A media phenomenon has emerged in Brazil in the wake of the massive protests that are spreading throughout the country since June. The news collective Mídia NINJA, broadcasting live from the streets with its "no cuts, no censorship" model, has attracted the attention and admiration of thousands of people in the last few weeks.
More than a reference to ancient Japanese warriors, NINJA stands for "Independent Narratives, Journalism and Action" in Portuguese. And it's that last word that has established the tone for their coverage and triggered a debate over whether it still makes sense to separate journalism from activism.
NINJA mainly uses cell phones and other 4G devices to produce their broadcasts, which are mostly improvised rather than prepared scripts. While it's true that livecasting public events is not new, the visibility the trend has gained thanks to NINJA is, which has been able to reach more than 100,000 viewers. "Ninjas" share their content through social media and receive responses from their audiences that well surpass the number of interactions Brazilian larger media outlets receive through their pages. NINJA already has more than 120,000 likes on its Facebook page, which the group opened only four months ago.
The traction and interest NINJA has generated is also evident at the collective's open meetings, which attract hundreds of persons willing to lend a hand and join the team. During the last one of them, which took place on July 23 at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro's (UFRJ) School of Communication, many of the participants explained their support for the group: "We feel very represented by the way you report. The version of history that you provide is much closer to the version of the facts that we have witnessed," said one of the participants. The comments were received with applause.
For ninja Filipe Peçanha, 24, independent media is beginning to attract more attention than the country's largest media outlets. "We kind of turned into the point of reference during the protests, and people have shown their support for our work. It's the opposite of what's happening with the reporters from media outlets like (the country's largest TV network) Globo," he said. On July 22, Peçanha ended up being arrested by the Military Police while he covered the protests near Guanabara Palace (the seat of Rio de Janeiro's state government) and charged with "inciting violence." A few hours later, Peçanha was freed along with a second ninja who had also been arrested. Both remained near the police station until the next morning, waiting for others.
This type of involvement, which puts reporters in the protesters' shoes, is the key to the group's allure, said Ivana Bentes, director of UFRJ's School of Communication. "Ninja works within the commotion and the desire for social participation. It's a much more interesting type of narrative than the poor and corporativist one" offered by regular journalism, she said during one of the group's meetings.
It's also the dot outside the curve of traditional journalism, which often seeks to follow the facts unaffected and from a distance. In many of NINJA's broadcasts, the viewer can run with the crowds and witness the ninjas' reactions to confrontations between police officers and protesters, almost as if it were an action film in real time.
For Bruno Torturra, the most experienced journalist in the group, the narratives NINJA produces break away from some of the classical paradigms of journalism at the same time that they reclaim the profession's main functions. "Our main role is to reclaim for journalism and communications their activist role as the public's eyes and to offer information that is increasingly qualified to defend democracy," he said. "I don't know if we're going to have a newsroom handbook; I think common sense will become our guide." Regarding fact-checking, one of the main pillars of journalism, Torturra said he believed people following them through the web would help keep them accountable.
Nonetheless, the group's journalistic shortcomings were recently the target of criticisms, shortly after Rio de Janeiro's prefect Eduardo Paes invited NINJA for an interview. Thousands of people online were watching the livecast, but after it finished, many criticized the ninjas' lack of preparation and the way the interview was conducted.
The group responded to critics on its Facebook page. "It's in the process, in the experience, in the transparency, in the real test, live and without cuts, that we're advancing. Building our base audience and our team. And thinking, with many right and wrong choices, on how to produce a journalism that is worthy of the great trust and expectations that people have placed on Mídia NINJA."
Journalism professor Sylvia Moretzsohn objected in a recent commentary: "There's nothing like saying 'it's the experience, it's the real test,' etc., that can be advanced. It's not just that; it's so much more and it demands preparation. It's not enough to just throw yourself like that, headstrong into a situation you are not familiar with. It's not enough to ignore the tactics that are taught in media training. You can perfectly refuse them. There will be no shortage of arguments to do so. In the way things were, you ended up serving those you wanted to criticize."
Once the episode was over, Torturra admitted that the collective failed to integrate the public into the interview process and to ask for the necessary time to prepare themselves. "We need to bring experienced journalists into this conversation to understand where we failed," he said.
But despite the tensions between traditional journalism and the new form that is emerging, NINJA continues to grow. Rafael Vilela, a member of the collective who traveled to Egypt to cover the protests, said he sees NINJA as an incentive to seek new paths within journalism. "Today our contents have an enormous potential for repercussion. The most important thing NINJA has achieved is to give visibility to another path within journalism that doesn't exist in mass media, and that's encouraging for people looking for other ways of making a living in journalism. I've got two years living like this," he said.
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.