Foto de Scott Morgan

La Periodista de Iowa

At a Spanish-language newspaper in rural Iowa, Lorena L贸pez proves that the best counter to online misinformation is human connection.

June 10, 2024

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Like many newspaper editors, Lorena L贸pez is bad at taking vacations. When she recently left Denison, Iowa, to visit family in Nicaragua, her home country, she paid Verizon for international service so she could keep tabs on the goings-on at work. A week into her trip, she checked her phone and saw dozens of voicemails. L贸pez is the founder, editor, and main reporter for La Prensa de Iowa, an improbably successful Spanish-language paper serving rural farm towns in the western part of the state, and the first call for hispanohablantes seeking the latest news. That morning, a man had been found dead in his cell in the county jail, and everyone had questions. 鈥淭hey were all asking, Do帽a Lorena, what is going on, how died? When will you put that news out? she said. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation had distributed a press release about the man鈥檚 death, and a few English-language outlets had reported it. But the official statement was sparse, and with no news in Spanish, residents turned to Facebook, where the rumor mill was moving at full speed: Why hadn鈥檛 the jailers checked the cells overnight? How had they not noticed a dead man until morning? Was there foul play? It was a dynamic that L贸pez had come to recognize: absent a reliable source of information, social media fills the vacuum.

Set in rolling hillsides not far from the Nebraska border, Denison, population eighty-one hundred, is a peculiar town. Iowa is one of the whitest states in the nation, but Denison is the most Latino city in the state, with 49.9 percent of the population marking 鈥淗ispanic or Latino鈥 on the latest census. The city鈥檚 downtown is lined with stately brick buildings; ash and maple trees grow along verdant surrounding farmland. Above it all hangs the constant smell of blood, manure, and offal鈥攁 blanketing fog from the town鈥檚 two massive meat-processing plants. Slaughterhouse work is dangerous and strenuous employment that few Americans want to do, so Denison attracts immigrants: The first wave of newcomers came from Mexico and Central America in the aughts, and the town is proudly Latino; quincea帽eras take photos with their chambelanes downtown, and there is a constellation of Mexican groceries across the east side. In the past decade, Denison has continued to diversify, becoming something of a United Nations in the rural Midwest. There are workers from all across Latin America鈥擯eru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba鈥攁nd increasingly, workers have come from Asia and Africa as well. It was one of these immigrants, a man named Abraham Gatwech Ngor, who was found dead in the Crawford County Jail.

L贸pez is sixty-one, with wavy brown hair and high cheekbones; she dresses stylishly, in thick-rimmed glasses and button-downs. In rural farm country, she carries a cosmopolitan air. She moved to Iowa three decades ago, and has built a deep well of sources; in Managua, she opened her laptop and started making calls. She reached out to the Division of Criminal Investigation and to her contacts in the Denison Police Department. She learned that Ngor was a Sudanese immigrant, so she tapped her connections in Denison鈥檚 Sudanese American community, asking around if anyone knew his relatives. Later that morning, she was on the phone with his family. She was soon able to publish a story on La Prensa鈥檚 website: a special agent at DCI told her that the jail conducted hourly checks, and that Ngor had been found dead during the 9am round. There were still questions, but L贸pez had done more original reporting than the English-language outlets, which relied on the press release. Denison鈥檚 Spanish speakers got reliable information, and L贸pez didn鈥檛 mind interrupting her vacation to provide it. 鈥淥f course, people continue to need to be informed鈥攖hey want to know the same way that the English-speaking people have been informed, they want to know what鈥檚 going on,鈥 L贸pez said. 鈥淎nd they have the right to know.鈥 

Misinformation is a form of pollution and, like the smell over Denison, it鈥檚 often thicker and more potent in immigrant communities. In recent years, election watchdogs have repeatedly raised alarm about Spanish-language fake news in particular鈥攑erhaps because Latinos make up the largest minority group of voters in the United States. (There are now more than thirty-six million eligible to vote, up by some four million since 2020.) Researchers at the University of Houston have concluded that we鈥檙e in the midst of a 鈥淟atino misinformation crisis.鈥 They found, for instance, that a solid third of Latinos in Texas believe that 鈥渢he deep state was out to ruin the Trump presidency.鈥 The problem is acute in battleground states鈥斺渁 hotbed for this activity,鈥 as a Brookings Institution report noted. After the latest presidential election, NBC News declared, in a headline, 鈥淟atinos more likely to get, consume and share online misinformation, fake news.鈥 At times, the public angst over Spanish-language misinformation has had an overtone of condescension, and recurring attention to the story gives consistent fuel to a pernicious sense that those who believe and post falsehoods are gullible, venal, or simple.

