Journalists in Rio de Janeiro show how to break banalization of urban violence in news coverage

Journalist Thiago Antunes was working in the newsroom of newspaper O Dia on Nov. 28, 2015 when news broke at dawn: 111 shots from rifles and pistols were fired by the military police at five youths in the Lagartixa favela in Costa Barros, a poor neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro’s northern zone.

Initially, the coverage of that case, in O Dia and in several other newspapers of the city, would be like many others: routine. For Rio newspapers covering the police beat, usual coverage only cites official sources, and the victims are portrayed by numbers, not with words.

“At the time they did not give due importance, it was like any case. It was a quick, day-to-day coverage. The newsrooms are very small, do not have time to explore the subject so much,” said O Dia reporter Gabriela Mattos to the Knight Center.

The Costa Barros case was first reported as an extrajudicial execution. The next day, the police would say that the young people who died were not armed at the time of the crime. The coverage took the view of the procedural fraud committed by the military police.

That’s the reality of a state where 8,000 people have been killed by police officers in the last ten years, according to Amnesty International. Between January and September of this year alone, there were 631 records of deaths resulting from police intervention, according to the Public Security Institute. In the area of Costa Barros, there were 85.

After realizing that 2016 was a year marked by disrespect for human rights in Rio, Antunes, deputy editor of the newspaper's website, suggested an assignment that would break the banality with which the Costa Barros case initially was treated. Five months of investigations later and a year after the murders, Antunes and reporters Adriano Araújo and Gabriela Mattos launched a special website with graphics, videos and interviews with all the victims’ families, as well as human rights experts.

"We wanted to make material that covered the story and also produced a debate - is that the path we want for our police? And, in a very dreamy way, is this the way we want to live? Is this how we want our society to be? We can not always raise these issues on a day-to-day basis," Antunes told the Knight Center.

To commemorate the year anniversary of the murders, other journalists also sought to focus less on the barbarity of the deaths and the lack of movement in the judicial process.  In the article "The silent victims of Costa Barros," by reporter Jorge Rojas, of the Chilean newspaper The Clinic, in partnership with the Brazilian site Agência Pública, families are the main focus. The newspaper O Globo and the news site G1 also published in-depth interviews with relatives of the Costa Barros victims.

However, reaching out to the families was a challenge for the reporters of O Dia: in addition to the lack of time and the frenetic pace of writing, there was the psychological shock family members experienced as a result of the trauma caused by the tragedy. The team took two months to interview a key witness, Marcia Ferreira, who saw her son Wilton dying and said she was repeatedly threatened by police officers.

“We were careful to always show what we were doing, and we had to remove some of the names to protect the families. We wanted to expose the facts, not the people,” Mattos recalled.

It was when he met this family that the journalists came across a fact not yet mentioned by the media: Wilkerson Esteves, who was on a motorcycle when his brother Wilton’s car was attacked by the police and became the only eyewitness of the slaughter, died of stroke in July, likely due to depression. He was only 16 years old.

“Wilkerson could have been the first victim. If he had died, who would have told what had happened? It was he who ran home and told everything,” Antunes said.

Listening to the residents of the favela and the victims, however, is rare in day-to-day coverage, according to Theresa Williamson, editor-in-chief of Rio On Watch, an observatory that looks at how the media report on the favelas. Those who live in areas that are poor and have high crime rates end up being stigmatized, portrayed as criminals, she said.

"The press is responsible for this stigmatization," Williamson told the Knight Center. "In favelas with organized crime, only 1 percent is involved in crime. And the other 99 percent? From this stigma, prejudice increases, and with it, misguided security policies. They are policies that reinforce marginalization, and they maintain the cycle of social inequality that comes from slavery."

For Williams, this scenario reinforces the operation of "shoot first, ask later" as well as police impunity, elements present in the Costa Barros massacre. "Prejudice feeds the feeling of police that they can act like that. The policeman is also afraid: he gets the impression that he is in a war against the enemy, who is the favela resident," she said.

This cycle of violence increases the perception of insecurity and fear in society, which, at a time of political and economic crisis in Brazil, increases the possibility of the emergence of populist solutions that can aggravate the problems even more, said Ilona Szabó, founder and executive director the Igarapé Institute, a think tank on public policy research in security, justice and development.

