Daniela Rea – Telling the Personal Stories of Violence with Respect, Honesty and Empathy

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Sep 11, 2018
by Stephanie Quon
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Daniela Rea – Telling the Personal Stories of Violence with Respect, Honesty and Empathy

Award-winning journalist on her experience in the field and her advice for journalists of the future Daniela Rea speaking at the 12th Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change

Kidnappings, disappearances, torture, murder. These are just some of the brutal fates suffered by many Mexicans; the consequences of which are long-borne by their families left behind.

It is the personal stories of these violent experiences that Mexican journalist Daniela Rea wants to capture and share so that the world may see, understand, and not forget. 

Recently awarded the inaugural Breach-Valdez Prize for Journalism and Human Rights (named for slain Mexican journalists Miroslava Breach and Javier Valdez), Rea has covered a diverse range of issues throughout her career. Enforced disappearances of innocent people, impunity, torture, and abuses of power in Mexico have all featured in her multimedia journalistic work. 

Her mission is to tell the stories of the people she interviews honestly, affording those who have opened up and shared their feelings, thoughts, and experiences with her the utmost respect. To her, they are people, not just victims.

Multimedia storytelling

These personal stories have inspired many projects, using many different media – from paperbacks and graphic novels to documentaries, illustrations, and interactive multimedia experiences.

Rea’s book Nadie les pidió perdón (No One Asked for Their Forgiveness) uncovers the countless disappearances and deaths of innocent people. Her documentary No sucumbió la eternidad (Eternity Never Surrendered) portrays the “intimate battles of two women awaiting their missing ones”; she directed it to “showcase the conflicts of memory and the daily struggle of both women [in] not disappearing from life.”

Rea has also created various multimedia projects that give the audience an immersive experience through photos and videos along with captions that tell people’s stories of disappeared loved ones, uncovered mass graves and unidentified remains. As one of her projects, Buscadores (Searchers), states, the bodies that are found continue to add to “one of the largest clandestine graves in the continent.”

Rea says she is proud of two projects in particular: Mujeres ante la guerra (Women Facing the War), and Cadena de Mando (Chain of command). Mujeres ante la guerra centers on the perspective of the women who have witnessed and survived violence. The accompanying illustrations represent how women can show resistance in times of violence. The online graphic novel, Cadena de Mando, tells the ongoing case of the Ojinaga death squad in Chihuahua, Mexico. Accused of crimes such as theft, torture, and murder, many of the death squad are now imprisoned in Mazatlan military prison. 

Storytelling challenges

Through her broad use of different storytelling tools, Rea seeks to honestly represent the traumatic and devastating violence countless people have experienced and addresses the difficulty of encapsulating the essence of the experience of that violence and its aftereffects.

During the Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture for the Salzburg Media Academy on Media and Global Change, Rea admitted it is challenging to “transmit to the public the understanding we reach with our work.” Journalists need to present complex and tragic events in terms that readers will understand while recognizing that words such as “justice,” “pain,” and “love,” oversimplify the gravity of the situation.

She asked her audience of mostly journalism students to consider how can you call it “justice” when “your son, killed in a police operation, has been called to testify about his own death?” “Pain,” she says, is insufficient to describe how a mother feels when “the autopsy of the one your loved one reveals that they were buried alive, the trace of soil still remaining in his nails and lungs.” How can you say “love,” when you must decide between searching for “the love of your life who has disappeared or raising as a happy child, the son you had together?” 

Journalists need “to assume the responsibility to work with people who suffer violence,” Rea told the Academy students. As the next generation of journalists and storytellers, they should strive to learn about people’s stories with respect and dignity, not just as victims of a tragic event.

In the current state of newsgathering and storytelling, with its 24-hour news cycles, viral videos, and social media sharing, speed is often favored over nuance. But this is the wrong approach, says Rea: “We have to create the time to know the things and the feelings and the experience that people who suffer violence have,” she says. By taking the time to create a safe and secure environment people will have “confidence and the protection to say what they feel about the violence against them.”    

Challenging truths

Rea also understands the difficulty to discern an objective truth when finding a story. “In my years as a journalist I learned that I couldn’t pretend to talk about only [one] truth because I learned that it is very complicated,” she shares. Instead, she prefers “to talk about the experience of the people” because the truth for her is “more like varying experiences” than one singular narrative.

Given this reflection, Rea ended her Salzburg lecture by proposing three shifts in perspective: First, to understand that to present the objective truth, you have to tell the story honestly. Second, to realize that to tell the truth of that story, you have to discover and understand the varying experiences from the people in that situation to know what “truth” is for them. Finally, to ensure your readers feel empathy, you need to tell the truth that resonates with them; this is helped by sharing a variety of stories and details.

The topic of this year’s Salzburg Academy was Re-Imagining Journalism: News and Storytelling in an Age of Distrust. Rea insists that to re-imagine journalism, we have to remember two things. The first is “to work with respect, with dignity, recognizing the dignity of the people [with] whom we work and with honesty.”

“You could have a lot of tools, and a lot of possibilities, and a lot of media to write something, or to expose some story, but for me, something that is always necessary is the honesty and respect of the work.” Building a relationship to understand the experience of someone who has suffered is “very hard.”

The second is to continue to learn. “Our social condition, our political contexts always are teaching us something, that maybe we don’t realize so I think it’s very important that we assume that in this profession we are always learning.” Otherwise, she cautions, journalism can become “an arrogant and very boring job.”  


Daniela Rea was the speaker for the Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture on the Impact of Communications Technology on Society and Politics at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change 2018.