L贸pez speaks with a source while her colleague Gordon Wolf works nearby. Photo by Scott Morgan

The problem, of course, lies not with the people on the receiving end of fake news, but with the sources providing it鈥攁nd the lack of alternatives. Nielsen, the media research firm, found that Latinos are more likely to be exposed to misinformation than the general US population is, largely because of Latinos鈥 鈥済reater reliance on social media and messaging platforms鈥 such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. Meta and other tech companies have invested millions of dollars in taking down election-related misinformation, but their content controls focus on posts in English, which means that Spanish-language fake news more easily slips by. After the 2020 election, an advocacy group called Avaaz found that 70 percent of Spanish-language misinformation had stayed online, compared with just 29 percent of misinformation in English. During this campaign cycle, platforms have scaled back their moderation teams and become generally more permissive; in recent months, as the nonprofit Media Matters observed, Meta has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars selling ads promoting anti-immigration rhetoric. According to Samuel Woolley, the director of the Center for Media Engagement鈥檚 propaganda research lab at the University of Texas at Austin, WhatsApp is especially popular among Latin American immigrant communities, who gossip in private chats. 鈥淧ublications don鈥檛 have the money to do real-time fact-checking of a lot of rumors that are circulating in these communities during a highly contested, highly divisive election,鈥 he told me. There are some projects dedicated to correcting false claims in Spanish, including a new organization called Factchequeado, which came up with an AI tool called Chequebot. Still, the barrage of misinformation online may be too great to fact-check away. As L贸pez said, 鈥淚t鈥檚 like a bombardero.鈥

People tend to trust local news, but there are few reliable Spanish-language publications in rural areas. L贸pez鈥檚 outlet is rare. 鈥淚t鈥檚 one of the biggest sources of hope I鈥檝e had in recent years,鈥 Woolley said. 鈥淧eople are coming up with quite culturally, linguistically bespoke methods of fighting back against disinformation at a community level in a way that broad-scale media literacy campaigns simply can鈥檛 achieve.鈥 L贸pez shows up at city council meetings and high school basketball games; she belongs to the same Facebook and WhatsApp groups as her neighbors. People trust her because they see her, they know her. 鈥淚t鈥檚 the same reason disinformation and propaganda spread so effectively through people we care about,鈥 Woolley told me. 鈥淭rustworthy information spreads best that way as well.鈥

In Iowa, where Donald Trump鈥檚 anti-immigrant rhetoric has won voters over鈥攆rom 2012 to 2020, no other state swung so dramatically Republican鈥攖he coverage in La Prensa shows how politics can tangibly affect their lives. Douglas Burns鈥攁 fourth-generation journalist from nearby Carroll, Iowa, and a friend of L贸pez鈥檚鈥攖old me that she is single-handedly keeping local news alive in the region, and tearing through online misinformation by force of will. 鈥淚 would argue,鈥 he said, 鈥渢hat she is the most influential community journalist to inhabit a newsroom in western Iowa in the history of the state.鈥

L贸pez was born in Estel铆, a small town in the north of Nicaragua, in 1963. The country was in the midst of a civil war that would last through most of her twenties. The Somoza family had ruled the country as a fiefdom since 1936, and in the sixties and seventies the family fought against leftist Sandinista rebels. L贸pez鈥檚 mother was a secretary and her father was a truck driver; every evening, Lorena would sit in his lap with her head against his chest as he read aloud from La Prensa, one of Nicaragua鈥檚 storied dailies. Under the editor Pedro Joaqu铆n Chamorro Cardenal, La Prensa became the chief voice of the opposition to the Somozas, publishing on the atrocities of the regime. A formative moment in L贸pez鈥檚 life came ten days after New Year鈥檚 in 1978, when a Toyota pulled up in front of Chamorro on his way to work. Shotgun fire blasted from the car; Chamorro died in the ambulance to the hospital. His death was a tipping point, and the country鈥檚 middle class tilted firmly in favor of the insurgency. The Somozas fled the country the next year, and the Sandinistas took power.

