Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, June 16, 2023

What is the Point of Tracking US News Media Coverage about Security in Mexico?

"By "El Huaso" for Borderland Beat

A Borderland Beat commenter asked me a fair question in response to an earlier article: what is the point of tracking US news media coverage about security in Mexico? Here, I explain my opinion on why this is worth taking a look at, and a sneak peak at a paper I hope to submit later this year.

Why is this relevant and worth our time? I argue that tracking what the US media is reporting on is a way of predicting US legislation as well as gauging public opinion on a topic. By tracking what the media writes, we can better understand what we are in for.

"The Press has become the greatest power within Western countries, more powerful than the
legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?"

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The media is a powerful force which influences legislation in a number of ways from changing public opinion which in result can decide elections, to providing the information that lawmakers use to make decisions. Several studies have examined this from several angles, but here is a concrete example: several months ago, 21 US Attorneys general sent a letter to US president Joe Biden demanding that he designate organized crime groups in Mexico as terrorist organizations. If you look at the footnotes of the letter, the sources were almost exclusively from news press articles from American sources favorable to their viewpoint. Lawmakers and their aides don’t read academic articles or expert reports. In this way, whatever the media is reporting, not what experts write, becomes the law of the land.  

Tracking media trends can also give us a sense of whether the media is overhyping an issue or not. The US media is often criticized for sensationalizing various topics, drowning us in coverage of whatever is garnering clicks at the moment. This is no different with coverage of violence in Mexico, where the US media has been accused of covering it for ends including simply profiting off of clicks from violent content, to laying the public support groundwork for US invasion. This is a critique we can explore based on trends in the quantity of news articles about certain topics, and comparing with concrete data of what is happening on the ground.

Here is some data I posted yesterday: In 2022, the United States news media wrote four times as many news articles about security and cartels in Mexico than they did in 2002, an increase just about proportional to the increase in homicides in that period. Further, there is a strong correlation of .859 between the annual homicide count in Mexico and the number of articles covering insecurity and organized crime. Basically, as violence increases, journalists write more stories about violence in Mexico.

Figure 1: Number of articles by year in US media, keywords: "violence, cartel, Mexico"

This makes sense. It sounds obvious. But it is helpful to know for sure as I argue that it suggests that there is not some concerted effort to overhype the violence in Mexico, since the increase in press attention matches the increase in violence over the last two decades. If there was no connection between the two, I would assume there is some manipulation or ungrounded hype in the media coverage.

I argue that this is the case with US media coverage about terror in Mexico. Interest in this topic is accelerating at a much faster rate than coverage of security in Mexico generally, as many Mexico Watchers noticed. All of a sudden, terrorist designation of criminal groups in Mexico was being discussed in the mainstream.

Earlier this month, a Daily Mail poll found that 61% of American respondents approved of deploying the US military to combat organized crime in Mexico. There's fair criticism of this poll. It probably isn't representative of the US as a whole. But consider that this was not even a discussion 10 years ago.

Terrorist designation is a controversial topic. There are interesting arguments both ways. Many experts in the field (and the DEA) argue that designating organized crime groups as terrorist groups would not solve any issues but rather would cause new ones. 

This perceived increase in terror-related coverage is something we can test for. I searched on Factiva using search terms related to terror in Mexico and the results were clear: There is a clear rise in the number of news articles on this topic over the last several years. In fact, more articles are being published on this right now than after 9/11. 

Figure 2: Number of articles by year in US media, keywords: "Terror*, Mexico"

Again, this discussion is does not stay within the bounds of the news media; several US presidential candidates have already stated that it is part of their platform to explore military action against criminal groups in Mexico. Once again, tracking media trends helps us understand the political horizon.

We can see a parallel increase in submitted legislation advocating for designating Mexican criminal groups as terrorist groups. This is not a new trend, but its frequency is increasing. Over the last 20 years, the quantity of legislation submitted to Congress with keywords "Mexico'' and ''cartel" increased 580%, from five bills submitted in the 107th Congress (2001-2002), to 34 in the 117th Congress (2021-2022).

In this same time period, the quantity of legislation submitted to Congress with keywords "Mexico'' and ''cartel" and "terror*" increased 350%, from eight bills submitted in the 107th Congress (2001-2002), to 36 in the 117th Congress (2021-2022).

The vast majority of these bills are submitted by Republican politicians. 

Sources: Mass Media and the Transformation of American Politics, The Daily Mail, Montana News Now

I use Factiva Dow Jones, a research tool which scrapes the internet for published news content according to filters and parameters set by the researcher. Based on the search terms, it can offer a pretty good idea of how many news articles were written in a time period, region, source, etc.

You can follow me on Twitter @HuasoBB

I tweet about organized crime in Latin America and security in Mexico.


  1. 🤘🤘 good work.

  2. Thanks Huaso. It's difficult to try and find any ray of light when it comes to searching for positive mexico related news. The increase in coverage on narco violence drowns out the rest of the positive information coming out of the country.

  3. The slow moving security threats stemming from Mexico (and the region) is why we need to continue to tracking these news.

  4. Nice work, Good Read. Thanks


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