Protests in Brazil heighten debate on quality of mass media's coverage

By Isabela Fraga

Amid the massive protests spreading throughout Brazil -- sparked by an increase in bus fares -- the mass media coverage also has become a target of criticism.

Besides playing the role of observers and sometimes participants, media outlets have been accused by protesters of manipulating information. Cries like "down with Rede Globo," the country's largest TV network, became common during the manifestations. Reporters with other large media outlets have been harassed and insulted during the protests. Dissatisfaction with traditional media has revived the calls for a new regulatory framework for the country's comminications and the democratization of Brazilian media.

For Pedro Ekman, with the collective Intervozes, the protests have made it clear that there is a crisis of representation in Brazilian media with regards to the general population. "People go to the streets and see one thing, then they go back home and see another in media's coverage. They began to perceive that the traditional media changed their views to suit their best interests, in more or less veiled ways," he said. "People don't see themselves there, in the mass media's very editorialized stories."

The covers of newspaper Folha de S. Paulo before and after a manifestation where there was police violence against protesters and journalists. Illustration: Blue Bus.

According to Ekman, there was a sudden change in the media's stance regarding the protests, specially after the June 13 protests in São Paulo, when police officers acted violently against protesters and journalists. Newspaper Folha de São Paulo, for example, published on its front page that day a headline that read "SP's government says it will be stricter with vandalism." After the evening of police repression, the next day's cover story read "Police act violently during protests and SP lives a night of terror."

From villains to victims

Since then, Ekman said, newspapers and newscasts changed their narrative of the events. "After that day -- and also after making a macro-political analysis and concluding that the protests would affect the federal government -- the editorial line changed: it started celebrating the manifestations."

However, while Ekman believes the change in the media's editorial line affected the public's opinion of them, Marcelo Beraba, director of Estado de S. Paulo's branch offices in Rio de Janeiro, said that the case demonstrated the media's honesty. "What's the problem with changing one's mind?" Beraba asked. "If at some point at the beginning of the mobilization there was a negative view of the manifestations, due to lack of knowledge, and later there was a realization of the magnitude of it all, that's an honest stance," he said.

Complex relationship

From atop buildings and helicopters, next to police officers and even amidst protesters (often carrying microphones without logos to avoid hostilities), Brazilian reporters were more than present at the manifestations. For Eugenio Bucci, a media analyst and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), at the same time that protesters lambasted media conglomerates as a symbol of the status quo, there were also moments of fraternity and solidarity -- for example, when journalists were attacked by the police or when they are seen as vehicles to expand the reach of the protests.

"The conclusion I make out of this is that, as long as media outlets are identified as representatives of power, any of the great communication companies' brands loses the protesters' sympathies. But when media outlets offer a service and document independent information of what's going on, the protesters' trust in them grows, Bucci said. "But we still haven't measured [that growth]."

The expansion of alternative channels, however, seem to reveal that the public has also become interested in other sources of information besides traditional media. In social networks and on the internet, in general, there has been a proliferation of collaborative communication outfits that attend the manifestations and report information directly from the scene. Pós TV, for example, broadcasts the protests via livestream. Mídia Ninja, a website that had around 48,000 Facebook followers before the protests, on June 17 registered 207,000 mentions and shares.

For Ekman, the growth of collaborative and alternative journalism is related to the representation crisis in large media outlets. "TV stopped being the only source of information. It went to being just one more, and under suspicion," he said.

Peaceful protesters versus vandals

Even though the media's general take on the protests has become more generous, one narrative that has been constantly repeated during the coverage is that of the peaceful protesters and the vandals, which often presents the latter as a minority group harming the protests' cause. A reductionist interpretation, according to Ekman and Bucci.

For Ekman, these two characterizations were created to give media outlets a measure of control over the coverage. "Large media outlets are being careful with legitimizing these popular manifestations because they haven't been able to control them completely. Media outlets have created an exit for themselves in case they need to turn around and say they're only vandals," he said.

The narrative of the peaceful majority and the vandal minority dominated a large part of the protests' coverage.

Bucci agreed. "No popular movement in the world is going to put etiquette first. These are not well-mannered manifestations where no one steps on the lawn," he said. "It's also necessary to consider that aggressions are part of the daily routine of many of these people. For them the vandals are the persons who push multitudes into a public transportation system like the one in São Paulo. They're vandals wearing ties." For Bucci, people who live in a violent city, where they suffer daily aggressions from public officials, in the moments of collective action like manifestations, they react. "Perhaps this more complex situation has not been understood by the media coverage, even though it would be difficult to make a universal and general value assessment."

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.