'Journalism is not a place for a single truth': 5 questions for Brazilian journalist Fabiana Moraes

Brazilian journalist Fabiana Moraes has honed in recent years — in the columns she wrote in piauí magazine in 2018in UOL in 2020, and in those she has been writing at The Intercept Brasil for the past two years — her sharp critique of news coverage of Brazilian politics and society.

Moraes is especially dedicated to pointing out the places from which the country's major media outlets speak, which are evidenced in a journalism aligned with the interests of white and patriarchal elites. Such journalism, to a greater or lesser extent, reproduces and feeds classism, racism, misogyny, LGBTphobia, and other types of hate and discrimination aimed at keeping subordinate social groups that, in reality, make up the majority of the population. This journalism is supported by an idea of objectivity that, although it has long been sold as "universal," has color, gender, address, and power, as Moraes writes in her most recent book, "A pauta é uma arma de combate - Subjetividade, prática reflexiva e posicionamento para superar um jornalismo que desumaniza” [The article is a combat weapon: Subjectivity, reflective practice and positioning to overcome a journalism that dehumanizes].

In the book's 367 pages, Moraes takes up themes explored in her columns and includes a bibliography anchored in feminist, cultural, racial, and decolonial studies to talk "about how journalism can oppose scenarios of the destruction of people’s humanity." "This book talks about how there is no room, in one of the champion countries in terms of social inequality and concentration of income in the world, for 'neutral' and falsely balanced stances in journalism," she writes in the work's introduction.

For six years, Moraes has been a professor and researcher at the Núcleo de Design e Comunicação da Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (NDC/UFPE, by its Portuguese acronym), at the Agreste Campus, in the interior of this northeastern state. She also worked for two decades as a reporter in newsrooms in Recife, capital of Pernambuco, where she was born. Several of her feature stories have won awards and been published in book form. One of them is “O nascimento de Joicy - Transexualidade, jornalismo e os limites entre repórter e personagem” [The birth of Joicy: Transsexuality, journalism and the limits between reporter and character] which received the Esso Reporting Award in 2011, in 2015 was published in book form, and the following year was a finalist for the Jabuti award in the Reportage and Documentary category. "The article is a combat weapon" is her sixth book and was published in Brazil in September by Arquipélado publishing house.

In conversation with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), Moraes spoke about the themes explored in her new book and about journalistic narratives regarding the far-right in Brazil, which came to power with the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in 2018. After the past four years, at least, Brazilian society has more elements to "better scrutinize this press and its false impartiality," she believes.

Read the interview below, which has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR): In your most recent book, "A pauta é uma arma de combate" [An article is a combat weapon], you propose "a subjective journalism." How do you define this kind of journalism and why do you consider it important in the current communication and information context in Brazil and Latin America?

Fabiana Moraes: A first issue is that we cannot talk about a subjective journalism as a "modality,'' but rather understand that subjectivity is and has always been present in news theory and practice. When I emphasize subjectivity, it is first of all a way to take the term "out of the closet," to make it visible, since its presence was epistemologically and historically denied in the name of objectivity, of that which in theory solidifies and makes journalism more credible. In this book I was able to organize with more density the concept of a subjective journalism, which I had started to elaborate in "O nascimento de Joicy" [a book-reportage by Moraes published by Arquipélago in 2015]. I realized that there was a reading, perhaps the most common one regarding journalistic subjectivity, which is the issue of the journalist affecting and being affected by what’s "out there." I realized how there is a certain limitation, in this sense, on the idea of subjectivity. Because it implies that this is something to be thought of on an individual level, not on a collective level. And then, from "O Nascimento de Joicy" to here, I had time to read and listen more, to get to know a bibliography that was totally related to what I had been thinking and elaborating. For example, with feminist theory, in which the concept of objectivity is also epistemologically criticized. Another important issue was reading decolonial criticism. Authors such as Márcia Veiga, Allan da Rosa, Erik Villanueva, Muniz Sodré, Carla Akotirene, and Rosane Borges were important on this path.

In this new book, I’ve taken an X-ray of subjectivity journalism based on five points. One of them is the issue of positioning, often poorly read as a simple form of "militancy." But my understanding is that positioning is not something that will hurt journalism or diminish our practice, quite the contrary. It is a simple question that I always ask: Faced with a scenario of destruction of people’s humanity and so many other forms of life, how can we be neutral? Politics, contrary to what journalism has also taught us, is not simply a partisan activity. It permeates the things of life, our living and our dying.

