‘Editorial criteria could be rethought and strengthened,’ Folha's diversity editor said after controversy over racism in Brazilian newspaper

Folha de S.Paulo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil and about to turn 101, is going through an “unprecedented crisis,” according to its own ombudsman. The newspaper has been put into question by its readers and staff for the alleged “recurring publication of racist content”–according to about 200 of its own journalists in an open letter to Folha's management. Supported by some of its columnists and readers, the newspaper refutes the accusation and emphasizes its commitment to “plurality and the uncompromising defense of freedom of expression.”

The controversy comes amid efforts by Folha in recent years to increase the ethnic and racial diversity of its staff and its content, such as the creation of a Diversity editorial area and a training program for Black professionals. And it raises criticism from journalists and researchers about the newspaper’s perception of racism and its role in perpetuating or fighting the main scourge of Brazilian society.

Flavia Lima, diversity editor at Folha, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) about the incident. According to her, the debate started after the publication of an article by the anthropologist Antonio Risério, on Jan. 15. It is “an important milestone in the sense of raising very pertinent questions for public debate: what is racism and what is the importance of this concept in a society like ours? Does the concept of free speech include everything?”

The journalists’ open letter “calls for dialogue,” she said.

Flavia Lima

Flavia Lima of Folha (Courtesy)

“It is an invitation to discuss racism and also journalism itself, as it proposes a broader reflection on the editorial criteria that lead newspapers to publish a text such as Antonio Risério’s, that distances itself from criticism supported by consistent argumentation and presents a concept, 'reverse racism,' which is not supported by debates on racial issues held in academia, nor by the social and economic data collected by research institutions. In this process, editorial criteria could be rethought and strengthened,” Lima said.

Article prompts accusations against newspaper

On Jan. 15, Folha published an article by Risério entitled “Racism of Black people against white people gains strength with identity [politics].” In the text, the anthropologist cites the book “Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism” by the American journalist William McGowan, published in the United States in 2001.

In the book, according to a review by Publishers Weekly, McGowan “presents case after case in which, he contends, reporters and editors got stories wrong or ignored topics worthy of coverage because of their liberal ideologies and their fear of offending African-Americans, gays or feminists.”

In the article published in Folha, Risério lists some of the cases cited by McGowan, which took place in the United States in the 1990s, to state, among other things, that “whoever observes the worldwide racial panorama can see that Black racism [against white people] is a fact." He criticizes what he calls “the media’s double standard,” as “the refusal to recognize the reality of anti-white racism is particularly evident in the media coverage of Black-on-white crimes.”

That same day, people on social media responded to the article saying that “reverse racism does not exist” and criticizing Folha for publishing the text. In the following days, several Folha columnists called attention to the article and the debate on social media, both condemning and defending the newspaper and the anthropologist's text.

“The problem with Risério's text is not that it is controversial (don't worry, we have enough stamina to handle it); the problem is that Folha agreed to run a full page with a text that reproduces supremacist theories that, until yesterday, only inhabited the basement of the internet,” wrote Thiago Amparo, lawyer and Folha columnist.

Columnist Hélio Schwartsman, who was once an Opinion editor at the newspaper, wrote: “I am glad that Folha, despite its external and internal patrols, has not given up on trying to promote the debate of subjects that are becoming taboo.”

Journalists protest

On Jan. 19, around 200 Folha journalists published an open letter to the newspaper's management, an unusual initiative in Brazilian journalism. Addressing Folha’s directors and editorial board, they expressed “concern about the recurrent publication of racist content in the newspaper’s pages,” mentioning other texts in addition to Risério's article.

They said they recognized “the pluralism that underpins Folha's editorial principles and the defense it makes of freedom of expression.” However, “these are not separate from other values journalism must defend, such as truth and respect for human dignity.”

“Folha does not usually publish content that relativizes the Holocaust, nor does it give voice to dictatorship apologists, flat-earthers and representatives of the anti-vaccination movement. Why, then, would the practice be different when it comes to racism in Brazil?,” the signees questioned.

Folha responded that same day to the protest by its journalists. Sérgio Dávila, managing editor, said that “criticism and self-criticism are healthy, always encouraged by the newspaper.”

“What is worrying is the content [of the journalists’] text, which goes against one of the basic and non-negotiable tenets of the Folha Project: plurality and the uncompromising defense of freedom of expression,” he said. He maintained that, “in addition, the text errs, is biased and makes baseless accusations, three undesirable characteristics when it comes to journalism professionals.”

“Folha will continue doing the journalism that has consecrated it for the past 100 years, with a newsroom that is willing to professionally implement the principles defended by its Editorial Project: critical, non-partisan, independent and pluralistic journalism,” Dávila said.

The journalists’ initiative and Folha's response were also reflected by its columnists in the newspaper's pages. Cristina Serra wrote that the letter “was born historic” and “proposes a necessary and fruitful debate, which goes beyond the borders of journalism.”

“Folha's 200 journalists dared to put their finger on the wound, doing so via a thoughtful letter with solar clarity. They should be praised for it, not attacked. Their courage is up to the historic moment we are going through and dignifies the struggle of journalists for a more just country,” she said.

