Dangerous Assignments: How Mexican Journalist Stay Alive

MexicanJournalismBy Barbara Gutierrez
UM News

Her body was found on the side of a roadway on February 9, 2016—hands and feet bound and a plastic bag over her head.

Only two days earlier, Anabel Flores Salazar, mother of two, had been snatched from her home in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, by armed assailants. Now she was dead. Murdered. And her story was a familiar one: A crime-beat reporter for the newspaper El Sol de Orizaba, Salazar had suffered the same fate of scores of Mexican journalists killed over the past few years for covering news about crime, corruption, and drug cartels in their country.

How has an almost-certain death sentence for simply reporting the truth affected the way Mexican journalists practice their craft?

That is at the heart of a first-of-its-kind study by a University of Miami scholar and research partners in Mexico who spent nearly three years studying the problem.


In Mexico, 81 journalists were murdered and 18 disappeared between 2000 and 2014, according to the Mexico City office of the London-based free expression advocate Article 19, with the numbers continuing to increase. Article 19 has also reported that 2016 has been one of the deadliest years for journalists on record. In recent years, media headquarters have been attacked with grenades or gunfire with widespread impunity.

Sallie Hughes, an associate professor in UM’s School of Communication, and her colleagues Mireya Marquéz-Ramírez of the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City and Marco Lara Klahr of the Media and Violence Program of the non-profit Instituto de Justicia Procesal Penal in Mexico City, surveyed nearly 380 Mexican journalists, asking them to report on the types of measures they use to reduce the risk of reprisals and direct threats carried out against them for covering certain types of news stories.

Among their findings: Nearly 68 percent of the journalists surveyed had practiced self-censorship, more than 64 percent abandon street reporting, and over 57 percent adhere to their media organization’s censorship policies. Half (50.3 percent) of the Mexican journalists surveyed reported hiding sensitive information from “suspicious people or untrustworthy colleagues in their own newsrooms,” according to the study.

The study was presented at the UNESCO Conference on Journalist Safety last May in Helsinki, Finland, at the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day ceremonies, and will appear in a UNESCO book on journalist safety expected next year.

In Mexico, 81 journalists were murdered and 18 disappeared between 2000 and 2014, according to the Mexico City office of the London-based free expression advocate Article 19, with the numbers continuing to increase. Article 19 has also reported that 2016 has been one of the deadliest years for journalists on record. In recent years, media headquarters have been attacked with grenades or gunfire with widespread impunity.

“I have always been impressed and humbled by journalists in Mexico and Latin America and the conditions they work in,” said Hughes, author of Newsrooms in Conflict: Journalism and the Democratization of Mexico. “It’s a vocation, a passion for many of these journalists, but at some point the violence and threats become too much.”

For Marcos Hernández Bautista, his sensitive reporting in Oaxaca that included covering “cacicazgos,” local strongmen who rule parts of the region, came at a high price. The 38-year-old reporter for the daily Noticias, Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca was fatally shot as he climbed into his car last January. His friends told police that he often lived in fear.

The collaborative study by Hughes, Marquéz-Ramírez and Lara Klahr also found that some Mexican journalists, in an attempt to avoid the same fate suffered by Hernández Bautista, publish stories important for their communities anonymously on social media platforms, hoping they will not be tracked down.

Others in states such as Veracruz and Guerrero—two of the worst regions in Mexico because of the prevalence of violent drug cartels and hardline local politicians—report the news by sticking to what official police reports say. And in some instances, journalists do not publish anything at all, according to the study.

Aside from anti-press violence, economic pressures also force journalists to silence critical stories and voices. Journalists who support norms of using their profession to promote social change for the public good feel the pressures the most, according to the study.

Marquéz-Ramírez said the study could spur other researchers to conduct their own investigations and help Mexican journalists determine what changes they need to make to their profession.

“It can help policymakers and civil society organizations to better understand complex phenomena such as the decline of free press and the vulnerability of journalists in some areas,” said Marquéz-Ramírez, who coordinates Programa PRENDE in the Department of Communications at Universidad Iberoamericana Mexico City, an initiative in which local journalists attend a semester of studies in their field. “The general public can have a glimpse into the other side of media content and the world of journalists in Mexico. These are people who face a great deal of pressure and difficulty on a daily basis.”

