Journalists Reflect on Coverage of Puerto Rico and How the Media Can Do Better

  • By Karishma Vanjani
Ariel Goodman

As a series of earthquakes and poorly managed relief efforts have once again thrust Puerto Rico into the news, top journalists covering the island gathered at the Newmark J-School on January 23 to examine the media’s role in reporting on the problems that have plagued the U.S. territory in recent years.

From Hurricane Maria and the recent tremors to the island’s crippling debt crisis, its bankruptcy, and last summer’s ousting of the governor, Puerto Rico’s troubles have led to intensive — though often sporadic — news coverage.

The panel, “Bringing Accountability to Puerto Rico,” sponsored by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism in conjunction with a Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program workshop on Puerto Rico, looked at how fair, accurate, and active the media has been in its reporting on the island. 

CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, a native Puerto Rican and former cabinet secretary for the Commonwealth, kicked off the conversation by calling on journalists to be more attentive to stories such as the ongoing mental health crisis unfolding beyond the daily headlines. “While national outlets have chronicled the island, they can always do better,” said Rodriguez. “There are other, slow-building, quiet emergencies brewing just beneath the surface that are screaming for our attention.”

The panel of journalists included Carla Minet, executive director of the San Juan-based Center of Investigative Journalism, which exposed a series of scandalous chat messages among government officials that led to massive public protests and the resignation of Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló last July. 

The dogged reporting by Minet and her team brought widespread acclaim for the Center’s work, coming on top of earlier investigations into everything from the hedge funds that control Puerto Rico’s debt to Maria’s excessively high death toll. As a result, the site — once largely read by a local audience — has played an increasingly important role in bridging the gap between U.S. and Puerto Rican readers. “In the past five years, the Center had to develop a double personality,” Minet said. “A big audience in the U.S. has been using our stories to understand what’s happening on the island.”

Even with the broader interest, moderator Luis Trelles, a San Juan-based editor and producer at Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR, noted that Puerto Rico is often covered by the mainstream U.S. media “only when natural disaster strikes or when there is a massive protest.” 

American media focused intensely on Puerto Rico at the time of Rosselló’s exit – just like it did during Hurricane Maria. But this attention was missing in the days before the hurricane, even as a slow-building economic crisis was devastating the island. “Maria was a turning point,” said Minet. “A lot of journalists from specialized media started coming to Puerto Rico at that point.”

That sporadic attention impacts the stories that get told, said Trelles  — as well as those that are missing. While many revolve around the lack of power and access to food and water, other important stories get short shrift. “We are in a news cycle climate where only the big stories compete with each other,” said Patricia Mazzei, Miami bureau chief for The New York Times. “We should go down there to write about the hurricanes, but we should also go down there to write about the schools, the corruption” and other issues.

She and the other panelists pointed to the importance of providing context on the complex politics and history of Puerto Rico when writing for mainstream American audiences — starting with its status as a U.S.territory. Since the politics of Puerto Rico don’t line up with how U.S. politics are generally played out, communicating the intricacies can be difficult for journalists, particularly those who are not from the island. “The biggest issue is the colonial relationship; U.S. journalists try to go around and ignore that,” said Minet, a Puerto Rican native. “This is a problem in every story reported.”

That can carry all the way down to the wording choices journalists make. While Puerto Ricans commonly refer to their colonial status, Mazzei points out that U.S.-based publications rarely do because colony isn’t a common word used in the U.S. Nor, for example, should reporters use “emigrate” to describe Puerto Ricans who move to the American mainland, as they are U.S. citizens. “We always struggle with language,” she said. “It’s a history lesson every time you work on a story.”

Several panelists said these issues were particularly important for journalists like themselves, who aren’t native to Puerto Rico. For them, the task was not only to communicate the complexities of Puerto Rico accurately, but to first understand it themselves

Adrian Florido, a Los Angeles-based reporter who was covering race for NPR’s Code Switch before Hurricane Maria, acknowledged that he knew little about Puerto Rico until he moved there for 13 months to cover the aftermath of the storm. To understand the dynamics at play, it was necessary to start developing relationships with the community, said Florido. “We hear a lot about the colonial power dynamic between Puerto Rico and the United States,” he said. “But you don’t really know what that means, what that feels like, until you live it.”

Much like Florido, Reuters correspondent Nick Brown started reporting on Puerto Rico in the wake of a crisis. Arriving as San Juan bureau chief in 2015, he covered the island’s crippling debt load, restructuring efforts, and the political battles fought over its fate. He recalled reading older economic histories of Puerto Rico to ground his coverage in a deeper understanding of the factors that led to the current crisis. “Puerto Rico can’t control its own destiny. It doesn’t have sovereignty,” he said. “For me, it was always focusing on the idea of autonomy and looking at it from the lens of history.”

While challenging, Minet said that reporters who take the time to provide that context and history are producing valuable work. “In my opinion, the best stories that have been reported on Puerto Rico in U.S. media have been done by journalists who acknowledge that they are outsiders, and who are looking at it from that lens,” she said. Those who don’t, she warns, very frequently fail.