Another important issue is intersectionality, to make an intersectional reading of the world in order to be able to also translate the world — and I’m thinking a lot about Brazil. We know the Brazilian structure, the legacies left by our slavery past - which is not even that far in the past. What still reverberates from the slavery period defines much of what Brazil is today. And, in my previous reading about journalistic subjectivity, I did not bring more clearly into focus the issues of race, gender, geographies, and territories. I also talk about journalism as a place of creativity, when I understand that journalism is an activity that involves dialogue with several art forms — literature, cinema, documentaries, games, podcasts, comics, visual arts, etc. So it is necessary to understand that journalism is not a place for a single truth, and that it can accommodate forms of narration that are informative, that are journalistic, or that have a strong correlation with journalism, but that are not within a certain canon. Another fundamental point in the construction of subjective journalism is questioning news-values, the attributes that transform an event into more or less newsworthy. We learned these news-values almost as dogma. Most of the time we do not question them, we do not think that they are exclusive. To illustrate: elite, or prominent, or "renowned" people and places are more newsworthy. But how does this value permeate, for example, hierarchies of race, class, [and] geographies? It's a fundamental question, and we don't ask it when we simply echo the criteria of newsworthiness. We simply repeat and amplify them.

A fourth point is the issue of ongoing reflection. Journalism is an extremely complex activity, and somehow we, in this field, began to deny the complexity and the subjectivity to try to make it an almost completely technical, "neutral" profession. I go out into the street, I look, I go back to the computer, I write "objectively" and everything is fine. We thus deny our role as mediators, our responsibility towards the things of the world. Our profession is still very corporative. We protect ourselves a lot, and we never like to be questioned, of someone saying that [some journalistic work] is wrong. So [it is important] to look at your own production and realize when something went wrong, when the coverage was bad, and from there improve what you do. It is a practice that involves reflection and situating yourself. In a certain way, in my 20 years in the newsroom, I have noticed a certain resistance to judgment, to criticism. And this is a complete contradiction to the complexity that journalism represents. There are several forms of journalism, but it is necessary to understand that, whether in a tweet, a hard news article, or a feature story, there is a stance in relation to the world, and I may or may not be racist or homophobic or fascist in three lines, in a story, or in a longer investigation.

The last few years have taught us a lot in relation to Latin America and Brazil. I believe the first thing is that Brazil was perceived as very superior among the Latin American countries, as a country with a more polished democracy. And we saw that things were not quite like that. We are seeing this now. Today [Nov. 11] there are commanders of the Armed Forces issuing a dubious statement about the Brazilian electoral process and about the institutions that oversee this process. So this is a [relevant] aspect, that we are a republic in which democracy is still very fragile. Journalistically, this cannot be put aside. We need to bring this dimension into our work as journalists. And another [dimension], which I don't think is that different from several other Latin American countries, but in which Brazil has a singularity, is the fact that we are the country that took the longest to abolish slavery. It is a country that has a founding characteristic of making deals and agreements, and denying that which was destructive and dehumanizing. I speak not only of slavery, but also of the dictatorship, the genocide of the Indigenous, the institutionalization of the lack of access to land. It is a country that has a past of coups and deals. There is a very famous phrase from the book "Il Gattopardo", by [Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di] Lampedusa: "Everything must change for everything to remain the same". This summarizes the false "revolutions" in Brazil.

LJR: In a passage in the book, you comment on the resistance of part of the Brazilian press to classify Jair Bolsonaro as an extremist or ultra-right wing in the context of the 2018 presidential election. How do you evaluate Brazilian news coverage of Jair Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism over the past four years? 

FM: There are some advances in relation to what Bolsonaro has taught us as journalists, but I think there is still a certain fear of identifying him for what he is. And to identify not only Bolsonaro, actually, but also Bolsonarism, or rather the Brazilian far right that has, since Oct. 30, also been carrying out terrorist acts on the roads.