Mexico is not the only country where journalists are deliberately targeted. So far in 2016, 17 journalists have been murdered worldwide, but many of those killings, points out Hughes, occurred in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria. Mexico and some other countries in Latin America, notably Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, stand out, she said, because they are democracies and have a free press that struggles to work autonomously while facing high levels of threat and risk. While the situation has improved somewhat for journalists in Colombia, the danger in Mexico continues unabated. And those who murder journalists in Mexico seem to carry out their deeds with absolute impunity, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

Hughes, Marquéz-Ramírez, and Lara Klahr’s collaborative research study took almost three years to conduct, with interviews being conducted in person and via Skype. The researchers compiled a 1200-plus directory of media outlets from across the country and drew a stratified random sample of 130 media outlets. From there 377 journalists were selected systematically and interviewed.

Winning the trust of the journalists took time, but once the study was explained very few declined to participate, said Hughes.

Read this story in Spanish.

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UM Focuses Medical Might on Zika

By Robert S. Benchley
Special to UM News

Mario Stevenson

Mario Stevenson

Mosquito-borne transmission of the Zika virus appeared in South Florida just recently, but at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, forward-thinking researchers and clinicians began preparing for its arrival a year ago.

That’s when David Watkins, Ph.D., Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pathology, who researches diseases in Latin America where the infections were reaching epidemic proportions, first sounded the alarm about the potential consequences in South Florida.

He was correct to be concerned. There are now 42 confirmed locally acquired infections, including the first case just documented in Pinellas County, on Florida’s west coast.

Watkins’ colleagues heeded his call months before the World Health Organization declared Zika an international public health emergency, and before experts confirmed the virus was responsible for the surging number of newborns with abnormally small heads. They stopped thinking of Zika as a potential travel risk and began preparing to battle a possible outbreak here at home.

As a result, UHealth physicians are already busy counseling prospective parents and treating pregnant women, and UM scientists are working overtime to bring diagnostic and therapeutic responses from the laboratory to the clinic — some possibly by the end of this year.

Testing for the threat
One of them is Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of medicine, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Institute of AIDS and Emerging Infectious Diseases, whose laboratory has developed a diagnostic blood test for Zika that costs a fraction of current tests, delivers results quickly, and can be performed on the spot in any hospital or outpatient clinic.

Right now the seven currently approved tests cost $100 to $150, have to be evaluated in a commercial laboratory, and require a wait of several days before a patient receives the results.

“That’s far too expensive for a couple in a developing country who want to have children — especially if they require multiple testing — and far too long for them to wait to learn if one of them is carrying the virus, which experts now know can be transmitted through sex,” said Stevenson. “Even here in Florida, where the Department of Health is offering free testing, the growing demand is putting a real time strain on the few laboratories that do the work.”

Zika was first isolated in 1947 and long considered benign and confined to Africa; its name comes from the Zika Forest in Uganda, where it was discovered.

Stevenson’s extremely sensitive test, which can detect the DNA of the Zika virus at the earliest stage of infection, would cost about one-tenth of current tests, with results ready in an hour. An investor is already waiting to market the test, and the only remaining hurdle is the application for FDA approval.

A video of Stevenson talking about Zika virus research is available here.

Watkins and two researchers from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology — Sylvia Daunert, Pharm.D., M.S., Ph.D., professor and holder of the Lucille P. Markey Chair, and Sapna Deo, Ph.D., M.S., associate professor, and their team — have developed an even simpler, cheaper test. Potentially priced as low as $2, it requires no processing from a lab. Using a paper strip containing selective antibodies from the Watkins lab that bind to the virus obtained from Zika-infected patients, it delivers a simple “yes” or “no” verdict as to whether the virus is present, or whether the patient has ever been exposed to it.

“It’s completely simple,” said Daunert. “It can be used either in a physician’s office or by health care workers in remote rural locations where there are no hospitals or clinics. But in the process we are also developing a platform that can be customized for different viruses — it’s not just for Zika — because different ones are going to keep popping up.”

After completing the test development, which is still several months away, Watkins and Daunert will apply for a patent and begin seeking investors to bring it to market.

Preventing a pandemic
Watkins, working with Miller School colleague Ronald C. Desrosiers, Ph.D., professor of pathology, and investigators at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is also taking a preventive approach using antibodies from Zika patients.

“We could inject the antibodies into a woman prior to pregnancy to protect both the mother and the fetus,” he said, “or it could be done after infection, when it would bind to the virus and reduce replication.”

Still, he said, “therapeutic antibodies need to go through Phase I and Phase II trials, which will take one or two years. It’s not a quick fix.”

Another Miller School researcher is taking a classic vaccine approach, with a novel twist.

