Coverage of Rio’s favelas increased in quality and volume in international media in the pre-Olympic years, says report

In nearly eight years of anticipation for the 2016 Olympic Games, the reporters who occupied the city of Rio de Janeiro tried to understand one of the most complex Carioca characteristics to "translate:" the favelas. Between 2008 and 2016, the volume of articles published in the international press that mentioned these communities rose almost seven times, to a total of 1,094 reports.

This finding is from the report “Favelas in the Media: How the Arrival of the Global Press in the Age of Megaevents Transformed the Image of the Favela,” from the nonprofit Catalytic Communities (CatComm). The report analyzed the publications of eight international newspapers in eight years using the LexisNexis search agent and found that the Olympic month of August 2016 accounted for 14 percent of all reports compiled on the subject from 2008 to 2016.

The international outlets analyzed, mostly based in the United States and United Kingdom, included The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Daily Mail, Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. Together they published almost ten times more stories in which favelas were the main subject from 2008 to 2016 (592 in all); the greater part (60 percent) were published during the Olympic year, CatComm found.

“Favela residents were directly cited in 112 stories (out of 315, or 36 percent) in 2015-2016 and in only seven stories (out of 45, or 16 percent) in 2008-2009, marking a 16-fold increase in visibility for voices from the favelas. In August 2016, in particular, there was an even higher percentage of material that gave space to voices in the favela,” the report noted.

Pre-Olympics, the presence of a large number of correspondents in Rio de Janeiro was compounded by the need for a high volume of stories about the Olympic city and the increase in investment in the news teams of major international newspapers in Latin America, according to Theresa Williamson, executive director of CatComm and editor of RioOnWatch, a site dedicated to reporting on Rio’s favelas. These factors have yielded a significant improvement in the international coverage of one of the most stigmatized urban spaces in the world, which is home to 24 percent of Rio’s population, the report stated.

“We received some of the best journalists in the world, who came to live here as correspondents. These people came from newspapers that have different interests from local newspapers, so they had more freedom to write. And these journalists had to always be writing, always be suggesting stories, always producing. This provided an opportunity to broaden the debate about favelas,” Williamson explained to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In this context, RioOnWatch has often served as a translator of the context of favela realities for foreign reporters, as well as facilitator in suggesting story ideas and establishing contacts with people in the communities. At least 56 reports of the media outlets surveyed were produced with the support of the RioOnWatch team. The organization prepared an Olympic Resource Guide for Journalists and took 25 reporters on “reality tours,” among other initiatives.

“You can do this ‘education,’” Williamson said. “Most journalists I know of do journalism because of a strong social interest, because they want to improve society. It’s not difficult [to educate], we do not have to convince or to change people’s minds, but just inform, show other points of view, how we need it to happen.”

From the “education” of reporters, they set out to evangelize other members of their journalistic teams. Williamson said many journalists raised the issue of the problem of translating the word “favela” for “slum” in English. Consequently, the readers also learned this “lesson.”

More than 450 stories (42 percent) simply used “favela” without translation. However, “slum” is still the most commonly used word for “favela,” followed by “shantytown” and “community.”

“From our expanded data there does not appear to be any evidence that the use of alternatives for ‘favela’ is decreasing, nor is there a clear decline in the use of ‘slum’ or ‘shantytown,’” the report concluded.

The editor cited Simon Romero, correspondent of The New York Times in Rio, as a positive example on the subject. The journalist discussed the best translation for “favela” with followers on Twitter, mostly colleagues. Subsequently, this concern would be evident in his stories, descriptive of the environment and using multiple sources.

Williamson pointed out that this is an important debate to be made about coverage of a city like Rio.

“When the word [slum] is used a lot, the subject is linked to a concept, which focused mainly on violence, making violence inherent in the favela for the reader. ‘Lazy’ stories use this type of language. They are those that approach the favela as a place that is already born violent. This is worrisome because it is not based on truth. It tends to be the case that the journalist did not even visit the favela.”

In fact, violence is still one of the most prominent aspects of favelas in international media. At least 46 percent of the reports analyzed provided strongly negative portraits of the favelas - only 7 percent were totally positive, according to the report. ‘Locations of violence’ and ‘drug/gang sites’ were the most common descriptions, especially in the years of the World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games.

“This may reflect a greater global concern of the media with security issues surrounding the events themselves and the influx of more journalists seeking to write about violence in the favelas,” the report explained. “However, Williamson said that there has been a shift in perceptions of the sources of violence.

“At first, it was just the drug dealers. Then we started to have the police. We begin to see both sides: that the police have not fulfilled the role of protecting the citizen and that there is a high number of deaths by police,” she said. “I would like to see the narrative go even further. To say that the favela does not generate violence. What generates it is negligence, the lack of basic quality education, of hope, of opportunity.”

A portion of the material analyzed stands out for the diversity of topics aside from violence, according to the report. It’s the seventeen stories that posted the names of favela residents in the bylines, one in The New York Times and the other in the series “View of the Favelas” from The Guardian. None of them painted the residents as the sole perpetrators of violence.

Additionally, the “favelados” preferred to use words like “community” and “neighborhood” to describe their homes. In their stories, favelas were more often described as “places with a sense of community.”

The young community journalist Michel Silva, one of the editors of the newspaper Fala Roça of the community of Rocinha, is one of the authors of The Guardian series. For him, the success of the articles, produced in the form of diaries in first person, comes from the identification of residents.

“We were all from the favelas, so we had the authority to portray the issues in the articles,” he told the Knight Center. “In The Guardian, we had the freedom to write with the popular language and to speak of diverse subjects that generally there is not space for in the Brazilian media. Another important point is The Guardian has preserved to the maximum the versions of our texts.”

For Williamson, it is in the voices of community journalists like Silva that the future of quality Brazilian journalism on the portrayal of the favelas lies.

“We have to think of a way to bring these [community] journalists to the big Brazilian newspapers. Every major newspaper should have a favela journalist, if not several, to bring another vision, which in the case of Rio represents a quarter of the population that does not appear in the newspapers,” she 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.