Brazil's citizen journalists crucial in covering record floods

By Maira Magro

Rains pounded Rio de Janeiro this week, killing hundreds of people–mostly in mudslides—and citizen reporters played a key role in conveying the magnitude of the disaster. In addition to blogs and Twitter, they channeled an enormous number of photos, texts, and videos through traditional news media, allowing for prompt and comprehensive coverage that never would have been possible if the reporters were working alone.

"While many journalists were still trying to reach their newsrooms, stranded like thousands of locals, news sites were already sending photos, amateur videos and witness accounts from citizens, registering the chaos in the whole city," says journalist Larissa Morais, professor of communication at Fluminense Federal University, in this story published by Observatório da Imprensa (Press Observatory).

One of the more positive aspects of this coverage, she says, is that the news covered places traditionally overlooked by major media, such as urban neighborhoods and outlying suburbs.

“The wide scope that the citizens gave to the news coverage weighed more than the fact that their registry escaped the prevailing ethical pattern," the article says. Even Globo Network's Jornal Nacional (National News), the country's most traditional newscast, resorted to videos produced by ordinary citizens, as did other news shows on TV Globo, a station known for its use of high-quality footage.

The O Globo news site created this collaborative map where readers can place information about the tragedy, in addition to publishing diverse photos and opinionated forum posts from these citizen journalists.

The news quickly spread beyond traditional media. "Twitter became the principal mechanism for service delivery between local citizens who are using the tool to warn of impassable [traffic] points through photos, texts and videos, in addition to spreading severe criticism of the state," says this post from the digital culture blog Vida em Rede (Life on the Network).

Columnist Ricardo Noblat, who maintains a popular profile on the 140-character news site, gained 390 followers on Tuesday April 6 alone, versus his usual average of 70 a day. He explains on his blog what happened: “for each piece of information I gave, the readers sent seven or eight more. And I went over each one for followers of the blog."

A fact that impressed the veteran journalist: no information sent by readers was wrong. "Their testimony was more alive and credible than mine," says Noblat, who – fittingly – was covering the tragedy from Brasília, hundreds of miles away.

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.