"If the media take a stance of inflating fear and paranoia in the city, what is intensified in the end is a dark facet of our society, which often believes that the problem of violence is solved with more weapons and widespread repression,” she told the Knight Center.

Szab´ cited the lack of training the use of heavy calibre weapons, the lack of psychological support to the agents and the strong corporatism in the trials of police actions as current problems with the Rio police.

The Igarapé Institute suggests crime prevention policies among at-risk populations and problematic areas of the city, policing Rio’s so-called “crime spots” and effective arms control, as well as a drug policy that takes the public health perspective.

In the case of Costa Barros, the group of friends Roberto de Souza Penha (16), Carlos Eduardo da Silva de Souza (16), Cleiton Corrêa de Souza (18), Wilton Esteves Domingos Júnior (20), and Wesley Castro Rodrigues (25), were returning from the celebration of a friend’s new job when their car was hit, for no apparent reason, by a team of four military police.

There was no armed confrontation, meaning that the youths did not have weapons and therefore could not defend themselves. The agents’ battalion is the deadliest in the state of Rio, according to Amnesty International. The statistics are alarming, Antunes said, almost 50 deaths per policeman.

“[In our report] we want to discuss the role of the police - the role is to enforce the law, not to carry out extrajudicial executions. It is foreseen that the police defend themselves, not that they use self-defense as a justification for killing people,” Antunes commented.

In this sense, retired journalism professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF for its acronym in Portuguese) Sylvia Moretzsohn warns that reporters need to be aware and not automatically buy the statements from the police press office, which generally responds that the security forces reacted to “unjust aggression” in cases of extrajudicial executions.

“The text is a result of the way in which the reporter sees reality. If he is convinced that the police are good and the criminal is evil, there is not much to do. If he realizes that things are more complicated than that, he can present the fact in another way, as the [Rio newspaper] Extra often does in this kind of coverage,” she told the Knight Center.

To that end, she believes it is important for reporters who cover violence to have some basic criminology training to deal with crimes critically and avoid the reiteration of bias.

“If [the journalists] had any notion of how to establish what to punish, why to punish and how to punish; if they perceive that crime is defined historically and plays a certain role in a given social structure; and, above all, if they were clear about the selectivity of the criminal system, always against the poor criminal and always ignoring, undermining or softening the middle class or rich, they certainly would avoid simplification,” she said.

In this sense, WIlliamson reinforced the idea that the placement of violence within a historical context is fundamental for quality coverage. “People speak of violence as if it were a wound, that one only need to put a bandage on. They do not recognize that it is like a genetic disease, a logic that in society comes from father to son, which can only be solved if we change something much deeper,” she said.

With small and busy newsrooms, however, reporters complain about the lack of time for in-depth coverage. In the O’Dia newspaper special, schedules proved to be a challenge. The three journalists who produced the report work in different shifts and were not always in the newsroom. Additionally, they had to keep up with online news production. Interviews with the families of the victims were made in the reporters’ free time, usually in the morning.

“The most difficult part of the process was this: to see what times we could stop, sit and analyze what we had,” Antunes said.

Mortezsohn argued that the best way to combat the lack of time is the journalist’s training: she cited police coverage by Extra as a good example of critical reporting of crime on a day-to-day basis. In an article in the Press Observatory, Moretzsohn compared coverage from Extra and O Globo on two cases of violence. In the first, a white, middle-class doctor was killed by black youth, in a tourist region of the city. In the second, two young black men were killed during a police operation. O Globo gave much more coverage to the first case, while the second was relegated to two columns in the interior of the newspaper. By contrast, Extra, a publication of the same media company Infoglobo, linked the two cases as acts of violence in the city.

It is not enough to denounce police officers who went off course in barbaric crimes, which attract attention, Moretzsohn believes. It is necessary to question the police’s actions and the crime on a case-by-case basis. The reflection cannot be restricted only to special cases, the professor reinforced.

“Extra’s coverage is not perfect, but it points to this primordial sense to be traced in relation to what crime is and what kind of crime scandalizes people.”

Editorial Note: Journalist Alessandra Monnerat, collaborator of the blog Journalism in the Americas and author of this post, works as an intern at O Dia newspaper in Rio de Janiero.

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.