About this research
Given the lack of public information about disappearances, our team of multinational researchers created the Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico (“Observatory”) for the purpose of applying academic methods to analyze available sources of information for data. The primary objective of the Observatory was to understand disappearances in the context of specific states and regions in Mexico in order to contribute to the search for justice carried out by the civil society organizations and families of the disappeared. The Observatory’s initial reports have gathered and assessed data about disappearances provided by partner NGOs to learn more about “who was doing what to whom” in disappearance cases. This analysis of press data provides further information, as well as explaining whether and how the press makes disappearances visible.
Our study starts from the recognition that the media plays an important role in the public’s understanding of human rights violations, as well as agenda-setting for justice, institutional reform and reparations. The media provides vertical or “social accountability” by shaming public officials responsible for human rights violations, and activating institutions of horizontal accountability, such as the courts (Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2006:12). They also activate public institutions by serving as a platform for debate in particular cases. (Bonner 2009: 297). Bonner examined a high profile case of police violence against social protest in Argentina and found that the media was the forum for a public discussion about “who should be held accountable, what they should be held accountable for, and how they should be held accountable”(297).
Print media has been particularly important in shaping public opinion (McLeod and McDonald 1985), increasing political knowledge (McLeod, Scheufele and Moy 1999) and mobilizing citizen action (Scheufele, Shanahan and Kim 2002). In a cross-national study, Rob Clark found that a nation’s level of newspaper readership positively affected human rights outcomes (Clark 2012).
The print media’s decisions about which disappearance cases are newsworthy provide a frame for the public’s understanding of these crimes. However, the editorial decisions about which stories to publish are impacted by structural and economic issues (Guerrero 2014); social and organizational models of newsrooms (McPherson 2012); fear (Frey and Cuellar 2020); or lack of knowledge about human rights responsibilities of states (Reilly 2018).
In a study about newspaper models and their implications for democratic journalism in Mexico, McPherson describes two social-organizational models and their effects, as measured by pluralism and accountability (2012). McPherson explains how these models influence what she calls ‘newsroom credibility’ among sources, reporters, and editors, as well as how this type of credibility influences newspapers’ contributions to society’s pluralism and accountability. The first model, spot news, prioritizes news reported on events as “immediate media”, which negatively affects the quality of news as measured by democratic journalism, with its limited coverage without explanation or analysis. On the contrary, the reportage model prioritizes articles featuring investigation and analysis. It requires a slower pace of reporting, allowing for investigation to occur. As a result, the reportage model uses more sources, differing perspectives and a wider variety of information with which to hold the state to account through the news (McPherson 2012).
This literature demonstrates that if human rights violations are not reported, or if they are reported as spot news and not as reportage, then the public does not have the information it needs to contest these violations. In this study, therefore, we seek to understand the nature and extent of information provided to the Mexican public by media sources about the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in these four states.
Newsworthiness and rarity theory
A second focus of our analysis is to understand who are determined to be the newsworthy disappearance victims and why. The study adds to previous work about newsworthiness in crime reporting, including homicides (Gruenewald et al 2012) and missing persons cases (Jeanis & Powers 2017; Gilchrist 2010). Our work confirms the rarity theory of crime coverage, extending this theory to explain newsworthiness in the context of widespread violence and human rights violations. The rarity theory suggests that newsworthiness derives from the inclusion of ideal victims -- such as females, children and the elderly -- and events that are unusual or dramatic, or involve more than one potential victim (Jeanis & Powers 2017, Gekoski et al. 2012, Gruenewald et al. 2013).
An ideal victim is defined as a person who is given automatic status of victim when subject to crime, including those who are considered to be more innocent or vulnerable than others (Gekoski et al. 2012). Jeanis and Powers argue that certain demographic characteristics of victims make them more likely to receive media attention, such as being female and white (Jeanis & Powers 2017). On the contrary, males and minorities receive less media coverage according to their analysis, since they are not considered ‘ideal’ victims.
Victims who are considered vulnerable or innocent receive more media attention with a wider scope, and further detailed coverage (Gilchrist 2010). Gruenewald, Chermark and Pizarro also found victim vulnerability is one of the two factors that increase the probability that crimes such as homicides will receive news media attention and be displayed in a noteworthy way (Gruenewald et al. 2013). Finally, the work of Gekoski, Gray and Adler states that newsworthiness is mainly focused on measuring the ‘worth’ of the life lost (Gekoski et al. 2012). The homicide of particularly worthy victims would include the innocent, vulnerable, respectable and/or blameless. The authors explain that the murder of these types of victims disrupts the sense of order and the feeling of safety, leading to public awareness that if “‘good’ and ‘innocent’ people can be murdered for, then so too can we” (Gekoski et al. 2012).
The perceived novelty or seriousness of the crime is also a factor in newsworthiness; homicides involving these ideal victims are considered especially newsworthy since they do not occur as often as other types of homicide. Gruenewald et al find that homicide seriousness is a measurable factor regarding which events receive media attention. In terms of multiple victims, the literature describes a newsworthy event as one involving the lives of more than one victim, including domestic violence, serial killings, mass murders or terrorist acts (Gekoski et al. 2012).
