A detention center video and the regret taboo

Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, the youngest of eight children, grew up in San José El Rodeo, an indigenous Maya Achi community in Guatemala. He played bass, piano, trumpet, lyre, and drums. In May, at 16, he traveled northward, to the United States. Earlier this month, I tweeted a video of him dying. 

The video came from surveillance footage of a Customs and Border Protection detention center in Weslaco, Texas. I felt like it had clear newsworthiness. For decades, immigrants detained in CBP centers have called their holding cells hieleras (“ice boxes”) and perreras (“dog kennels”), but as dozens have died in CBP custody, the centers have remained black boxes to outsiders; not even migrants’ attorneys are given access. The video confronted its audience with an unprecedented look inside: Hernández can be seen staggering through a cell towards a toilet, falling to the ground, and convulsing. He tries to lift his head. Then he goes still. It wasn’t until his cellmate woke hours later and called for help that Hernández’s body was discovered. He had died from complications related to the flu.

ICYMI: The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened. 

The video was spectacular, critical reporting, and it disproved the official account of Hernández’s death; CBP agents had claimed, falsely, that they had discovered him unconscious during a “wellness check.” In fact, Hernández had lay dying on concrete for more than four hours. Originally published by ProPublica, the video was shared widely on social media. But within a day, the footage put ProPublica at the center of a controversy: Hernández’s family released a statement through lawyers at the Texas Civil Rights Project expressing their immense sorrow at seeing their son’s final hours go viral online. “Having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare,” the statement read. 

Immediately, many of those who had shared the link to the ProPublica article took their posts down, myself included. Many also criticized ProPublica for not having given Hernández’s family a chance to see the video of their son before publishing it online. In a statement released on ProPublica, Stephen Engelberg, the editor in chief, wrote that a reporter had contacted Hernández’s father and another family member prior to their release of the video, and some edits were made to the footage based on those conversations. Engelberg apologized to the family, though he maintained that the video was newsworthy and said that it would remain online. “The American people need to see this video in order to understand the actions of their government and what really happened to Carlos,” he wrote. He must have known that it would not be a popular call.

 

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On Twitter, critics pilloried ProPublica for traumatizing a family in mourning. Yet it was impossible not to notice an uncomfortable irony in some of the responses: many of the journalists lambasting ProPublica had shared the video on their social media hours before. Even the Texas Civil Rights Project had posted it before members of Hernández’s family called. As indignation at the video’s content turned into indignation that it had been published, Aura Bogado, an immigration reporter for Reveal, made a plain observation: “Surreal to see some people who made that video go viral yesterday explain to the rest of us why it’s not ok in their own viral tweets today.”

The feeling I got when I read the family’s statement was a form of dread I’ve felt before as a journalist: an elevated heartbeat and a sudden sense of distance from my surroundings. I wanted to blame ProPublica for not properly consulting the family, but I knew that my discomfort came from the fact that I had felt justified in sharing a video of a person’s kid dying. It was a jolt of recognition that, as a reporter, I don’t always know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. 

ICYMI: The story BuzzFeed, The New York Times and more didn’t want to publish

An independent journalist, I cover immigrants, refugees, and detainees. I know that my desire to tell vulnerable people’s stories comes from a wish to do good. But I also recognize that’s not my only motivation. I want my work to be read because of the impact it could have; I also want my work read because I want my work to be read. I am not without an ego—is anyone?—and there are times, such as this, when I wonder what that means for my news judgment. Another example: while researching the opioid crisis in the Midwest, a source, someone living with serious addiction, asked me, “How much money are you making on the hell I went through?” It was a fair question; the relationship between writer and story is never entirely pure.

Journalists struggle to sit with doubt. Our livelihoods are staked on our reputation, and even before the moral panic about “cancel culture,” people in our profession had difficulty admitting when they had made the wrong call. Reporters don’t take a Hippocratic Oath; if we have our own version of “Do No Harm,” it’s “Tell The Truth.” We learn to become inured to sources who complain and, in many ways, numbing yourself to criticism is an essential skill for reporters. But sometimes, it can also be a way to justify harm.

Engelberg has fielded criticism before. He has also apologized. “It’s not comfortable,” he tells me. “Nobody in journalism wants to be told you got it wrong; that you’re insensitive; that you’re racist.” In the case of the Hernández video, some critics believed that ProPublica might not have published the video if Hernández had been a white US citizen. (In recent years, many publications have shared images of brown and Black people dying with the justification that it might get white people to care.) Others argued that airing the death of a Maya Achi Guatemalan asylum-seeker made the tragedy “other” to many American viewers, desensitizing them to indigenous pain. For Engelberg, who said he would have published the video regardless of the person’s race or citizenship status, the Hernández family’s statement had to be weighed against an institutional story, about America’s treatment of migrants. The dignity of an individual and the potential impact of an article come up at odds. Reckoning with that will never be easy: one answer may offend, another may mean failing to tell an important story. 

 

Engelberg had published a statement responding to the Hernández family, but he still felt uneasy. He needed more time to think. He began calling colleagues at other magazines and newspapers. He had long conversations. He talked with a friend who is a professor of philosophy. He asked all of them if they thought he had made the right decision.

After about a week of soul-searching, Engelberg posted a meditative column explaining his thought process. “It is clear there is no consensus on how such issues should be handled,” he told readers. When it comes to video and audio recordings that depict government and police misconduct, “The public interest arguments for publishing such material are unassailable,” he wrote. “But the handling of such recordings, which may reveal victims of violence or a person’s most intimate and desperate moments, raise ethical issues that journalism has only begun to grapple with.” 

He conceded that ProPublica had failed to do its diligence with the Hernández family. “Showing them the footage we intended to use would have given them a chance to truly understand what the world was about to see of Carlos’ final hours,” he explained. “And it would have given us at ProPublica a better opportunity to weigh the competing tensions of privacy and public interest.” Still, he argued, keeping the video online was justified.

As journalists, we may feel pressure to justify harm we’ve caused—often by invoking a murky code of ethics unfamiliar to non-journalists—rather than to simply atone for it. I admire that Engelberg called on the counsel of others and that he never foreclosed on the possibility that he had, in fact, made a mistake. His review of how he’d approached the Hernández story was honest. Still, I wish the role of race had been taken more fully into account, since it does—explicitly or subliminally—play a role in the decision-making of our industry, which is disproportionately white (and, it must be said, has few Central American and indigenous editors).

I don’t claim to know the answers. I do think that we sometimes need to confront an audience with the reality of institutional injustice, but as an immigration reporter and a Latino, I’ve also seen how some people’s suffering can become—to put it simply—content. In the age of Trump, migrant tragedy journalism sells. When I read the statement by the Hernández family, I came to a conclusion different from Engelberg’s—that a murky amalgam of desire for attention and internalized racism had led me to make an error of judgment. In sharing the video, I realized, I had became a part of a mother’s nightmare. I took down my posts.

When our norms are questioned, we tend to react emotionally. Tina Vasquez, a former senior reporter at Rewire.News who writes about immigration and reproductive rights, argues that those feelings are worth exploring, much as journalists may resist. “You have to really think of where your discomfort is coming from,” she says. “I’ve learned it’s usually because you know that you fucked up—and it’s embarrassing and it does not feel good.”

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This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Stephen Engelberg’s name.

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Jack Herrera is an independent reporter covering immigration, refugees, Latinx issues, and human rights. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Nation, and elsewhere. Based in San Francisco, he is an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations.

TOP IMAGE: A photo of sixteen-year-old migrant Carlos Hernandez Vasquez. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)