Through the turmoil, L贸pez鈥檚 parents had aspirations for their daughter. They saved up so they could send her to the Universidad de Centroamerica, a Jesuit school in Managua. When L贸pez arrived in the capital, in 1982, US-funded Contras were waging war against the Sandinista government. She knew the country needed reporters; at school, L贸pez followed in the footsteps of her hero, Chamorro, studying journalism. In time, she landed a job with Canal 6, a broadcast news channel. L贸pez鈥攃harming and incisive, with a warm but biting wit鈥攓uickly found success as an on-air interviewer. In less than a decade, she became a recognizable face across the country. Her interview subjects included Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro.

In 1992, her work afforded her a chance to visit the US. She traveled with a delegation of five Nicaraguan journalists to Ames, Iowa, just north of Des Moines. At Iowa State University, the journalists trained on a technology that was still cutting-edge to them: the teleprompter. (鈥淚 had never used a computer back home,鈥 L贸pez said.) In more ways than one, Iowa was the antithesis of the mountainous jungles and tropical coastlines of Nicaragua. L贸pez didn鈥檛 speak a word of English. And yet she loved Ames. She was charmed by midwestern hospitality, and she became close with one of her professors, enjoying dinner with his family. 鈥淚 remember every part of that trip, step by step, because it was so important for me,鈥 she said. 

鈥淧eople are coming up with quite culturally, linguistically bespoke methods of fighting back against disinformation at a community level.鈥

Soon after she returned to Nicaragua, L贸pez and Canal 6 produced a documentary that dealt, in part, with the sexual assault of teenagers on government-sponsored trips to the countryside. The blowback was immediate. 鈥淭hat was a huge boom鈥攜ou didn鈥檛 talk about that stuff,鈥 L贸pez said. The government censored the documentary. L贸pez began getting threats over the phone, at the office and at home. One day, she came home to what was, in those years, a nightmare in Nicaragua: white handprints painted on the doorway鈥攁 threat from paramilitaries. 鈥淚t meant your family was in jeopardy,鈥 L贸pez said. By then, she had two sons, and, as she thought of how to keep them safe, she realized she had an opportunity鈥攈er US visa, through which she鈥檇 traveled to Iowa, was still valid. She wrote to her professor friend, asking if he could help. Soon, she was on a plane to Iowa with her boys. 

L贸pez settled in Ames, where she was eventually granted asylum. 鈥淚t鈥檚 not like people think,鈥 she said. Her legal status didn鈥檛 come with government help. 鈥淵ou struggle a lot.鈥 Her professor friend tried to steer her in the right direction, but there was only so much he could do. L贸pez still spoke little English, so journalism was no longer an option, and she struggled to find work. She ended up taking two to three jobs at a time to support her sons. 鈥淚 was cleaning, babysitting, working a.m. and p.m.,鈥 she said. Six years of university and a TV career in Central America did not count for much in Iowa. They lived paycheck to paycheck. 

During Iowa winters, L贸pez missed much about Nicaragua, including the simple daily joy of reading La Prensa. 鈥淭here was nothing more pleasant than to sit outside on the chair on the patio and to read the newspaper, with a cup of coffee and a cigarette,鈥 she said. (鈥淭hat was my generation鈥攜ou smoked.鈥) When working on TV, she would go through the paper page by page looking for retroalimentaci贸n, brainstorming ideas for new segments. But in western Iowa in those years鈥擫贸pez wound up in the town of Carroll鈥攖here was no Spanish-language daily. On Sundays she would buy the Omaha World-Herald, poring slowly over each article, looking for cognates, connecting the words to the pictures. She was teaching herself English, in part, but more than that she was orienting herself in a new country.