“Rather than using an attenuated live virus for vaccinations — an approach used for decades with other diseases, but which carries some risk — a Zika vaccine would incorporate only certain components of the virus, specifically the envelope portion, for patient safety,” said Glen N. Barber, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cell Biology. “We are also looking at the mechanisms of how Zika overcomes the immune system to infect the host.”

Barber, however, believes developing the vaccine won’t be the hardest part of the task.

“I think it will be relatively easy to develop a vaccine,” he said, “and the animal studies will be completed this year. What will be more difficult will be determining how to scale up for vaccinating the population at large.”

Physicians on the front lines
In UM’s clinics, where UHealth physicians are on the front lines in the fight against Zika, obstetricians and gynecologists have been caring for pregnant women who were infected with Zika both abroad and at home. Now they are gearing up to expand their services.

“We are beginning a wrap-around neonatal and pediatric care clinic for women who have been infected with Zika during their pregnancies to ensure that during pregnancy and after delivery mothers and infants receive the care that they need,” said Christine L. Curry, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who over the months has had many conversations “with men, pregnant women and non-pregnant women about mosquito-bite prevention and prevention of sexual transmission.

“They’ve heard about it on the news and are asking what they can do to prevent Zika infection, either during pregnancy or before pregnancy,” she said. “If women are pregnant and living in Miami, we want them to avoid, if feasible, the areas where we know mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission is ongoing, so currently that’s Wynwood and parts of Miami Beach. In addition, no matter where they live or work in the city, we want them to wear mosquito repellant every time they leave the house, long pants and long sleeves, and do their best to remove all the standing water in their neighborhood. For both the partners and the patients, the exact same advice holds.”

Curry notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women delay conception for two months from the time of a known or suspected Zika infection, and that men wait at least six months.

As such, she encourages women who are pregnant to be tested for Zika, and those who are planning a pregnancy to consult with their primary care provider. She recommends anyone who is experiencing Zika symptoms — fever, joint pain, muscle pain, red eyes or a rash — be evaluated by their primary care provider or at the emergency room.

A video of Curry talking about the Zika virus is available here.

Gearing up for the Zika virus on the clinical side has required many meetings and phone conferences within and among leaders of UHealth, Jackson Memorial Hospital and the VA Medical Center. Thomas M. Hooton, M.D., professor of clinical medicine and Medical Director of UHealth Infection Control, says dealing with all potentially large-scale public health threats ultimately comes down to two elements — education and communication.

“In the case of Zika virus, we must first educate our physicians and employees about how to keep themselves safe — personal protection and environmental issues — so they can be protected,” he said. “That includes our employees who work outdoors, and we have been providing special guidance to them.

“Then, on the clinical side, we also need to educate all clinicians and staff about how to identify, counsel and treat patients who may have Zika based on their symptoms or travel history. We also need to educate our patients to heighten their awareness about Zika and to encourage them to let their provider know of any concerns or questions they may have.”

Other concerns, which have received little media attention, he notes, include the blood supply, organ donation and in vitro fertilization.

“These are the issues that keep us talking to one another,” Hooton said. “Continued education and communication, until long-term solutions can emerge from the lab, are critical in keeping the Zika threat under control.”

Talking to the kids
Communication and education are also essential for parents and school officials who, in the face of the Zika threat, may be dealing with more than the normal back-to-school anxieties. Jill Ehrenreich-May, associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, says that even in the face of perceived danger, such as having a pregnant mom who needs to stay indoors, parents should reassure their children that the adults have everything covered.

“If a parent responds to the threat of Zika by hiding in the house and worrying about every puddle of water on the ground, the impact is probably going to feel bigger, more intense, and more problematic to both the parent and child,” she said. “If the threat isn’t acute to you or your family, it is important to be mindful that you as a parent are not accidentally reinforcing unnecessary avoidance behavior.”

The economic impact
Local and state officials are understandably jittery over the potential impact the locally transmitted outbreak could have on Miami-Dade County’s $36 billion tourism industry, and beyond.

Arun Sharma, Ph.D., professor of marketing at the UM School of Business Administration, expects it to be minimal since the greatest risk is to pregnant women, or those expecting to get pregnant. For now, the CDC is advising pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy to avoid Miami-Dade County altogether, so, Sharma said, “most tourists shrugged off the possible effects of Zika.”

But new concerns about Zika are being raised almost on a daily basis. CDC Director Tom Frieden noted that aerial spraying cannot be conducted amid high rises and sea breezes, so fighting Zika on Miami Beach will be more challenging than in Wynwood. A recent medical research report based on experiments on mice suggests that Zika may also affect adult brain cells critical to learning and memory.

