Claudia Méndez Arriaza, NF’12

Claudia Méndez Arriaza speaking at the Freedom of the Press in Latin America Conference at Harvard, November 2011.

Guatemalan journalist and 2012 Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow Claudia Méndez Arriaza conducted a two-month fieldwork project immediately following her fellowship at Harvard. During that time, she focused on homicides in Guatemala where, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the homicide rate is the eighth highest in the world.

Claudia created a website – (A Life is a Life), designed to track murder statistics in Guatemala City. The site provides a map indicating the location of homicides and crime variables such as time of day, the victim’s gender and the type of homicide.

In the middle of conducting my fieldwork in Guatemala City, I found myself with a group of four or five police officers who were listening attentively while I explained the features of my website, “Una vida es una vida,” which displays a data map of homicides in the Guatemala City. I had created the site as part of a project that followed my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. The officers were members of the data and analysis department run by the national police. After my informal presentation, I added that thanks to my fieldwork, I was able to see their work from a very different perspective.

The police themselves publish statistics about their work, chronicling the number of arrests, seizures and prosecutions, among other things. But until now, little attention has been given to the sophisticated work done by the data and analysis department to record crime.

The officers acknowledged that there is still much to be done and I realized that Guatemalan journalism, too, needs improvement. We need to do a better job as watchdogs, revealing how police are transforming their approach to crime. And we need to address the permanent and urgent need to balance media coverage of violence.

My website “Una vida es una vida” records and maps statistics about the victims of homicides in Guatemala City with the goal of showing that all of them matter: Each victim had a name, an age, an occupation… a face. The great and immediate challenge moving forward is to find a practical way to record the response from the judicial system to every crime.

The culture of working with data and gaining free access to information is still new here in Guatemala. There is a new law that allows access to information, but public officers are still not used to – or willing to – open all the sources of information. It’s fair to say, too, that journalists are not exploiting the full potential of the new law. But the belief is that the more it is used, the stronger the culture of free access to information will become.

I believe it is too early to measure the impact of my fieldwork but I can report that by posting information about the murder of a pregnant woman, a community of relatives, friends and acquaintances were attracted to the site to write comments. While I was reading all the memorials, which both condemned her homicide and celebrated her life, I thought that the site was well worth the effort.

Midyear reflections on the Nieman Fellowship

Guatemalan journalist and 2012 Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow Claudia Méndez Arriaza looks back on her first semester at Harvard University.

February 2012 – Three weeks ago, during the Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture, I was asked what my favorite moment had been during the year. I answered honestly: “This very moment is my favorite.” My interlocutor, Kathleen Molony, the director of the Fellows Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, laughed for a minute, but she immediately recognized the truth in my response. She said: “I know what you mean.” And what I meant was that every day I’ve found a conversation, a class, a lecture, a seminar, a person that inspires me in mind and spirit.

We began the Nieman year with great discussions about the role several men and women had played during the Arab Spring. The question at the center of our conversations was who should we call a journalist? And what exactly is journalism these days? I’ve learned that questions and doubts move you forward in your convictions, but this is a time when we are molding both our beliefs and our judging criteria for these important questions based on what we do every day in our profession.

From conversations about journalism we moved on to an array of talks: one day we were talking with Doug Melton, co-director of Harvard's Stem Cell Institute, about stem cells and how they have revolutionized the world of science and just days after that, we were conversing with Harvard Dean Evelynn Hammonds on her fascinating class on race.

Harvard University is a place to ask questions — not common questions — and not posed to the usual subjects, but to yourself. This is a place where you take a class on English fiction with Professor James Wood and discover new meaning in pages and passages you’ve before read without realizing the significance of a little detail that sheds new light on your understanding of a story. This is the place where you can have lunch with Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard, and have the greatest talk about God, faith, church and religion in modern times. This is the place where, like never before, I’m reading and discussing race, crime, law, literature, the Internet, the economy and politics. But above all I’m trying to understand my position and role as a woman in the way I see life.

How am I to process and summarize what has happened so far, when here and now I am convinced that years will need to pass to truly grasp how my Nieman Fellowship is changing and shaping the way I see the world?

Claudia Méndez Arriaza is an editor and staff writer for El Periódico in Guatemala and co-host of the television show “A las 8:45.” At Harvard, she studied law to understand the shape of the rule of law in emerging democracies. She also exploried American literature and its links to Latin American culture. As a 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow, she conducted a fieldwork project supported by Knight at the end of the academic year.

In November 2011, Claudia participated in a conference on Freedom of the Press in Latin America co-sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Nieman Fellowships for Latin American journalists in the 2011-2012 academic year were supported by a generous grant from the
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Nieman Foundation values the long relationship it has had with the Knight Foundation in educating journalism leaders who work throughout Latin America.