La Prensa de Iowa on the newsstand at El Michoacano Tienda y Taqueria. L贸pez distributes the paper for free in groceries and shops. Photo by Scott Morgan

One day, L贸pez wanted to cook Nicaraguan food for her boys. Supermarkets in Carroll weren鈥檛 cutting it, so she drove thirty minutes out west to Denison, where there was a small Mexican grocery, El Mexicano. As she grabbed red beans and plantains, she saw a thin newspaper鈥攋ust two pages鈥攕itting by the front of the store. Its title was 驴Qu茅 Pasa?, and it was local news. L贸pez held it up. 鈥淥h my god, look guys!鈥 she said, showing her sons. 鈥淚t鈥檚 in Spanish!鈥 She bought a copy. On the ride home, and as she cooked for her sons that evening, her anticipation grew; finally, after doing the dishes, she sat down with the paper. She made it just a few sentences in before she realized: it was a cheap, automatically generated translation of the Denison Bulletin-Review. 鈥淚t was nothing鈥攊t was crazy, it didn鈥檛 make sense at all,鈥 she said. 

L贸pez still picked up the paper every Friday when she shopped at El Mexicano. 驴Qu茅 Pasa? was confusing and unreliable, but it was all she had. 鈥淚鈥檓 an old-school journalist, and I always wanted to get up in the morning and read the newspaper,鈥 she said. She read it with a sense of longing for something more. By then, she was working as a dishwasher at St. Anthony Regional hospital; the hours were long, but the job provided regular pay. She was able to send her oldest son, Carlos Arg眉ello, to the University of Northern Iowa, where he studied marketing and entrepreneurship. One day, when he was home doing laundry, L贸pez stood at the stove cooking gallo pinto, his favorite, and told him she wanted to establish a Spanish paper for western Iowa. He went back to school, asked around, and suggested that she buy Adobe software; that could get her started. The only problem: the software cost eight hundred dollars. 鈥淲e didn鈥檛 have any money鈥擨 had rent, and electricity, and a kid in college, and I could barely make it,鈥 L贸pez said. She had a thousand-dollar tax return that year, which she was hesitant to spend on a newspaper gamble. Her sons insisted. 鈥淚t was a hard moment, and painful鈥攂ut exciting at the same time,鈥 she said. On Cinco de Mayo 2006, she published her first issue. She named it La Prensa, after the paper she had read each day in Nicaragua. 

The day after the Republican caucus this year, L贸pez sat at her desk at La Prensa鈥檚 office, on the second floor of the Donna Reed Theatre (so named after the town鈥檚 most famous resident). It鈥檚 a loft space with dark, antique hardwood floors and large windows that look out onto Broadway, the town鈥檚 main street. L贸pez, in an elegant wool turtleneck, carried herself with the easy confidence of a veteran broadcaster. The night before, she鈥檇 attended the proceedings at the local high school, where voters stood to speak on behalf of their preferred candidates: Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley. (L贸pez had interviewed Haley the year before.) In the auditorium, L贸pez looked for Latinos. 鈥淚 only found three,鈥 she said. Iowa鈥檚 first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses do not provide translations or Spanish-language programming, which makes it hard for some to participate. For years, L贸pez has advocated that the city government offer Spanish translations of public meetings. They have yet to materialize; in the meantime, she provides translations in La Prensa.

La Prensa is scrappy. From the start, L贸pez did virtually all the reporting and writing on her own. (She occasionally ran stories by freelancers.) The website, where she posts breaking news, is like a relic from the aughts (there are stock photo banners and slow-loading graphics); but that鈥檚 not the main event. Every other Wednesday, she distributes a free print version in groceries and shops across the county. Many recent Latin American immigrants expect to get their news in a physical paper, she told me, and internet access is still expensive and spotty in rural Iowa. L贸pez estimates that she has eight thousand regular readers. That has enabled her to run a profitable operation, supported entirely by advertising revenue. 鈥淣o matter if they鈥檙e white or not,鈥 she said, 鈥渂usinesses want to advertise in La Prensa, because they know that Latinos look for that paper.鈥 

La Prensa is so prosperous that when the Bulletin-Review downsized last year, L贸pez was able to hire two of its reporters and establish an English sister paper, the Denison Free Press. Gordon Wolf, now the editor of the Free Press, works alongside L贸pez to cover all aspects of rural life: the meatpacking plants, the agricultural industry, city council, the sheriff鈥檚 office. L贸pez will often translate Free Press stories into Spanish for La Prensa, and she has begun running English-language versions of La Prensa stories online. 

