Brazilian journalists did not back down in the face of Bolsonaro's attacks, study finds

Former President Jair Bolsonaro's recurrent and vicious attacks on journalists during his four years in office did not serve to intimidate or reduce coverage of his administration by the Brazilian press. Instead of shying away, the country's journalists saw the attacks as a reason to put "more gas" into their craft, in a show of resilience.

These are some of the findings of the study "Attacks against journalists in Brazil: Catalyzing effects and resilience during Jair Bolsonaro’s government," published in July by The International Journal of Press/Politics, a leading journal in the fields of press and politics, by a team of five researchers from the University of Texas at Austin.

In the article, the team employed a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to ascertain the effects of Bolsonaro's attacks on journalists on the press. 

Among the study's first two hypotheses: Hypothesis 1, “An increase in attacks against journalists leads to a decrease in news coverage on Jair Bolsonaro,” and Hypothesis 2, “An increase in attacks against journalists leads to an increase in news coverage of Bolsonaro,” none were proven according to the quantitative analysis.

However, when they moved on to the qualitative study, from interviews with 18 journalists personally attacked by the former president and his allies, the reaction was a greater willingness to work.

A man with black hair and moustache looks directly into the camera

Lead paper author Joao V. S. Ozawa, a doctoral student at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin

Multiple journalists used the word gás (“fuel”) to articulate their reaction to attacks, which catalyzed coverage rather than chilling it,” the authors said. “Bolsonaro’s goal of silencing journalists through attacks does not seem to work. Instead, they are not backing down.”

The result contradicts the initial expectation of the researchers, who, according to the literature in similar contexts, said they believed that the president's aggressive rhetoric could have a “chilling” effect — that is, of intimidation — over the press. Instead, it found "catalyzing effects.” 

Lead paper author João V. S. Ozawa, a doctoral student at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, called the results "surprising from a theoretical and also a personal point of view." 

As Ozawa told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), "although democracy in Brazil is flawed and for the few, it has shown resilience. This study gave me even more admiration for Brazilian journalism."

The article was written by Ozawa (main author), along with professors Josephine Lukito, Anita Varma and Rosental Alves (also director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which publishes LJR), from the University of Texas at Austin, and Taeyoung Lee, a former doctoral student at the same institution who is now a professor at the University of Houston.

Quantitative research

According to Ozawa, the idea for the article came when he and Lee were students in a Lukito course on the use of combined methods for the study of journalism.

For the quantitative part, the researchers first used data from the 2019 and 2020 Report on Violence Against Journalists and Press Freedom in Brazil by the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj, by its Portuguese acronym), which keeps track of attacks against the press.

Added to this data was a base of propaganda messages from public Facebook and Twitter accounts of Bolsonaro associates, family members, far-right politicians and other affiliates, which the study classified as the "Cabinet of Hate."

The researchers then cross-referenced the attacks and propaganda with publications during the same period from four outlets: the website G1, the portal UOL, the left-wing website Brasil 24/7, and the website of the progressive magazine Carta Capital. They found 20,998 relevant publications.

The comparative analysis showed no correlation or causality between attacks and changes in coverage. On the other hand, the results show that an increase in propaganda tended to lead to an increase in news coverage, and also that an increase in propaganda led to an increase in attacks against journalists.

That is, while Bolsonaro's attacks directly did not lead to more or less coverage, offensive messages posted on social media did correlate with more attacks against the press, and also with intensified coverage.

Structural difficulties of the press

In the second phase of the study, 80 journalists who had been attacked by Bolsonaro were contacted for individual interviews, and 18 agreed to participate.

In their responses, journalists cited four main dimensions of their craft during the Bolsonaro administration: 1) Structural restrictions on press freedom; 2) A growing "us versus them" mentality; 3) Their persistence in response to attacks; 4) The needs for a solidarity infrastructure to support journalists under attack.

Regarding the first item, some respondents quoted "a concentration of political, economic and media power" in Brazil as an obstacle to their work, noting that "political power is very close to media ownership."

This, according to some interviewees, was a bigger challenge to the work than Bolsonaro's attacks.

"Generally, the editorial line is heavily influenced by politics and the people who are in politics, whether those people are holding a government position or not," said one of the interviewees, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite this and the emergence of an adversarial mentality in society, journalists, according to the study, “spoke vehemently and consistently against self-censorship, characterizing it as a ‘disease of journalism’ and describing their self-vigilance against allowing insidious self-censorship to infuse their work.”

In the words of one of the interviewees, "That's exactly what they want, for journalists to be afraid, to be cornered. All these attacks are for that to happen."

Finally, the journalists interviewed differed on the support they received. While some cited precarious support networks, including from their employers, and many reported great mental stress, including symptoms typical of depression, others said they relied on encouragement and understanding from the organizations where they worked and from their employers.

In conclusion, the results suggest that “these findings showcase the resilience of Brazilian journalists during a time of political animosity that has no precedent since the democratization of the country.”

One of the limitations of the study, according to co-author Ozawa, is that it does not take into account the content of the news, nor the types of attacks, but rather their volume - which, according to him, should serve as motivation for future research.

According to co-author Lukito, the study makes clear the advantages of a hybrid approach, which combines different research methods, for the study of journalism.

"Mixed methods approaches that combine quantitative and qualitative analysis makes the study of journalism much richer. When doing research for the benefit of journalism and journalists, we must consider every analytical tool in our repertoire, and often that means combining and mixing methods,” she told LJR


(Banner and Feature photos: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil)