One in five Brazilians live in ‘news deserts,’ without newspapers, news sites and TV and radio stations

One in five Brazilians live in municipalities that do not have newspapers and local news sites or TV and radio stations. The "news deserts" correspond to just over half of the Brazilian municipalities, where 40 million people that are not served by local news coverage live.

This is the scenario mapped over the last year by the Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas), a project launched in August 2017 by Projor (Institute for the Development of Journalism) in partnership with the data journalism agency Volt Data Lab, and that counts on funding from Facebook. For the next year, the project plans to create a network of researchers to deepen the scope of the survey, as well as create a series of reports that will explore the challenges of local journalism in the five Brazilian regions.

11,820 outlets were mapped, including print newspapers, news sites, radio stations and TV stations present in 2,691 municipalities. The average is 4.4 outlets in each city that relies on these media. Another 2,879 municipalities have no journalistic or broadcast outlets.

The Atlas was supported by collaboration from the public, which was invited through a crowdsourcing campaign to send names of outlets they knew in small and medium-sized cities across the country. The team also held consultations with entities in the sector, such as the National Association of Newspapers (ANJ, for its initials in Portuguese), and gathered data from the Secretariat of Social Communication (Secom) of the Presidency of the Republic, requested through the Law on Access to Information (LAI).

The Secom survey contained information consolidated by the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) about print newspapers and regional and local news sites and that "served as a kind of census," Angela Pimenta, president of Projor, told the Knight Center.

Data on broadcasting stations were collected from the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC), which regulates the sector in Brazil, since the broadcasting licenses are a public concession.

According to the Atlas, Brazil has 3,367 print newspapers and 1,985 news sites –totaling 5,352 outlets spread across 1,125 municipalities, where 65 percent of the Brazilian population lives. Broadcast stations cover a larger area: 6,480 (3,753 radio and 2,727 television) in 2,520 municipalities, covering 75 percent of the population.

The survey cross-checked the information on the presence of media outlets with data from the Atlas of Human Development in Brazil and found that municipalities with newspapers and news sites have an average Municipal Human Development Index (MHDI) of 0.727, while municipalities with the presence of radio and TV stations have an average HDI of 0.683. The MHDI measures the quality of life in municipalities based on data on life expectancy, literacy and income of the population. The average MHDI of the Brazilian municipalities is 0.659.

For Sérgio Spagnuolo, editor of the Volt Data Lab, the idea with the comparison was to understand how local journalism affects the quality of life of the population, but it must be analyzed from a perspective of correlation, not causality.

"It's not because the city has more newspapers that it is richer or more educated, and it's not because the city is richer and more educated that it has a newspaper. We do not prove it. We have shown that the richer and more educated cities have more newspapers, but we do not know yet why this happens. We hope that eventually our research will subsidize someone to find that response," he told the Knight Center.

He pointed out that "news deserts," which do not rely on print or online newspapers and broadcast stations, mainly cover small cities –the average is 13,000 inhabitants per municipality without local coverage.

Even if nearby cities have a newspaper or a radio station and the population has access to the internet, "these people are not being served," Spagnuolo said. A newspaper in a city will not look at what happens in the neighboring town hall or a pothole in the street in another city, he noted. "This is problematic for democracy in general. How are people going to be informed in these places? With each city of 8, 10 thousand people, it reaches the volume of 40 million people who do not have access to news of the city itself," he said.

Transmedia reports to understand local journalism

The idea is that the Atlas of the News will become a consolidated and annual project, updated periodically, said Angela Pimenta. "Before we had a photograph; from now on, we will have an annual movie. Let's know who closed, who opened, who was printed and turned digital," he said, adding that the initiative has captured the interest of economists, political scientists, journalists and news organizations inside and outside Brazil.

The next phase of the Atlas of News announces a new crowdsourcing campaign and the formation of a network of five researchers, one in each Brazilian region, who will be responsible for capturing and authenticating data on journalistic outlets in the regions. According to Spagnuolo, these researchers will approach local actors in search of additional information about each outlet, such as circulation and type of coverage.

The project also prepares the realization of transmedia reports on the situation of local journalism in five Brazilian cities, one in each region. The reporter Elvira Lobato, who has worked for more than three decades in broadcasting in Brazil and is the author of the book "Antenas da floresta", about local TVs in the Amazon, and videomaker Ana Terra Athayde will be responsible for the reports.

The first city to be visited in August will be Mariana, in Minas Gerais, in the Southeast region. The municipality was marked by the rupture of a dam of the Samarco mining company, controlled by Brazil's Vale S.A. and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton, on Nov. 5, 2015. The tragedy left 19 dead and caused a socio-environmental disaster unprecedented in Brazil's history.

After the disaster, "the national press went there and did its scrutiny, but only the local press reports on local coverage," Pimenta said. "We want to know what is happening in the coverage of everyday issues: the action of the City Council, what happened to people who lost homes, the issue of employment."

The second city to receive the Atlas team will be Arapiraca, in Alagoas, in the Northeast, and the next three are still being chosen by the project from the data collected.

"We want to understand what the challenges are, the dilemmas these journalists face. And we want to look for cases of innovation that are happening not necessarily in the RJ-SP-Brasilia axis, where there are the largest newsrooms in Brazil," said Projor's president. From this, the entity intends to establish measures to support and promote local journalism.