And, if the outbreak grows, news about Zika on South Florida’s most popular tourist destination will continue to be broadcast across the country and around the world.

“So, what are the expectations for tourism and the local economy?” Sharma asked. “In the short-term it should be minimal. However, if the negative coverage of Zika in Miami increases and/or if countries start providing travel advisories suggesting that their citizens not visit Miami, the drop in tourism may be steep, negatively affecting the economy. The concern is not the young, who will continue coming. The concern is the middle-aged and older tourists who typically are more sensitive to health issues and may avoid Miami.”

But for Curry and other public health specialists, the Zika virus must be everybody’s concern and responsibility.

“While there is a focus on prevention of Zika in pregnancy, it’s the responsibility of every one of us to wear our bug spray, to wear our long sleeves and long pants, and to remove standing water because we cannot protect the pregnant women in our community if we are not all doing our part,” Curry said.

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Elections Course Brings ‘Living History’ to Students

As the first guest speaker, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen urged the class to register for the Nov. 8 election

 By Barbara Gutierrez
UM News


From left, Professor Casey Klofstad, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtien, and pollster Fernand Amandi throw up the U at the first session of the 2016 Election Course.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 24, 2016)—As an aspiring journalist, UM senior Margot Woll signed up for the 2016 Election Course because she feels she should know more about the upcoming presidential election. But her mind is made up; she will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Rachel Barrales, a senior from California, wants to know what the candidates’ views are on the economy and education. And Nathan Seidle, a 19-year-old sophomore and supporter of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, was lured to the course hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Political Science because it is only offered once every four years.

About 270 students signed up for the course, which held at Storer Auditorium on Tuesday nights combines lectures with talks by prominent guest speakers. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was Tuesday night’s lead-off speaker and students welcomed the longtime Republican congresswoman with loud applause. She urged the students to vote.

“Thank goodness we live in a country where we can elect our leaders,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “It hurts me to say that I cannot vote for my party’s leader. I cannot vote for him, I would not be able to sleep at night.”

Instead of supporting Trump, Ros-Lehtinen plans to write in the name of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two former Republican presidents. Ros-Lehtinen spent half an hour talking about her experience in Congress where she has served for the past 27 years, and took pictures with some of her interns who are UM students, as well as many others who lined up to talk to her.

Political Science Professor Joseph Uscinski, who is one of the four teachers of the course, was not surprised by the enthusiasm in the room.

“Students watch what is going on in the news and all they hear is a lot of nastiness,” said Uscinski. “They are millennials who want to understand fully what is going on.”

UM instructor Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi International, was in charge of the evening’s class, which was a mixture of lecture, stand-up comedy, and instant polling. Using clickers or classroom response devices, students answered questions posed on an overhead projector. The instant poll showed that 50 percent of the class would vote for Clinton, 17 percent for Trump, and the rest would either support the libertarian ticket or are undecided.

“You are all very fortunate to be in Florida and Miami-Dade County,” Amandi told the class. ”You are living history and it is very possible that Miami-Dade could decide the presidential election.”

Amandi spoke about the importance of Florida as a “swing state” in the presidential election. Using TV news clips from most of the major television stations, rock music, and animated videos, he also gave an overview of the U.S. president’s duties and role in a democratic society, the roles of Congress and the judicial branch of the government, and the many variables that can affect the outcome of the November election.

He showed a slide depicting all the available polls, which put Clinton in the lead.

“If the election were held today, Hillary Clinton would win but there are 77 days until Election Day,” Amandi said. “A lot can happen between now and then.”

Other instructors for the class are Professor Casey Klofstad of the Political Science Department and Rudy Fernandez, chief of staff to UM President Julio Frenk and vice president of government and community relations at UM.


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The University Explores More Flexible Work Options

When Geraldine “Gerry” Slawek looks for a new hospital coder for her department, the candidate’s distance from campus, or the threat of an ominous commute never comes to mind. Slawek heads up a department of 20 hospital coders, most of whom work from home.

“Telecommuting really expands our reach to find great talent. It’s a morale booster, and it also allows us to keep our best people,” said Slawek, director of outpatient coding at UHealth.

Flexible work arrangements are not new at the University of Miami, but are used sporadically and, for the past seven years, offered mostly through the popular flexible summer workweek program to some employees. But that may change.

Nerissa Morris, vice president of human resources, is looking to expand workplace flexibility beyond one season and has appointed an employee work group, which meets every two weeks, to assess existing policies and practices and identify new structures for workplace flexibility that can create new options across the University.

