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Media critics call press coverage of tragic fire in Brazil sensationalist

By Isabela Fraga

A fire at a Brazilian nightclub in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul killed over 230 people and left 129 injured in the early morning of Sunday, Jan. 27, reported The New York Times and Zero Hora. While the blaze took place far from Brazil's largest cities, home to much of the major media organizations, the tragedy received national attention. Dozens of reporters flooded the city and news coverage of the event dominated the air waves.

However, despite the massive effort--or because of it, according to some--many criticized how the country's largest media companies handled their reporting of the tragedy. Analysts and scholars called the media's coverage insensitive and sensationalist and panned the endless coverage and swarms of reporters.

Brazil's three major newspapers, O Globo, Folha de São Paulo, and Estado de São Paulo, ran the story on their front pages. The country's three largest television broadcasters, Globo, Band, and Record, also sent dozens of reporters and anchormen and women to the scene to cover the disaster, dedicating a large portion of their programming and almost all of their cable news programming to it, according to the website Comunique-se. The director of one of Brazil's major TV news programs, William Bonner, was sent to the city to host his show on location, reported the magazine Veja.

Imprensa columnist Fabio Maksymczuk also noted that the Brazilian television broadcaster SBT dedicated some of its Sunday talk shows, like Domingo Legal and Eliana, to the event. Record interrupted shows like "Gugu" and "Domingo Espetacular" on Sunday to give updates on the fire. Globo changed the script for its variety show "Fantástico" to dedicate more time to the story.

The challenge of communicating the feelings surfaced by the tragedy, according to Press Observatory columnist Luciano Martins Costa, led O Globo, for example, to publish a poem by a local writer about the fire on the front page of its Jan. 28 edition. In social media, newspapers like O Estado de São Paulo asked their readers for information about the fire's victims as part of the fact checking process. The website Terra used photos from victims' Facebook pages to create a photo gallery.

In the torrent of coverage, there was no lack of criticism for the media. Incessant and not always accurate coverage led some channels to repeat the old news or interview experts who had incomplete information about the blaze. Journalist Carlos Tourinho questioned the level of coverage given to the fire by national TV stations on Press Observatory: "[...] you have to ask, does the existence of a tragedy like this mean that everyone has to do penance and only watch this news all day? Would it be a sin to watch or offer other programming? Or, the greatest sin on the part of the press, promise 'total' coverage and confuse time with news."

In the magazine Carta Capital, journalist and sociologist Aurélio Munhoz called the media vampires for exploiting the tragedy's victims, providing "generous coverage of their personal dramas during the short time while the bodies of the dead still generate headlines and the public's attention."

Columnist Mauricio Stycer for Folha de São Paulo raised similar questions. According to him, the broadcasters' nonstop presentations of images from the tragedy led to gaffes and embarrassments. "Especially on broadcast TV, the laudable effort to keep the story on air during the afternoon gave way at several times to sensationalizing the tragedy." For example, Record anchor José Luiz Datena showed images of victims on the floor of the nightclub and compared the scene to Nazi gas chambers.

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.

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