For example, in the episode of the market going crazy after Lula's speech [in a speech on Nov. 10, President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that his government's priority will be to fight hunger. Part of the press reported that "the market reacted badly," with a rising dollar and falling Ibovespa index]. Octávio Guedes, a commentator on GloboNews, made an incisive speech, in which he said that the market is mostly pro-Bolsonaro. These things need to be said. So when I talk about naming things, it is to say that this market too, as Octávio Guedes did very well, is pro-Bolsonaro and extremist. A market that was made uncomfortable by what an elected president said, but was not made uncomfortable by 4 thousand people dying every day. When we were at the height of the second wave of COVID-19, this market went to dinner with Bolsonaro in Jardins [an upscale neighborhood in Sao Paulo]. There was a meeting between the president and the business community at the peak of the pandemic, with almost 4,000 people dying every day. Then I ask myself: What do we name this? Or do we pretend to be very objective and technical, and pretend that these are just ideological or pragmatic stances? What do we name this? That's when I think we reach the point of dehumanization, when you echo what the market thinks without criticizing it, understanding all its pragmatism.

As I write in the book, this is the role of the knife sharpeners. I quote Luis Antonio Baptista's text that talks about how there are those who dismember and kill, but there are also those who sharpen the knife for those who dismember. He talks about several institutions, including the press, as the sharpeners of these knives. When you have a press that simply echoes the dread of the market as if the market were Brazil, Brazil with more than 30 million starving people, or as if Lula's speech had nothing to do with urgencies regarding people's life and death, I think this is still a journalism that cannot advance and gets stuck in the middle of the road.

On the other hand, I think that mainly women journalists have begun to put the figure of Bolsonaro into clothes that fit him. I see this in several ways, in several news outlets, from the more independent ones to the more conservative or corporate ones. I remember a story that I think is super important in this period. It’s the one from Portal Catarinas with The Intercept Brasil regarding the judge [who denied the right to a legal abortion to an 11-year-old girl], because it showed a pro-Bolsonaro institutional network there, a reflection of Damares' views on abortion [Damares Alves was the former minister of Women, Family and Human Rights during the Bolsonaro administration]. And I think that the very cases with Vera Magalhães [a journalist attacked by Bolsonaro and by politicians and supporters of the president] will also make very clear the treatment [of journalists by the government]. And we know Magalhães was someone who was extremely favorable to [Operation] Lava Jato and who was anti-Lula. And that's funny, because in that sense people didn't feel an activism, an engagement, in relation to [Sergio] Moro [judge in Operation Lava Jato cases, including those involving Lula] and the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in Curitiba. Activists are other people. But Magalhães was another person to illustrate well, in recent years, the difference between a democratic government and an authoritarian and completely misogynist government, such as the Bolsonaro government.

LJR: What impact do you think this coverage had on the 2022 elections and the anti-democratic protests driven by Bolsonaro supporters after he lost the election to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the runoff? 

FM: Regarding the protests, I have seen that the adjective pro-coup is in place, which is good. These are not just protests, these are anti-democratic protests, and that needs to be said. On the other hand, the various terrorist acts seen on the roads, with exploding trucks, nail guns, preventing people from accessing health services, have not been qualified as such, except by openly left-wing oriented news outlets. However, I don't know how exactly the idea of "democracy" translates to the general population. We have to polish the debate about this democracy a little better. Sometimes I think [this debate] is a bit loose. For example, Folha [de São Paulo] does a poll and says "79% of the people in Brazil want democracy." But which democracy? It’s part of the game of democracy to have people protesting [against election results]. It is not democratic, however, to throw iron bars at the Federal Police, to ask for the closure of the National Congress or to present reports based on illusions, as the PL [Liberal Party, President Jair Bolsonaro's party, by its Portuguese acronym, which asked for the annulment of the runoff election, according to which Bolsonaro was defeated] did, to overturn the election. All this falls within the scope of criminality, as does preventing people from going to vote, as part of the Federal Highway Police did on Oct. 30.

I believe that in the coverage [of the elections] there was a more intentional positioning not because the press became more progressive, but because Bolsonaro's anti-democratic gestures are very relevant and eloquent, so it is impossible to remain indifferent and "neutral" there. But there were still several examples of so-called two-side-ism, like Folha's editorial about Lula needing to say who will be his Minister of Economy, in an attempt to make him "dangerous" like Bolsonaro. In summary, I think there has been some progress, but not because the debate about democracy has become more nuanced and the complexity of the Brazilian population has been better understood, but because Bolsonaro is so unpalatable to the game that it is impossible to remain indifferent to him. I think that the stance has more to do with this than with a maturing of the press itself.

