‘There is no learning without error’: Latin American journalists share mistakes made and lessons learned

To err is human – and unavoidable for any journalist. Any professional sincere enough with themself is able to admit that they’ve committed their fair share of mistakes throughout their career. And it is precisely the ability to embrace mistakes, to try to understand them and learn from them that can lead to making them less frequently.

The Knight Center took advantage of the 13th International Congress of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), which gathered 750 people from June 28 to 30 in São Paulo, to listen to Latin American journalists speak about mistakes made and lessons learned during several years on the beat. From misguided assumptions to care taken with source protection, they offer lessons for novices and veterans in the field.

The presidents and the chandelier

Mother Nature got the best of Brazilian journalist João Paulo Charleaux.

At the end of February 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami struck Chile, leaving almost 800 dead and destroying cities in the central region of the country. Charleaux was working for the newspaper Estadão at the time and was covering reconstruction efforts following the natural disaster, which occurred just days before Sebastian Piñera's inauguration as president.

Upon arriving in Santiago, Charleaux had the opportunity to go with the Chilean Air Force to the earthquake’s epicenter, about 300 miles away from Valparaiso where the president would be inaugurated. "My idea was to go there and cover how those people were watching the president's inauguration, which was happening in Valparaiso, and to contrast this situation of destruction, difficulty of rebuilding and objections toward public officials on one side, and on the other side, several presidents gathered at a party," he told the Knight Center.

What neither Charleaux nor the authorities gathered in Valparaiso expected was that at the time of the inauguration a strong aftershock would interrupt the ceremony and panic the Chilean population and the Latin American presidents gathered in Congress. "The next day's photo was of the presidents looking at a large crystal chandelier in the Chilean Congress, which was rocking," recalled Charleaux, now a special reporter for Nexo Journal.

"The newspaper was frantically trying to communicate with me, because the communication was very poor. I think it was a very strange mistake because it was a good choice because I would have a story and a point of view that no one else had. On the other hand, I learned that if you travel to a country where all the presidents of the region are present, you can not be anywhere other than this," the journalist said.

"It's not a classic mistake, but it brings together a number of factors that are tricky for the reporter: difficulty in logistics, difficulty communicating, the need for a quick assessment of what to do, and suddenly something as imponderable as an earthquake reveals that your choice was not so good," he said.

The awareness of the importance of the mistakes and the lessons they provide led Charleaux to create the panel "Oooops! What great journalists learned from their big mistakes," which has been taking place at Abraji’s annual congress since 2014.

"The congresses have an element that bothers me that is the excess of reports of great deeds, great achievements. Everyone is successful. This contrasted sharply with my experience of journalism, which had more to do with things that do not work, with repetition of activities that are unpleasant, with the feeling of not accomplishing, of frustration, with the desire to be doing more and better," he said. He proposed the idea of the panel on errors to Marcelo Beraba, cofounder and then-president of Abraji, who replied that he thought it was a good idea, but joked that no one would want to participate.

On the contrary, in the last four years, several journalists have spoken on the panel –and Beraba was one of them in the 2018 edition. "Success is due to very particular characteristics that affect a specific situation. The possibility for error is ever present. It's very helpful to talk about the things that go wrong," Charleaux said.

The trap of guessing

Sometimes things almost go wrong, and they provide lessons anyway. This can happen when a journalist gets carried away by what the story appears to be, but a more thorough and careful investigation reveals something different.

That is what happened to Brazilian Maiá Menezes, editor of País in the joint newsroom of newspapers O Globo and Extra and of the magazine Época. In 2008, she was a reporter for O Globo and along with colleague Fábio Vasconcellos was investigating the financing of the 2006 election campaign of Marcelo Crivella, bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and then-candidate for the government of Rio de Janeiro, now mayor of the capital of the State.

"We were doing a survey of the donors and we came up with a list of only individuals, at a time when the elections allowed private funding. He was the only candidate who only had individuals as donors," Menezes told the Knight Center. The investigation pointed out that these people were believers of the Universal Church, "very poor people," she said. The reporters' assumption was that they were doadores-laranja, people listed to hide the names of true funders.

"We started reading the electoral law in detail and saw that the donation can also be written to the TSE [Supreme Electoral Court] in the rendering of accounts as rendering of services. So, in fact, a lot of those donors were people who had worked on the Crivella campaign," she explained. "It's serious because he used the church's structure to have electoral workers, but it's very different from saying that he had doadores-laranja. If we had said that, we would have made a historic mistake."

The great lesson, for Menezes, is that an apparent "big story" may not be what you think, but the journalist does not always realize it "because they get very excited." Today, as an editor, she says she asks every possible question to break down a story before publishing it. "Every great story also requires a great concern, which for me is always apparent now," she said.

Angelina Nunes had a similar experience as an editor in the newspaper O Globo in 2002. She coordinated a team investigating irregularities in the bids for the distribution of food in prisons in Rio de Janeiro. "The businessman Jair Coelho dominated the bids, he won all of them," she told the Knight Center.

In the investigation, the team discovered that Coelho had a home in Miami, in the United States. "We are talking about the beginning of the 2000s; it's not like now that there are technologies that put you practically inside people's homes," she joked.

Reporters found the name Jair Coelho in the Miami phone book. "Everything fit: it was Jair Coelho, he was Portuguese, it was a house in Miami. It was all there." The team was excited and then decided to call the number on the list. "He picked up the phone, a guy with a Portuguese accent answered. It was Jair Coelho, only he was 32 years old; the Jair Coelho we were looking for was almost 70. They only shared a name," said Nunes, adding that for the team, that moment was like "a cold shower."

