Since Operation Car Wash began in March 2014, it has dominated the political agenda in Brazil. Considered by the Federal Police as the biggest corruption investigation ever undertaken in the country, its coverage is a challenge even for experienced journalists, like the editor in chief of Época magazine, Diego Escosteguy.
Before Época, Escosteguy worked in some of Brazil’s main media outlets, such as Estado de São Paulo and Veja, and used to cover cases of corruption at the federal level as well as arduous issues like the earthquake in Haiti and the war in Libya. Yet, even he is not immune to the confusion caused by the operation due to its size and implications: "As the case evolved, the challenge increased, it demands a growing memory for journalists and prolonged attention amid other coverage and a journalism crisis, with leaner newsrooms," he said in a conversation with Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Despite criticism of the press and the growing polarization of the political debate, he believes that the tone of coverage has been honest and that reporters have made a conscious effort to bring the audience all the important information.
In this interview, he evaluates the journalistic coverage of Operation Car Wash and tells how he has led Época's newsroom to report on the case with calm, seeking to "inform the reader without becoming a stenographer of power."
Knight Center: You are one of the journalists on the front lines covering Operation Car Wash in Brazil. Is there something special about covering this case?
Diego Escosteguy: For those who already had been following the corruption disclosures at the federal level, like my team, two things helped understand Operation Car Wash and how to cover it, not only with scoops, but also by contextualizing the case to readers. The first was the background information, even without proof at first, that there was a corruption scheme involving Petrobras [a semi-public multinational petroleum corporation in Brazil], a scheme that was not born in the current government [from the Worker's Party (PT for its Portuguese abbreviation)], but had become more sophisticated with it. The second thing was to realize, also by the journalistic work of recent years, that there was a new generation of prosecutors, police chiefs and judges, with a different mindset, learning from the mistakes of past operations on obtaining robust evidence in white-collar crimes, organized crime and corruption, and benefiting from the maturity of the institutional apparatus. For those who were aware, these things provided a glimpse into the potential of Operation Car Wash.
KC:But does it require a different kind of work from the reporter?
DE: To journalists, what distinguishes the coverage of Operation Car Wash is the challenge of its complexity and size. And this challenge is threefold. The first is to report the evidence obtained in the operation, getting exclusive news and investigations. The second is to cover it in a critical and attentive way to ensure that, despite the seriousness of the facts and the prominence of the charges, constitutional principles are not being knocked down, and to be aware of the criticism from lawyers related to abuses. This requires a legal and technical knowledge and critical attention, all the time. And the third is the ability to analyze all the facts, investigations and political and economic repercussions, possible mistakes, and contextualize it to the reader.
KC: Many people questioned the role of the press in the dissemination of recordings made by Judge Sergio Moro targeting former President [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]. How do you evaluate the coverage in this instance?
DE: I make my evaluation based on the case evidence, with direct knowledge of the evidence and respecting those who think differently. The disclosure of the telephone recordings met, according to the Judge Sergio Moro, the public interest. In his view and in that of the Prosecutors Office's, a plot to block the law was being organized and it needed to be known before it was finished. In a mature democracy, it is expected that the press, in weighing different constitutional principles, always has a special affinity for the principle of disclosure, which is our reason of being. [...] But it is important to clarify the nuances of the case. This does not mean that the Supreme Court cannot question or find judge Sergio Moro's attitude of disclosing the phone conversations to be wrong. It is not for journalism to judge, the Justice will decide whether the recordings can be used as evidence. [...]
KC: There was also criticism of the role of the press in covering demonstrations. One of the images that circulated with questions about the coverage juxtaposes two covers of the newspaper O Globo, showing demonstrations for and against the government. Do you think there is an ideological bias in the media as in portrayal of the demonstration?
DE: Media professionals have made a conscious effort to cover the protests in the best way, both protests for and against the government. Even despite the difficulties of the coverage, because many protesters hate the press and there is hostility toward the work of journalists. Now, it seems to me that any criticism of the way the press presents the demonstrations is valid because it is a moment of great tension and polarization. There is also a problem of scientific basis, because we only have research done in São Paulo; unfortunately there are no nationwide surveys to have a better basis for asserting the profile of the protesters and what they want, then journalists face the difficulty of the lack of data to cover the demonstrations. Covering street protests is a challenge to the world press, with movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. The press seek uniformity and use some common sense, and sometimes fall into simplification, making room for misconception. So it's important to have self-correcting mechanisms, to be aware and to try to understand whether the characterization was correct, if it is balanced and fair.
KC: You were threatened on Twitter for your comments on a court decision. How do you position yourself in the midst of these attacks?
DE: I referred the threats to the authorities, it is not the first time I have been a target. It's a polarizing environment, people often get information superficially on the internet, paying attention to rumors and versions, and suffering a little by the lack of a qualified filter, which at another time was the press. In my case, I try to stay calm, and my work is subject to criticism like any public work. But two things are bad. Physical threats are intolerable, and it does not affect me specifically, but the whole press, because it is a form of intimidation to journalistic work. And the other is the distortion of what is said, of what the press does. It's too bad seeing the meaning of what you have written being changed with political intentions. But then you must have clarity to see that people have a right to criticize, to express themselves and that we live in a time of transition, for, what I hope, is a more conscious and civilized way to relate in social networks with respect to differing opinions. I hope we do not dive into an environment like the American, which is very intoxicated by this dynamic.
KC: What lessons do you think the Brazilian press has taken from the coverage of this operation and the political crisis?
DE: Although there is still more crisis ahead and more lessons to be learned, what we have understood is that it is necessary to have more and more professionals who know about Brazilian law, who understand what a constitutional state is, and how legal issues and court cases can influence the country [...]. As journalists, we need to be up to date with investigative tools and the use of data to understood the nuances of the big issues under discussion [...]. We need to publish, in a fragmented world, a faithful narrative of what is happening, giving context to our readers. Today we have scientific tools in several areas that allow us to go deeper, further in explaining things to readers, and we are still learning these tools [...]. We need critical thinking that is increasingly sharp in order to deal with contemporary events [...]. Journalism may not be the first draft of history, it is something more modest, but to continue to be relevant, we need to fight a lot and specialize in the appropriate tools [...]. We have to be more prepared to handle complex cases.
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.