LJR: What are your expectations regarding the news coverage of Lula's third term and what lessons do you think have been learned since 2018 that can better serve the news coverage for the next four years and beyond? 

FM: I don't want to generalize, because we have several colleagues and several examples of coverage and companies that are doing important work, as well as several discerning people even within conservative news outlets like the often racist and xenophobic Estadão. But I think that declaratory [journalism] will continue to be a kind of shield for newspapers to translate what they want to say, but without getting involved, as always. That is, there are these resources of objectivity that are completely instrumentalized to vocalize something that you can't vocalize in the first person, so you make use of the other person's speech. It has a little to do with this false idea of impartiality, "ah, we covered Bolsonaro like this, we are going to cover this new government like this." And this false impartiality is very harmful to democracy, because the Bolsonaro government is not comparable to any of our post-dictatorship times.

One thing is to make the necessary criticism, and obviously this incoming government must make a series of mistakes, stumbles, issues that are predictable in any administration. No government can be expected to be a paradise, with streets flowing with milk and honey and people petting docile lions. We are talking about politics, agreements, disagreements, tension and dissension. It would be very interesting to see this coverage being done with more responsibility. And not only according to very specific interests, which often put themselves ahead of any real collective project, any project for Brazil.

For example, thinking about here in the Northeast, the impact of the universalization of water, of the cisterns, of Water for All [a water supply program in drought-stricken regions created by the Dilma Rousseff government in 2011] was completely minimized in general in the press because it had a very strong relationship with the PT [Workers’ Party] governments. But the scenario that emerged with the cisterns program was revolutionary in the country, it was revolutionary in a region, in this region that is always seen as a region of lack, of poverty. This is an example to illustrate a little of what I am trying to say. They forgot, consciously or not, a public policy of enormous impact - mainly on the lives of Black and Indigenous Northeastern women and children. When something of this nature, with this impact on the lives of millions, on the lives of generations, is minimized in the face of the political ill will that the media have towards a candidate, we will understand that the senses of democracy are very precarious, to be elegant. Or else, they are really responding to these partnerships with the market. In short, because the candidate is not of interest to a certain type of investor, of a more neoliberal bent.

So I don't think it will be, and I hope it won't be, as light a coverage as was the coverage of [Operation] Lava Jato, for example. But I am also not expecting any big changes. Now, I think that we have more weapons today to identify this frivolity. We now have more elements, post-Bolsonaro, — and here I say "thank you, Bolsonaro" — to, as a society, better scrutinize this press and its false impartialities.

LJR: The last sentence in the introduction of the book "The article is a combat weapon" is: "This book is a declaration of love." Is it a declaration of love for journalism? In that sense, why did you choose and why do you continue to choose to devote yourself to journalism?

FM: It is a declaration of love for journalism, for sure. Better: it is a declaration of love for Brazil, through journalism. I think that we, as journalists, can do much more interesting things to translate, vocalize, and stress what happens in this country. I am very passionate about Brazil, despite everything. It is a declaration of love for what connects me to more than two decades ago, when I chose to be a journalist. Yes, journalism is a means of transformation.

I was once talking to [journalist] Daniela Arbex about our profession and how undervalued it has been in recent years. I remember when she said how much she loves what she does and how seriously she takes her profession. That's it: we are not joking around here. We know what journalism costs us. And I am not going to make my profession less complex, to diminish it, to minimize my activity, my profession, what I can do, in the name of "ah, you are not being objective, you seem like too much of an activist." I find this laughable. I chose to be a journalist precisely for the reasons why I’m still a journalist today. I believe and trust a lot in the capacity of journalism to translate the things of the country, of everyday life, of Brazilian politics, with the understanding that Brazilian politics is not and never has been reduced to Brasília.

At Jornal do Commercio, where I stayed for a long time, I think that in my 20 years at the newspaper I must have produced only two major headlines. There's this thing of headlining [the front page of the newspaper], getting scoops, as if it were the pinnacle of journalism. This never interested me as a journalist, this was never for me the purpose of what I do. And I'm not putting down "scoop" reporters. But journalism is much more than you "cajoling" a bombshell statement or even finding out something. Journalism is more than that. This has happened in my career, but I wasn't exactly looking for it, it just happened.

I think there is a naturalization of violence, and journalism is able to denaturalize it. And that is one of the great beauties of journalism: it can denaturalize that which seems natural. So, yes, this book is a declaration of love for journalism.