Posted in Behind the News

Spotlight on migrant perils at the border

, by Patrick Maks

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor Brian Carovillano outlined the backdrop behind a searing photo of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in the Rio Grande attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and subsequent all-formats reporting that provided important, relevant context to member news organizations and customers:

It all started when New York photo editor Pablo Salinas first spotted the arresting image taken by freelance reporter Julia Le Duc on the website of La Jornada, the Mexican newspaper that originally published it. A Salvadoran man, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez – frustrated because the family was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum – attempted to swim his family across the river on Sunday, June 23, with his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria. Father and daughter were caught by the strong current, their bodies found the next day. Le Duc’s photo showed them face down in the water along a grassy riverbank, his black shirt hiked to his chest and the tiny girl tucked inside. Her slender arm lay draped over his neck, suggesting they clung to each other in their final moments.
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. (AP Photo/Julia Le Duc)
Salinas pointed out the photo to Alyssa Goodman, a top stories photo specialist, who brought it to attention of Director of Photography David Ake. Ake knew that there was still an important standards discussion to be had among senior managers about publishing it, but he asked Goodman to pursue licensing immediately. Goodman, Eduardo Verdugo, chief photographer for Mexico and Central America; Rebecca Blackwell, Mexico City photographer; and senior video producer Alexis Triboulard helped secure rights to Le Duc’s photography and other video images.  In New York, Managing Editor Brian Carovillano and Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski conferred with photo leaders, Goodman and top stories director Paul Haven. They agreed that it was a valuable and moving image with high newsworthiness, and that the AP needed to not just run the photo but make it the centerpiece of strong all-format coverage. The photo was the story, and we needed text and video coverage around it that explained how the migrants’ bodies got there.    AP dug into reporting about the photo vigorously – who the victims were, how they died and the context around their deaths. The story accompanying the image increased its power. Peter Orsi, acting news director for Mexico and Central America, anchored the text story from Mexico City with contributions from the field.    In San Martin, El Salvador, the all-formats crew of correspondent Marcos Alemán, David Barraza and Salvador Melendez tracked down the drowned man’s mother the day the photograph was published and confirmed details of how he and the girl died, including that she had thrown herself in the water and they were swept away by the current when he tried to save her.  They also covered Martínez’s widow as she returned to El Salvador from Mexico, and produced a profile of Altavista, the humble bedroom community in San Martin where Martínez and his daughter lived.
Rosa Ramirez sobs while showing journalists toys that belonged to her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter, Valeria, in her home in San Martin, El Salvador, June 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Valladares)
In Matamoros, Blackwell and Mexico City colleagues, reporter Christopher Sherman and videographer Gerardo Carrillo, interviewed immigration officials and migrants camped out at the river who have been waiting months in some cases to claim asylum – including a woman who had met the family hours before the ill-fated crossing and described them as “scared,” with “panic on their faces.” The team also captured images of the widow at the funeral home and the bodies being loaded for transport overland and ultimately back home to El Salvador. The impact of the photo and story would be hard to overstate. From Pope Francis to Democratic presidential candidates during the party’s first debate, expressions of sadness and outrage were swift. The New York Times ran the photo prominently on the front page of its print edition, following up with a story about why it decided to publish it. For an outstanding multinational effort in finding, recognizing and acquiring Le Duc’s tragic and important image, and presenting it to AP’s worldwide audience with context and sensitivity, Salinas, Alemán, Verdugo, Blackwell, Sherman, Carrillo and Orsi share AP’s Best of the Week award.

Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski explained why we decided to publish the photo in an AP blog post.