Brazilian news media use social media and innovative storytelling techniques to cover Zika health pandemic

By Claudia Bueno

Live Facebook video debates with scientists, reports about the social consequences of microcephaly, data visualization projects and infographics to show how it spreads. The emergence of the Zika virus as a global pandemic has forced Brazilian journalists to adopt a wide range of storytelling techniques and tools to cover the various aspects of this health emergency.

By this point, most people know the real threats posed by the Zika virus, especially to pregnant women. The most recent census of the Brazilian Ministry of Health confirmed 1,198 cases of microcephaly, a birth defect often causes by abnormal brain development, are linked to the Zika virus. More than 3,700 cases of microcephaly are under suspicion of being related to the virus.

However, according to Patricia Campos Mello, special reporter for one of Brazil’s largest newspapers Folha de S. Paulo, the coverage of the issue, as well as attention given by authorities, came slowly.

“At the beginning, the media was working in the vacuum of what the Ministry of Health said: ‘it is a very benign disease, it has no major consequences,” Mello explained to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In May 2015, Minister of Health, Arthur Chioro, said that people should not worry about Zika because the tropical disease Dengue, which is also transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, was more dangerous.

“We started to pay more attention in September, when the first reports came out about the increase in the number of cases of microcephaly in Recife, located in Pernambuco,” Mello said.

During a recent panel hosted by Duke University, Mello said that people initially did not pay attention to the virus partly because the epicenter of the disease outbreak was in more remote areas of the country, Duke Today reported.

“Because the outbreak was not in the big financial, industrial centers of the country, the news outlets were just not paying attention,” Mello said, according to Duke Today. She also said that reliable data on victims is still difficult to obtain, the publication reported.

The newspaper Jornal Do Commercio of Recife said it was one of the first to address the explosive increase in cases of microcephaly in October 2015 in the state of Pernambuco, where the outbreak started.

A month later when the Brazilian Ministry of Health declared a state of emergency in public health, the virus became front-page news for all mainstream media.

The health blog of Jornal do Commercio, Casa Saudável (Healthy Home), has been publishing reports in print and online about the Zika outbreak, giving information such as where the families can find free care for babies with microcephaly and even about campaigns of companies to fund kits for the treatment.

Regarding Folha de. S. Paulo, Mello said coverage started with a correspondent working in the northeastern city of Recife. She added that in February, the paper produced a special section about Zika. Since that time, journalists specializing in health coverage, daily reporters, freelancers and correspondents in the northeast have been dedicated to covering the outbreak.

Related coverage is under the Daily news tab on the paper’s website in sections labeled aedes aegypti and “Zika and Microcephaly.” The paper has created infographics and videos showing the virus’ origins, symptoms, where it is located around the world, how it can affect the nervous system, and more.

Under the tab for the aedes aegypti mosquito, the newspaper also addressed other diseases transmitted by the mosquito, including dengue and chikungunya. The outlet has gathered data on the prevalence of these cases, as well.

But, news coverage of the disease is not limited to science, statistics and health advice.

“I focus on covering the impacts of the disease on the population, the lack of access to primary care for mothers and babies in the Northeast, the reaction of the mothers and fathers to the diagnosis of microcephaly, such as abortion and abandonment,” Mello explained.

Chico Amaral, executive director of major national newspaper O Globo, which is based in Rio de Janeiro, told the Knight Center that in the beginning, the paper’s science reporter covered the disease as it did not have a specific team dedicated to the topic.

“As the coverage grew, we set up a team,” he said.

Now they have two more journalists, one in Rio de Janeiro and another in Brasilia, that are working on the beat. Depending on the volume of news, daily reporters in São Paulo are also involved.

On its website homepage, O Globo has dedicated a button to the Zika outbreak, along with others for “Impeachment” and “Lava-Jato,” the major political crises affecting the country.

In March alone, the journal published more than 30 articles about the Zika virus, including information about transmission, international news that includes cases in other countries, World Health Organization (WHO) updates and analysis of how the outbreak will affect the upcoming Olympic games.

Like Folha, O Globo’s coverage goes beyond presenting numbers. The newspaper reports on the different social effects of the disease, including an article that tells the story of women who cannot wait to get pregnant because of their age.

They published a series of short informative videos on Facebook that address rumors about the spread of the virus, for example, whether it is safe for pregnant women to use bug spray or whether mosquitoes are resistant to fumigation. Answers to these questions are also available on the outlet’s website under the headline “Truths, lies and doubts about the Zika virus.”

“We try to keep a service line always active, with a bank of questions and answers, and debates live on video on Facebook with experts from different areas, from scientists to people who can talk about abortion,” Amaral said.

Brazilian media outlets have a full agenda of pressing stories on a national and international level. Aside from the Zika health crisis, a corruption scandal known as Lava Jato has ensnared the highest levels of government; President Dilma Rousseff faces potential impeachment. In this midst of all this, the country will host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games starting in August.

More than 1.5 million people have contracted the Zika virus in Brazil, and more than 30 countries have confirmed existence of the disease, according to the WHO. In an Olympic year, when all eyes are on the host country, news organizations around the world will watch to see how Brazilian media maintain coverage of the Zika virus despite the proliferation of other big news events.

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.