Jânio de Freitas, who has been writing for the newspaper for 40 years, celebrated “the turmoil arising” from Risério's article, which he believes will “be good for the readers” of Folha. “And it did an immeasurable good to Brazilian journalism: the manifesto with about 200 Folha signees, questioning the spaces given to racist positions and other similarly undeserving ones, the choices of collaborators with undemocratic tendencies, is already a milestone,” Freitas said.

“The manifesto’s authors are saying that they are journalists who are alive, they are people, not robots. They are people, they are journalists who want journalism. And they want Folha alive as Folha. Their lucid and courageous attitude is a luminous awakening,” the columnist said.

Structural racism

Journalist and researcher Yasmin Santos, author of a survey on Black journalists in print newspapers, echoes criticisms from experts in race relations in Brazil by pointing out that the article by Risério, epicenter of the current debate, presents a conceptualization of racism that is at odds with the evidence accumulated by the social sciences and humanities in the country.

Jornalista Yasmin Santos. (Foto: Divulgação)

Jornalista Yasmin Santos. (Foto: Divulgação)

Risério “takes racism as a mere offense, and not as a power structure,” Santos told LJR. “This type of argument, without having a bibliography, a context that supports it, can be considered scientific denialism. There is a lot of evidence in the fields of humanities and social sciences that shows that racism is not a mere offense of an individual against another individual, or of a small group against another group. It is a structure, it is something that has structured Brazilian society.”

For her, “it is very worrying” not only that Folha published the text, but also the prominence given to the text in the paper, since it filled an entire page of the Ilustríssima supplement. “Not only the publication, but the prominence given to this type of content makes us rethink what Folha means when it says that it’s ‘a newspaper in the service of democracy,'” she said, citing the newspaper’s slogan.

Liv Sovik, a professor at the School of Communication (ECO, by its Portuguese acronym) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a scholar on whiteness and racial relations in Brazil, told LJR that Risério’s article “is not an opinion, it is symbolic violence disguised as knowledge.”

“If Folha's journalism is still committed to publishing something resembling the truth, this article is uncomfortable,” Sovik said. “It is full of lies and distortions, some of them very crude, that an editor should not let stand.”

Among these, according to her, is the statement that “Black Lives Matter calls for the death of Jews in their public demonstrations,” as the anthropologist wrote about the social movement created in the United States in 2013 in response to the murders of Black people by police officers. “Did anyone find, in Risério's text, a quote from someone from BLM who took a position or said something anti-Semitic?,” Sovik questioned.

“I can't take seriously what Risério claims to be an argument. When I hear that there is something to be saved, some truth concealed in Risério's text, I do not agree,” the scholar said.

For Lima, Folha's diversity editor, the criticism of the newspaper for publishing the article “does not seek to obliterate the debate, but to qualify it.” She cites excerpts from texts by historian Petrônio Domingues and the group Judeus pela Democracia [Jews for Democracy], both published by Folha in response to Risério’s article, as examples of criticisms that qualify the debate by defining racism as “a social structure that confers privileges and disadvantages based on ideas of race, and is not to be confused with acts of prejudice or discrimination.”

Professor Liv Sovik (Courtesy)

Professor Liv Sovik (Courtesy)

“The defense of freedom of expression must be made firmly, but it is not incompatible with the fact that newspapers do not accept everything: choices are made daily,” Lima said. “We also know that freedom of expression does not exempt us, as journalists, from understanding the relevance of what we deliver to the reader, with a critical spirit and a commitment to the facts.”

Moving forward

Lima pointed out that Folha “has made very important efforts to make its newsroom and its list of columnists and bloggers more diverse, as well as the sources consulted for the elaboration of the content delivered to the reader.”

Among these efforts are the diversity editorial area, which Lima heads and which was created in 2019. Also, the Daily Journalism Training Program exclusively for Black professionals, carried out for the first time in 2021 and which led to the hiring of at least 12 Black journalists, as reported by LJR in September.

The editor even credits the changes brought about by these initiatives at Folha to the position taken by its more than 200 journalists in the open letter to the newspaper's management. “I don't think the professionals' letter obscures these efforts, but rather is a result of them,” she said.

Santos said that she sees such initiatives “with very good eyes,” but expressed concern for not being able to “see at the moment a structural change in the newspaper towards its purpose of being ‘at the service of democracy,’ of being a newspaper that does not condone any type of discrimination.”

“I know that along this path, Folha will make mistakes, and not only Folha, but also several other media outlets. But it is [important] to err understanding that you made a mistake and you learn from it,” Santos said. She considers the newspaper's management response to the open letter signed by journalists to be “worrying.”

“A structural stance that goes through all parts of the newspaper is necessary. Folha does not have that now, it needs to show that it is moving in that direction,” Santos said.

According to Lima, the newspaper is also taking measures to address the “unprecedented crisis” caused by the publication of Risério's article. Among them are “a proposal to create a committee, headed by the diversity editorial area, of Black and non-Black journalists from the newsroom to listen to the demands and forward them [to the newspaper’s management]; the organization of internal seminars on diversity and freedom of expression, as well as seminars on the racial issue; and the resumption of meetings between the newsroom directors and the editorial areas, expanding communication channels.”

In addition, according to her, Folha “will carry out the second edition of the training program aimed at Black professionals in 2022, alongside other training programs; it has broadened the discussions on racism and other forms of arbitrariness and violence, and the debate on plurality and freedom of expression.”

“I see all of this as a process, an organic movement that did not start now and will not end tomorrow,” Lima said.

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