“We want to take a new approach in meeting the needs of the workforce and operations through the development of competitive and relevant strategies and policies for workplace flexibility,” said Morris.

The goal is to provide a set of guidelines and recommendations to leadership this fall. Employees who have experience with flexible work arrangements at UM are encouraged to share their story by completing a brief questionnaire.

“Flexible arrangements can work really well if done correctly,” Slawek said. “Leaders should look at their management controls and put structures in place before attempting to implement telecommuting agreements.”

Slawek established guidelines and expectations to ensure that work continues to run smoothly. New team members participate in a minimum 60-day onboarding period where they are evaluated on quality, production, and communication.

Melissa Pino, HR manager at the Miller School of Medicine and a member of the employee work group, is excited to share her experience as a full-time telecommuter.

Six months ago, when she learned that she had to move to Nashville, Tennessee, she was both excited and devastated.

“I really didn’t want to leave the University, which I love,” said Pino.

Today, Pino continues her same routine each day before going to work. She says the only thing that’s changed is the view from her office.

“We have a scheduled call every Monday morning to discuss projects,” Pino said. “There is also open communication via email, calls, and text messages throughout the week. And I have regular one-on-one’s with my boss.”

“I’m always connected to the U, regardless of where I am,” she said.



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Darwin’s Theory Holds for Coral

Researchers used a state-of-the-art computer model developed by UM Associate Professor Claire Paris

MIAMI, Fla. (August 23, 2016)—An international team of scientists used a state-of-the-art computer model, a high-powered supercomputer, and five billion ‘virtual’ coral larvae to test Charles Darwin’s 1880 hypothesis that marine species cannot cross the Eastern Pacific’s “impassable” marine barrier. The team, which included  Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Associate Professor Claire Paris, found that Darwin’s theory still holds true even under extreme El Niño conditions known to speed up ocean currents.

To trace the journey of coral larvae transported by ocean currents in the Eastern Pacific Barrier, a 4,000-mile stretch of ocean that separates the central from the eastern Pacific Ocean, researchers from University of Bristol and Penn State University used Paris’ biophysical model on Bristol University’s BlueCrystal supercomputer to simulate five billion model ‘larvae’ from 636 remote reefs traveling on ocean currents over a 14-and-a-half year period.

“This work wouldn’t have been possible until recently because of the computer power, the climate data, and the probabilistic biophysical model necessary to find some robust modeling results,” said Paris, a coauthor of the study. Her open-source software, called the Connectivity Modeling System, simulates the movement of larvae in the ocean by currents and incorporates aspects of their biology, such as development and death.

The simulations showed that even in extreme environmental events, such as the 1997-1998 El Niño that accelerated ocean currents, coral larvae could not survive long enough to make the trip from coral reefs in the western and central Pacific to help corals in the east recover from recent environmental damage. The findings also have been confirmed by genetic analysis.

“Whether coral reefs can survive the pressure of climate change as well as local stresses will depend to a large extent on the ability of coral to reproduce and disperse, to replenish damaged populations, migrate from deteriorating conditions and colonize new frontiers,” said Sally Wood, a coral reef researcher at the University of Bristol and lead author of the paper. “So it’s important to map where coral are able to get to.”

The results of the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, indicate that vulnerable coral populations in the eastern tropical Pacific have been completely isolated from the rest of the Pacific Ocean for at least the past two decades. The findings provide important information to conservation efforts for the economically and environmentally important coral reefs in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

“While genetic data can tell us the degree to which coral reefs are related, the model reveals the processes by which larval connectivity or barrier to their dispersal happens,” Paris said. “This is important for effective conservation measures.”

Reefs provide habitats for one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and they are extremely economically important for fisheries, coastal protection, tourism, the aquarium trade, and as sources for new pharmaceuticals. The reefs in the eastern Pacific that we study are particularly important because they survive in inhospitable conditions, and understanding how they do this could be critical when designing strategies for reef conservation as climates continue to change.

The team found that even during the record-breaking El Niño of 1998, coral larvae could not survive long enough to make the trip from reefs in the central Pacific to those in the east. These findings support the opinion of Charles Darwin, who considered this intimidating expanse of open ocean “impassable” and counter recent arguments that the “East Pacific Barrier”must be breachable since the same coral species are found on both sides.

The study, titled “El Niño and coral larval dispersal across the Eastern Pacific marine Barrier,” was published online August 23 in the journal Nature Communications. The study’s coauthors also included Andy Ridgwell from the University of California, Riverside; William S. Kessler from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle; and Erica J. Hendy from the University of Bristol.


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