For most journalism students, getting published in the New York Times is a distant dream. But for one recent Medill grad, this dream has become a reality.
At the end of last year, the New York Times website published "Embracing Child Labor," a 7-minute documentary by Mathias Meier, Medill '15.
The documentary presented both positive and negative effects of Bolivia’s legalization of child labor and explained why child labor is essential to the local culture. Meier found out that allowing young children to work, an unthinkable idea to many people, might just be the cure for Bolivia’s child labor crisis.
“It’s a good thing to legalize child labor in Bolivia, where it’s part of the culture,” Meier said.
Thanks to the the Medill Global Research and Reporting Grant, which provides funds for students to pursue research and coverage in underreported parts of the world, Meier was able to spend six nights in Bolivia experiencing and documenting situations on the ground. And his work eventually made it to the New York Times with recommendations from his Medill professor Craig Duff.
Meier initially produced the documentary for an advanced video journalism class with Prof. Duff. Meier had always been interested in Bolivia due to its diplomatic tensions with his home country, Chile. However, he chose to focus on the legalization of child labor after learning that “6-year-old Bolivian children marched in the streets and demanded their right to work.” He decided to find out the reasons behind those children’s demonstration. Meier said he was first surprised, but then began to empathize.
“Children in Bolivia are born into it [child labor]. Some of them start working as early as three years old, despite the current legal working age of 10,” Meier said.
To Bolivians, the legalization of child labor brings more public attention onto the treatment of child workers, forcing the officials to deploy manpower for protecting children’s safety and right to education.
“If you regulate it, there are some parts where the government is responsible, and they have inspectors and people who force them [children] to go to school. That’s the whole point [of legalizing child labor],” Meier said.
Still, Meier said that child labor could be detrimental if it endangers the children’s health and education. Issues can also arise in terms of law enforcement.
“They [inspectors in Bolivia] have good intentions, but they are still way behind in getting the government to have the manpower to regulate it correctly,” Meier said.
The idea of legalizing child labor is not widely accepted in the western world, Meier said.
In fact, Bolivian people are aware of the stigma attached to child labor outside their country. Some Bolivian sources that Meier found through local journalists declined interview requests.
“They were shameful to appear on international outlets,” Meier said. And other sources would lie.
An owner of a brick kiln repeatedly denied hiring children, but Meier saw children and parents asking him for jobs immediately after he left. Hiring children at dangerous working places remains illegal in Bolivia.
“It was difficult to get the local families comfortable before camera,” Meier said.
Meier didn’t bring the camera on the first day with the families, only observing their daily routines without asking many questions. He approached the kids not as a questioning reporter, but as a curious adult, which made interviews easier.
“It was like a game for the kids,” Meier said.
Meier ran into another problem when his GoPro 4 camera fell off a cable car while he was trying to get a panoramic shot of the city La Paz.
“Luckily it was the last day of shooting,” he said.
Meier said his documentary idea took shape only after he learned about the Global Research and Reporting Grant and decided to take advantage of it.
Mei-Ling Hopgood, an associate professor at Medill, was the one who chose to offer Meier the grant. She said that he distinguished himself from other applicants by doing a great deal of reporting and researching even before officially starting the project.
To Duff, Meier’s documentary stood out, because he fairly represented voices both supporting and opposing child labor in Bolivia, in addition to the solid reporting and high technical craft of the final product.
Hopgood said Mathias challenged viewpoints against child labor with evidence, rather than arguments.
“He was not trying to be judgmental,” Hopgood said.
Duff recommended Meier’ work to his former colleague, Richard Tanner, senior video editor at the New York Times, because he thought Meier’s video was of “the same quality as other pieces on the New York Times.” Both Duff and Tanner were part of the original team of video journalists for the New York Times, when broadband first became fast enough to stream videos online.
“It’s very challenging to get students, within three quarters of school, to be at that quality [of the New York Times],” Duff said. “Mathias showed incredible growth.”
Meier hoped to uncover the less known side of child labor issues in Bolivia and give a voice to the Bolivian culture that embraces child labor.
“[It’s] a big accomplishment for all students in general,” Hopgood said. Meier’s editor from a TV station in Chile saw the documentary and assigned him to investigate child labor there. Currently, Meier works full-time at the TV station, while freelancing for CNN en Español.
“Chile has presented itself as a very first-world country in South America, but we do have issues like child labor,” Meier said. “Bolivia and Chile aren’t that different at all.”
Meier’s journey is far from finished. In Chile, he knows that there are still more stories to share.