time, as the subject of immigration has once again centered national and international attention on the region.

The idea came about during the pandemic, said Gallegos, when she talked to Moore about Covid restrictions on crossing the border that were stopping her from sending reporters to El Paso. “You can’t cross the border; I can’t either,” she remembers telling him. They began discussing collaborating on reporting.

Gallegos had also led Juárez’s main newspaper, El Diario de Juárez, until 2018. She then became director at La Verdad, or The Truth, a digital outlet – mirroring Moore, who launched the website, El Paso Matters, in 2019.

Their ideas on joining forces got a boost in October when their project proposal received $300,000 in funding plus technical support from Microsoft, as part of an initiative focused on supporting local journalism that includes outlets in Mississippi’s Delta region, Yakima, Washington, and Fresno, California – and aimed at helping counteract the loss of 2,100 newspapers in the last 15 years.

Puente’s journalists recently released their first stories on the impact of Covid on the region, a year into living with the pandemic – including how border restrictions have affected drug trafficking, and what it means to tighten border crossing in a region that normally sees 50,000 people go back and forth for work and other reasons. There was also a story on how the two countries squandered opportunities to face Covid together.

Next, Moore said, “we will be looking at immigration – through a different lens than most of the national media”. The newsgathering itself has been different, since reporters have been collaborating on sources and ideas, and gathering information in both languages. While a final decision hasn’t been reached, Moore thinks the upcoming stories on immigration may be written in Spanish, and translated into English.

The collaboration has also led to sharing perspectives on how to frame stories. Gallegos pointed to a recent editorial planning meeting on the upcoming immigration stories. Shoe-leather reporting had already been done in both cities. Discussion turned to sending cameras from Channel 26, the local Univision affiliate and Puente partner, to federal government shelters where children who had crossed the border are being kept.

“We were sensitive to what they had been through,” Gallegos said, adding that many were indigenous people who spoke neither Spanish nor English. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t victimize or traumatize them once again” with a camera crew, she said. The Mexican journalists “had a better grasp of what their lives are like”, said Moore. The camera crew agreed to approach the assignment with care.

Kathleen Staudt, former professor of political science at the University of Texas, El Paso, and author of nine books on the border, said that she hopes the Puente Media Collaborative provides a lens from the other side of the border, since “too often Mexico is portrayed as the ‘other’” in English-language media.”

Brenda de Anda-Swann, news director and 22-year veteran at the El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA – and part of Puente – said “the people who are part of this collaborative have worked on the border for a long, long time … We trust each other. This doesn’t feel unfamiliar, while at the same time it is new.”

She said that her news station’s participation in the project will give the outlet “some time to sit back, explore how things work, why they’re happening” – without turning attention away from the news of the day, such as a recent dust storm.

Working in collaboration with La Verdad “reflects who we are as a community”, she added. “Having newsrooms on both sides of the border is a perfect reflection of the community, on a personal, business and political level.”

She hopes to see the project “bridging the communities through storytelling and information”, and that it serves to “provide best practices for other parts of the world”.

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