On the day I visited the office, Wolf鈥攕eventy, tall and broad, with a gentle, patient manner鈥攕at at a desk to the left of L贸pez. He grew up in northwestern Iowa and moved to Denison to work for the Bulletin-Review in 1999. He cut his teeth covering local government, but these days his favorite part of his job is reporting on community events: summer block parties, a local barbecue festival, the Crawford County Fair. He鈥檚 interested in observing the way new bonds form. Wolf has seen Crawford County change dramatically in the past twenty-five years, as immigration turned a once white area more diverse. That has come with tension鈥攁nd at times, overt racism. 鈥淲hen I first moved here, the white population was not very accepting of the Latino population,鈥 Wolf said. In 2003, Crawford County voters sent Steven King to the House of Representatives; the Washington Post would later describe him as the congressman 鈥渕ost openly affiliated with white nationalism.鈥 (King is a proponent of 鈥渢he Great Replacement,鈥 a conspiracy theory claiming that elites are at work in the shadows, aiming to turn white populations into minorities.) 

King lost his Republican primary in 2020. These days, many in Denison鈥檚 white population are aging; while conflicts remain, Wolf said, in the past decade the town has become more welcoming of the young workers who support its businesses. 鈥淭here鈥檚 been a melding of the population. There鈥檚 more interaction between people of different nationalities,鈥 he told me. Reporting at the high school and at Latino events, he鈥檚 seen a new trend: 鈥淲e鈥檙e dealing with kids who were born here now,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 really look at them as Denison kids.鈥

L贸pez estimates that she has eight thousand regular readers. That has enabled her to run a profitable operation, supported entirely by advertising revenue.

The evolution of the community has made L贸pez a cultural ambassador of sorts. Drawing upon her old TV-personality charm, she鈥檚 developed strong relationships across town鈥攚ith third-generation white farmers and recent Venezuelan immigrants. Denison residents call her 鈥淒o帽a,鈥 a title of deep respect. 鈥淟orena lives in the middle-class neighborhood鈥攕he lives among the people she covers,鈥 Burns said. 鈥淔irst and foremost, people see her as part of the community. She鈥檚 known, but she鈥檚 not a celebrity. She鈥檚 not separate or elite. She鈥檚 relatable, accessible, and approachable.鈥 

She鈥檚 also hard-charging when she needs to be, a proxy for Latinos confronting political officials. Just a few days after New Year鈥檚, a shooter killed two people at a high school in Perry, Iowa, a 31 percent Latino city north of Des Moines. L贸pez drove out to cover the tragedy. Kim Reynolds, the governor, gave a press conference; L贸pez raised her hand. 鈥淚 thought it was essential that the journalist who asked the governor whether there was a racial motive, or if race played a role in the school shooting, was Latina,鈥 Burns said. At the caucuses, L贸pez has interviewed dozens of candidates, starting with Barack Obama, in 2007. 鈥淗e promised to me personally three times,鈥 she recalled. 鈥溾楾ell your people that, in the first hundred days, I鈥檓 going to pass immigration reform.鈥欌

He failed to make good on that promise, and many Latinos in the area have grown accustomed to living in fear. The largest-ever immigration raid in US history took place at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, and since that day鈥攚hen federal agents arrested almost four hundred people鈥攕laughterhouse workers have sensed that the same could happen to them. During Trump鈥檚 presidency, rumors spread often about new immigration laws and potential raids; L贸pez had to work constantly to both quiet fears and report on how legitimate they might be. In 2019, she wrote about a new policy expanding the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to expedite deportation proceedings of undocumented immigrants who couldn鈥檛 prove they had been in the country for more than two years. 

