Researchers launch atlas to map local journalism and “news deserts” in Brazil

Concentrated in the São Paulo – Rio de Janeiro – Brasilia axis, a majority of the Brazilian media ultimately informs the entire population of the country about what happens in these places. But how are people who live in small and medium-sized cities informed about what is happening in their regions?

The “Atlas da Noticia” (News Atlas) project by Projor (The Institute for the Development of Journalism), in partnership with Volt Data Lab, intends to solve this question and identify “news deserts,” areas not covered by local and regional media.

The Atlas was launched on Aug. 30 and will map journalism outlets, especially those focused on regional and local coverage, which are dedicated to the production of news of public interest in all regions of Brazil.

The inspiration for this Brazilian initiative is America’s Growing News Deserts, a project from Columbia Journalism Review magazine, which mapped the “news deserts” in the United States. But identifying the areas in Brazil where local journalistic coverage is scarce is just one of the goals of Atlas da Notícia, said Angela Pimenta, president of Projor, to the Knight Center.

The country's 207 million people are spread across 5,570 municipalities, of which only 300 have more than 100,000 people, she recalled. Projor created Atlas da Notícia based on this data with the intention of understanding "the nature, the distribution, the virtues and the challenges" of the regional and local outlets to "help develop the journalism outside the so-called mainstream press,” Pimenta said.

In this first phase, the Atlas calls for the collaboration of journalists and news consumers, as well as universities, companies, associations and unions in the area, to contribute as many journalistic outlets spread throughout the country as possible.

The platform will be open to the public during the month of September.  Volt Data Lab is also conducting a survey with associations, unions and journalists' federations, and this data will be cross-checked with those submitted by the public on the project website. As early as the middle of October, the first Atlas report should be launched with the presentation of a map of the "news voids" in Brazil, such as the one conducted in the U.S. by the CJR.

There are many places in the country that are "poorly served" in terms of local journalism, Sérgio Spagnuolo, founder and editor of Volt Data Lab, told the Knight Center. "We want to map them to know where people are not getting information. Or, if they receive information, they receive it from the national newspapers. I once heard from a journalist from Pará say that a lot of people in Belém [state capital] know more about what is happening in Rio de Janeiro than in their own city," he commented.

The idea is that the data collected on the regional and local press in Brazil will be made available on the Atlas website. The information will be publicly accessible and the expectation of Pimenta and Spagnuolo is that they will be used by academic researchers, third party organizations and journalists interested in the analysis of the media in the country.

"To care for sustainable development and Brazilian democracy is to look with a new and careful eye at local journalism," Pimenta said, citing an analysis of the role of the local press in covering the Mariana tragedy in Minas Gerais on Nov. 5, 2015. The rupture of a dam at the mining company Samarco, controlled by Brazil's Vale SA and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton, left 19 dead and caused a socio-environmental disaster that was unprecedented in Brazil.

"Maybe if Mariana's press were less friendly to Samarco, could the company have done what it did in that dam?" Pimenta asked. "When you look at the richness and vulnerability of our environment and the shortcomings, the needs and even the civic and institutional life of these populations, it is up to us, as an Institute for the Development of Journalism, to look at local journalism," Projor's president explained.

Pimenta pointed out that the intention is not to "persecute the local press" and recalled that conflicts of interest are not unique to it. "We are looking for success stories and also to work together, to see what kinds of challenges the local press, in a time of crisis economically and in terms of distribution, is facing," she said.

Spagnuolo also commented on the importance of research for the analysis of journalism made today in the country: "Journalism in Brazil is very subject to the opinion of the specialized critic, who is not so data-based. There are good journalism critics in the country, but I think there is a lack of quantitative data to measure not only quality and reach, but other aspects of journalism, such as business models and the financial health of companies. "

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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