A full-time reporter. That is how Elvira Lobato, one of the most award-winning and prestigious journalists in Brazil with 39 years dedicated to print journalism, described herself. Even after deciding to retire from Folha de São Paulo in 2011, where she was a special reporter and worked for 27 years, her “destiny” to investigate would not allow her to leave the field. In February, Lobato published a series of reports on television concessions in the Amazon in partnership with independent news site Agência Publica.
The eleven-month investigation looked at various states of what is known as the Legal Amazon, a region of nine states in northern Brazil. Lobato surveyed data from more than 1,700 television channels to uncover the relationships between politicians, governments, businesses, churches and broadcasting channels in the region.
It was Lobato’s first independent work since leaving Folha. In the past, she specialized in telecommunications and broadcasting coverage in Brazil and received the Esso Journalism Award in 2008. With support from the Ford Foundation and Article 19 Brazil, Lobato did what she thinks she does best: she made a calculated dive into a reality known to few.
In this interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at her home in Brazil, she talked about her journalistic career and how she sees the reinvention of the reporter – and of herself – in the profession’s new landscape. This is a truncated version of that interview. To see the original, please click here.
Knight Center: How did you start in print journalism?
Elvira Lobato: During the second year of college, I began to come up with my own story ideas, a characteristic that I kept throughout my career. I remember the first article I got published in a major newspaper was about "girls in boarding houses." The street of Catete had several boarding houses for girls who came from outside the city, I stayed in them for one week and wrote an article for Jornal do Brasil. At that time, there were no windows of opportunity to get into the newspapers like we have today. [...]
KC: By the time you started your career, entering journalism was more difficult, but no one was talking about the crisis we see today in newsrooms.
EL: When I was still in journalism school, a teacher told me "this profession is ending, it is very difficult to survive in the labor market." And it was my choice, I was extremely happy with it. So I believe that there are difficulties in all professions, and you can be extraordinary or mediocre in all of them. You must identify with a profession to choose it; the feeling should be "I do what I like and they still pay me for that." If the reporter is not an essentially optimistic person, they will not persist on this path. I am an optimist from birth. Indeed, the printed press currently is shrinking, but other things come up because a society without journalism is unthinkable.
NC: And what about your beginning at Folha de São Paulo?
EL: I always was attracted to the driest subjects that require diving and research; that led me to covering economic issues. I began in the 70s, covering the capital and financial market, and it was fundamental for me, because it gave me discipline and focus. At that time, I had the opportunity to stay at the paper for six months covering the maternity leave of another reporter, and then I ended up being called back to the economy desk. [...] When Collor [Brazilian ex-president Fernando Collor de Mello] emerges, the newspaper sends me to Alagoas, [...] I get there and see the first scandal related to Collor, who until then had an immaculate image. He had closed a deal to give mill owners tax refunds that practically broke Alagoas state. I did a report on this agreement [...] I started at Folha to do investigative journalism and I discovered my vocation to work in areas that require deep diving and long investigations. I ended being part of the team of special reporters.
KC: Your entire career was in print media, and the first investigation after you left Folha in 2011 was published in Agência Pública, an independent outlet. How was the experience of producing this report?
EL: This report was a project I had been working on since before retiring from Folha [...]. For thirteen years, I covered the telecommunications and broadcasting sector, so when I left Folha, the Ford Foundation came to me and asked if I had any projects in this area because they had an interest in financing something. So I presented this proposal and they bet on it. [...] It took me eleven months of work, and I sometimes worked ten hours a day. In addition to the database, I did all historical research, hundreds of phone calls and traveled to Pará, Tocantins, Maranhão, to see people's reality, which was the most fascinating part of it.
KC: Did you experience any different challenges?
EL: The journalist is, or should be, very different from the researcher and academic, who works with a thesis to be proven. My job is not that, I cannot know what will happen. I need to go there and look, because if I start a thesis, I will not even be surprised myself, I only seek to confirm a preconceived idea. In this sense, the article about the TVs in the Amazon was very similar to those I was used to doing. It was only much harder, because I was alone. [...]
KC: Why did you decide to retire from daily journalism?
EL: I published many reports about the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus). In 2007, I wrote about the 30th anniversary of the Universal Church and its leaders’ assets, which was the report that gave me the Esso Prize. It was not the worst that I wrote about them; I had written about their companies in tax havens, with very strong research guided by documents, and the Church had not done anything. But the response to this 2007 report was disproportionate. They exposed me several times on TV Record [owned by the church], urged the faithful to sue me in court, and it was 112 cases. Until then, I had the conviction that the truth was a bulletproof vest for journalists. I thought that if you write a correct article, fully checked and documented, you would be protected by the truth. And it was not what happened in this case, because the Church did not question any information of my articles; it has filed in small claims demanding moral damages and claiming I had offended their faith. It was not a report on religion; it was a report on assets. That generated a fierce expense for Folha. If it was a small newspaper, it would have no chance to pay. We had to send reporters all over Brazil to represent me in the court, with multiple simultaneous hearings. So it was a very violent thing, and I was sure that this was just a way of trying to intimidate me for my systematic investigations into the church. After this episode, I eventually decided to retire; I was quite shaken. My reaction was consistent with the degree of passion I had for my profession.
KC: There are many people in the profession and academia, who are researching new models for journalism, talking about the reinvention of journalism. The journalist also needs to reinvent herself in this new scenario?
EL: I think it depends on one's vocation. If you ask me to sell something, I cannot even sell water in the desert. I have no talent for it. I'm a reporter, and that's what I have done my whole life. So to reinvent someone with a head like mine is very difficult. Some people like to think about new models and I know I have to join someone who has this vocation, because I myself do not. Reinvention can start with new partners. What I believe is that there has to be space for journalism on any platform. When the Internet was created, people said that would be the end of journalism and journalists, and this is nonsense, the journalist will always be essential to bring information with credibility and impartiality.
KC: Do you intend to publish more independent investigations?
EL: When information arrives and the story is born, it becomes destiny to me, something that I cannot escape. But I need funding for that. It is an expensive job, and even with the support of Ford, I had to secure and adjust the costs to deliver what I wanted. So the question is how do you sustain this kind of work. It is a challenge even for large newspaper companies, and it is our role to find answers. Brazil is immense, unexplored from the journalistic point of view, because we cover very large cities. And if you look carefully and in-depth, if you dive, you will always find something interesting. Now the challenge is to see what tribe I must join to improve what I have and to help generate a new product.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.