The Mexican context differs in three ways from previous newsworthiness studies. First, disappearances as well as other violent crimes in Mexico are widespread, fueled by a rise in organized criminal activities against ordinary people in the past two decades. Crime reporters must therefore be selective in their coverage, based on time and resources. Second, there are few public records about disappearance cases in Mexico, which make it difficult to evaluate the press’s impact on state responses. Third, the demographic makeup of Mexico is not categorized by race, but rather by indigeneity and socioeconomic status. This means that the construction of newsworthiness may be based on different factors than in previous studies.
The Observatory compiles available information about disappearances in Mexico to help us understand patterns about these crimes and to preserve a record about the social and political contexts in which they occur. We are using the term “disappearance” to include crimes with and without clear evidence of state involvement. Even though there is evidence of the state’s involvement in various disappearance cases in this database, we use this term instead of forced or enforced disappearance, to reflect the social phenomena beyond the juridical dimension.
The Mexican press is an important source of information about specific crimes and ongoing patterns of disappearances. Local news outlets that we identified, have reported sporadically on disappearances since 2009. These reports cannot be assumed to be exhaustive or even factually accurate. They do, however, provide a snapshot about what is happening at particular moments and in particular communities. These reports are a source of information on cases that may never have been officially reported, and thus serve as an alternative to civil registries and official records.
Students at the University of Minnesota coded online Spanish-language news articles appearing in Mexican news outlets from 2009-2018 that reported on named victims of disappearances in four Mexican States: Coahuila, Guerrero, Jalisco and Nuevo León. These articles provided information on 651 cases of disappearances in this period. We located the articles by searching digital databases through Factiva, News Bank and Google.
The search method consisted in the use of keywords, including roots of the following:
- and/or levanton,
- + name of state or locality.
We only selected articles which included the name of at least one victim. When we found a named victim, we searched again with the same search tools for all articles in which the victim’s name occurred. This strategy allowed us to collect many more online press articles about the victim’s case.
Our coding instrument for the database includes 226 variables related to five principal categories of information summarized in the following table:
Data about press releases
Data about the Victims
Data about the Event(s)
Complaint and Response from the State
-Date of Publication
-Place of Residency
-Data on the capture (where the victim disappeared, date, method of capture)
-Group or Individual disappearance
-Data about captivity
-Conditions of the outcome (still disappeared, body found, victim found alive)
-Information on the perpetrator (number of perpetrators, category of perpetrator (state or non-state actors), weapons, car used)
-Complaints to the State (who filed the complaint, when)
-Response from authorities (which entity responded, what the response was: activation of search, investigation, arrest)
Limitations to Our Research
We acknowledge that the press database is not a comprehensive record of total disappearances that occurred between 2009 to mid-2018. In our repository of press data, we only included information provided by news outlets and did not consider cases that were not reported by the press. Moreover, these reports cannot necessarily be assumed to be exhaustive or even factually accurate. However, given the lack of information about these crimes, the Mexican press is an important source of information about named victims, and patterns of disappearances in context. The press stories provide a snapshot about what was happening in different communities at key moments in the crisis and they help explain what information was available for the public. Further, these reports are a source of information on cases that may never have been officially reported, and thus serve as an alternative to civil registries and official records.
Secondly, we acknowledge the existence of limitations in our search methodology for press articles. We used Google as a primary search engine, which has limitations given search algorithms that are not clear for users. We are unable to determine under which parameters Google showed us these press articles and not others, even with the use of keywords and then searching by the victim´s names. We also must mention that the searches were done from different parts of the world, given the location of our various research assistants, and over the course of several years. In sum, the use of Google as a news search engine does not provide reliably comprehensive coverage. Knowing these limitations, we still decided to use Google in lieu of Factiva or other search engines, because it covers a wider range of news outlets, including local newspapers. With the use of Google, we managed to find over 1600 press articles from 227 different press outlets, which provided us 651 cases of disappearances in these four states. Although we cannot claim to have a full data set, we nonetheless consider the data collected to be valuable given its origin and the information it provides us with about a phenomenon whose main characteristic is the concealment of information.
Finally, we would like to frame our press database as a work in progress, meaning that this will be a first version of it and that we will be receiving notifications and/or feedback on cases that were not included this time. If we are given more victim’s names, we can do new searches with them and find new press articles to code, related to that disappearance case. We then will reissue an updated version of the press database hoping that we will have a more comprehensive picture of the reality of disappearances.
Downloadable Coding manual
The objective of this manual is to standardize the coding of the cases of disappearances represented in the Mexican press. The coding was conducted using a Google survey form. Here you will find the instructions and criteria used by the coders to ensure that they entered the data uniformly across the distinct categories and variables. Each entry in the survey corresponds to the case of a singular named victim whose disappearance was reported in the press. Note that there can be various victims who were reported disappeared in the same case and/or article, but the data on each victim was coded separately.
Databases (by state and aggregated)
Here you will find the entire database, by state and aggregated, in a microsoft excel document which you can download and use at your convenience for academic purposes. For reasons of security and, so as not to contribute to an increase of risk to the victims, their relatives or the journalists, no full names are published, only first names or initials. The only full names used in the database are those of state agents related to the case (except when they are the victims) or perpetrators.
Click the following links to download the data: