Brazilian editor launches studies on the effects of the internet on journalism and warns about dangers of media fragmentation

Media fragmentation in the digital environment carries risks for journalism and for citizens in democratic societies, warns Brazilian journalist Ricardo Gandour, director of content for Grupo Estado and visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School.

The finding is the result of a study whose preliminary results were presented by Gandour at the World Editors Forum organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) on June 14 in Cartagena, Colombia.

At the time, Gandour showed a video with animation that he produced describing the causes and risks of fragmentation and suggesting what can be done so that journalistic rigor is preserved. The study will be published next month by the Columbia Journalism Review.

One of the main effects of digital fragmentation, according to Gandour, is polarization. On social networks, the spread of rumors and opinions based on unconfirmed facts ends up generating instant and superficial reactions, and discussions lose nuance.

Another effect is related to the consumption of information. People may be losing the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, news from propaganda.

For Gandour, the warning should not be understood as resistance to change.

“You can celebrate and use the wonderful possibilities that technologies and digital environments have produced, and at the same time, to reflect and discuss important issues of journalism, they are not mutually exclusive,” the journalist said to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Starting an important discussion does not mean that you are denying the advances.”

In addition to this work about the dangers of fragmentation to media, Gandour also presented data from two studies that he has been carrying out that are focused specifically on Brazilian journalism.

In the first, which was done in partnership with the National Association of Newspapers (ANJ for its acronym in Portuguese), professionals from 60 Brazilian newspapers – which correspond to 80 percent of the circulation of traditional dailies in the country – were interviewed. The objective was to measure how the allocation of resources by beat or sections of newspapers has changed in the last ten years.

The study confirms with data what professionals in the newsroom already suspected: most Brazilian newspapers have shrunk, both in pages and in the number of journalists. But the survey also revealed an encouraging finding: despite the shrinkage, there was an attempt to preserve coverage of politics. For example, less newsrooms cut journalists and pages for this beat.

In the second study, Gandour measured the number of interactions (“likes,” shares or comments) for each post published by Brazilian newspapers on Facebook, and compared the data with the digital activity of state governments over the past three years. The first finding was the increased presence of governors on Facebook. While in 2013, only 17 or Brazil’s 27 governors were active on that social network, this year, only two did not have activity.

Research shows that if journalism retreats, citizens will be more likely to receive information only from official sources, having less access to alternative views.

“The data shows that official information moves at a pace as rapid as the newspapers. That is, if the papers back down, the citizen may be relatively more exposed to official information,” Gandour said.

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.