"We realized we were about to make an absurd mistake," she said. From this episode, Nunes began to always consider the possibility of finding homonyms in her investigations. "We had to get the ID card, because I wanted to see the mother's name, to see if it was the same or not. If the mother is not the same, let's also get a photo, ask the neighbor." She says that care has become almost obsessive. "And every time a reporter complained, I told this story again: 'Look, in the early 2000s...'"

Attention and care with sources

It is also often possible to learn from the mistakes of colleagues, as Nunes exemplified in a tragic story that happened during the coverage of a crime. "A reporter interviewed a witness, and then that witness was killed," she recalled. "That was very traumatic inside the newsroom. I panicked, because I did a lot of reporting on complaints."

The lesson learned from the importance of care with sources was put into practice by Nunes a few years later when interviewing a woman who reported that her son had been murdered by police officers. "She said she was not afraid and wanted to appear in the photo. I explained what had happened [in the other case] and told her that we would use a fictitious name and that she would not be photographed with a clean face. We made an artistic photo, behind a canvas, so that it was impossible to identify her."

The journalist also explained to the source that anonymity was her right. "I told her that she did not have to expose herself and that she had to be careful about her own life. I was careful, but I do not know if every reporter would have been," she said.

In the relationship between journalist and source, it is also important to be aware of the latter's interests and how they can act behind the scenes to influence the final outcome of the story. This was the lesson fro Daniela Pinheiro, who between 2007 and 2018 was special reporter for magazine piauí and now is in charge of magazine Época.

In Brazil, piauí consolidated a model of great profiles that consists of accompanying the person who is being profiled for months, in order to capture the depths of the subject. "When the magazine was released 11 years ago, that was a very new formula," Pinheiro told the Knight Center. "Those interviewed did not know what this dynamic was like, so we could get some really good things. However, 11 years later, the interviewees already know how to act."

She believes that this is one of the causes of what she considers a mistake in her reporting for a profile of the politician Eduardo Campos, then-candidate for the Brazilian presidency, in June 2014 (he would die in a plane crash in August of the same year ).

"He knew a lot about this formula and gave me a lot of access, it made things much easier, he even set interviews for me, let me travel with him," said the journalist, who believes that Campos was able to partially control the report. "It was my mistake to have relied on the ease that the interviewee gave me."

From that point on, Pinheiro said that she changed her approach toward the interviewees, seeking to ascertain information without interference from the person being profiled. "Today, for the stories that we do profiles of in Época, my orientation is: the last person you have to talk to is the subject of the story, and only when you are already very armed, very informed. It's you who have to set the tone for the process, not the person."

The challenge of databases

Peruvian journalist Milagros Salazar is the founder and director of the site Convoca, which has done investigative journalism based on data since 2015, and can attest to the challenges inherent in data work, which has strengthened as a trend in journalism in recent years.

Salazar's first lesson came from the first database produced by the site, which generated the special "Excesos sin castigo” (Excesses without punishment). The report deals with environmental infractions of mining and oil companies in Peru and won the 2016 Data Journalism Awards.

As it was still the beginning of Convoca, the team was small, and one solution to expedite work was to invite journalism students from various universities in the country. Convoca promoted training workshops for university students to work on the investigation, but "even though you give people training, you always need hours of flight and experience to avoid making mistakes.”

“We had errors along the way, which is normal when databases are built, but we draw conclusions from this believing it was well done,” she said, explaining that in the end this investigation ended up taking twice as long. “We were able to correct the errors that were in the databases, refine the look better, and improve the processes, the work standards, and redesign and understand that to a certain extent a student will be able to help you, but there are certain things in the process that you need to have someone with more experience.”

More recently, an error with a database had unexpected consequences and led to a reorganization of Convoca’s work with data. The report in question was “Los proyectos en el Congreso que facilitaron la ejecución de obras de Odebrecht" (The projects in Congress that facilitated the execution of Odebrecht works), part of the program Únete, developed by Convoca to promote investigative journalism among young journalists.

The report dealt with the bills that have been presented in the last 15 years in Peru and which favored the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, a company that is central to the recent transnational investigations into corruption in Latin America. The idea was to present who were the congressional authors of the bills, since the company financed electoral campaigns not only to the Executive but also to the legislature in the country, and to understand if there were indications of influence peddling in the Peruvian Congress.

The text and the data collected were published, but they initially contained an incorrect version from databases that contained the name of the late former congressman Henry Pease García as author of the bills, when he had just been acting as president of Congress between 2003 and 2004.

“It was true in the text, there was no mention of the person, but in the web application at the time of uploading the information, the incorrect database was uploaded, because of all the madness at the time of closing the report,” Salazar said.

According to the journalist, the mistake was quickly corrected on the Convoca website, but the newspaper Diario UNO, in Lima, "copied all of our investigation, made six pages with our investigation, placing it on the front page, but not only that, the database was downloaded and it began to put photos of all the congress members.”

The daughters of the former congressman wrote a public letter to Diario UNO demanding a retraction. “We felt touched because it was our information, and we made a public letter, explaining all this to the readers and saying that we had taken all measures in the situation.”

The episode prompted a restructuring of the work with data at Convoca, said the director, to become clearer and more rigorous. “We have put in the offices of the programmers, of the journalists, in my office, the process that each one must follow, in each part of the process, and who is in charge of that. And also from that I have programmed a series of trainings for the whole team, to start speaking a unique language,” in terms of data, she said.

"There is no learning without error. And it is necessary to be very humble, as a journalist, to stop, observe, learn and take advantage of the mistake, because every mistake can be a way forward," Salazar explained.