Under Biden, L贸pez has seen a new attitude emerge: people feel cheated. Border-crossing numbers are at an all-time high, and the administration has given many recent arrivals parole status as they await immigration-court dates. A small percentage of parolees who are in asylum proceedings have managed to get work permits. That doesn鈥檛 sit well with some of the longtime residents of Denison, where one of the most prevalent items of misinformation circulating among Latinos is that Biden distributes work permits at will to everyone now crossing the border. L贸pez said that, every week at church, people come up to her and ask why Biden is offering employment authorization to 鈥減eople who just came here鈥 while they wait decades. 鈥淚t鈥檚 opened a lot of resentment against Biden,鈥 she said, 鈥渁nd I think a lot of Latinos are going to vote for Trump.鈥 

L贸pez picks up news and story ideas at baptisms and quincea帽eras, at asadas and the posada. Many of her best leads come from the women she sees at church, a network of chismosas that would put any journalist鈥檚 contact list to shame. At least three times a year, L贸pez talks with a church group鈥攁n assortment of her readers to whom she poses questions about what they want to know and what they want to see her report. She often shares her views, too, including about what a second Trump presidency could look like for Denison. 鈥淪uppose that Trump gets the election this November,鈥 she鈥檚 told fellow churchgoers. 鈥淭he hostile environment for immigrants will continue, no matter how good people think he is for the economy鈥攖he blah, blah, blah.鈥

Lately, however, L贸pez has chosen to focus on local reporting and sidestep the presidential race. 鈥淚 used to report it more heavily, years ago, but I don鈥檛 anymore,鈥 she said, 鈥渂ecause I think there could be some retaliation.鈥 She wants to avoid traps鈥攎isplaced assumptions about her own political agenda, damage to her paper鈥檚 regional reputation鈥攁nd besides, many in her audience express apathy toward the presidential campaigns. More front-of-mind is state politics, namely SF 2340, aimed at allowing Iowa police to arrest certain immigrants even if they have a form of legal status. In early April, Reynolds signed SF 2340 into law; it鈥檚 now being challenged in court, and L贸pez has been inundated with questions about the status of the case. People are also asking her who, exactly, the law targets; the language of SF 2340 does not make a clear distinction between undocumented immigrants and immigrants with another status, such as asylum or parole. Finally, it鈥檚 unclear how local police will enforce the law if it goes into effect. The uncertainty bothers L贸pez, too鈥攕he has struggled to deliver clear answers. She鈥檚 taken to calling police departments across western Iowa, asking chiefs and sheriffs about their plans. Many have told her that they, too, are confused; they don鈥檛 know how the state expects them to act. 鈥淪o we鈥檒l see what鈥檚 going to happen,鈥 she said. 鈥淲e鈥檙e going to stay very alert.鈥

In many ways, her methods鈥攑icking up threads in person and reporting back to residents in real time, whether in church or online鈥攄isrupt the flow of online gossip, panic, and misinformation as only traditional newsgathering can. Woolley, the propaganda researcher, told me that WhatsApp is an especially powerful vector of fake news precisely because, within private groups, falsehoods are shared among people who already know one another. For journalists to succeed in dismantling rumor and confusion, he said, they have to enter the chat, the way L贸pez does: 鈥淭he media has to engage with their communities.鈥 As Burns put it: 鈥淲e have to rebuild the trust in news from La Prensa back up, not from the New York Times down.鈥 In the face of rampant misinformation online, he added, 鈥渓ocal newspapers are the last bastion of collective reality.鈥

Of course, that puts a lot on L贸pez. (鈥淚n 1985, you鈥檇 probably have four to five people splitting up the responsibilities that are in her portfolio today,鈥 Burns said.) 鈥淢y son says I鈥檓 crazy,鈥 L贸pez told me. But she doesn鈥檛 mind hard work, and she doesn鈥檛 want to think about retirement. She remembers the feeling she had before La Prensa, dumpster-diving for scraps of information from bad Google translations of newspapers. She knows that her neighbors turning to social media for news are trying to satisfy the same curiosity. 鈥淲hen they come up to me, I don鈥檛 always know the answers,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut I tell them鈥攍et me ask.鈥

Jack Herrera is an independent reporter. He鈥檚 a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered a changing American West, and a former senior editor at Texas Monthly, where he covered the border and Latino communities. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.