Under attack, Brazilian journalism presses forward in the Bolsonaro years, but hesitates in the face of fascism and democracy

  • By Guest
  • November 22, 2022

*By Moreno Osório, originally published by Headline and Farol Jornalismo

On Jan. 1, 2019, during the inauguration of president Jair Bolsonaro, journalists covering the event in Brasilia had a dog's day, in the words of Folha de S.Paulo journalist Mônica Bergamo. Little did we know that it would be the first of many. The next (almost) four years were exhausting, dangerous, and a lot, but a lot of work. In this period Brazilian journalism made a lot of progress – even if under heavy attacks. But the circumstances also exposed new and old dilemmas that the profession will still have to deal with.

This is the perception of experts heard by Headline and Farol Jornalismo, regarding Brazilian journalism in the Bolsonaro years and the 2022 elections.

Rogério Christofoletti, professor at the Journalism Department at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC, by its Portuguese acronym) and one of the lead researchers of the Journalism Ethics Observatory (ObjETHOS), believes that a lot was learned during the last four years. But it didn't have to be through violence and damage to the mental and physical health of the professionals. "We didn't need to go through that," he said. "We needed to learn in a different way. It wasn't good. It was bad, it was terrible for journalism, this government."

This is not just Christofoletti's perception. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) has been following and recording cases of violence against journalists since 2013, but in recent years it has been paying more attention to the subject. Last year, it published the first edition of an annual report monitoring attacks on journalists. The document expressed a "worrisome situation that needs attention from political authorities, the media and Brazilian society." In August of this year, Abraji reported that cases of serious violence against journalists increased 69.2% in 2022 compared to the previous year.

"The Bolsonaro government was disastrous to the practice of journalism. In past administrations, we had situations of conflict, but this is part of the game. What we have noticed in the last four years is an exacerbated, strategic and purposeful conflict in order to discredit the press. This was different from other administrations," Katia Brembatti, president of Abraji, said. She added that journalists need to be respectful towards the president, but the president also needs to be respectful towards the press and understand the role of journalism and journalists in a democratic society.

As we know, this was not the case with Bolsonaro. The result was, in addition to the number of assaults that has been growing year after year, mental health problems, self-censorship, and often a feeling, on the part of professionals, of not feeling accepted and understood by society itself, Brembatti said. "Which is very sad," she said.

In other words, it was a period of fragility and exhaustion.

When a noise of a can opening during the broadcast of the run-off vote count-down on TV Globo, host William Bonner explained to the viewers, in a relaxed way, that he had opened a can of water, and nothing else. His colleague Renata Lo Prete confirmed that, laughing. The episode, which went viral on social media, illustrates the end of a journey – in terms of the 2022 elections and the Bolsonaro administration – which proved to be a relief for journalists. In the days that followed, the faces of TV network presenters and commentators seemed calmer.

The question is whether this tranquility will last. We have lived, throughout the Bolsonaro years, an atypical environment of pressure, said Taís Seibt, PhD in Communication and professor at the School of Creative Industry at Unisinos and Education Manager at Fiquem Sabendo. "Atypical until then, because the doubt remains whether this will not be the 'new normal,' to use a term from the pandemic," she said. If we take into account the aggressions suffered by journalists covering the antidemocratic blockades and demonstrations around the country protesting Bolsonaro’s defeat, this state of permanent tension seems to be here to stay.

The hostile environment for journalism, on the other hand, has contributed to some positive side effects. The unity within the profession, for example. Christofoletti observes that journalists are not, in general, united. In fact, they are very competitive. "At various times journalists have united to defend their colleagues, to defend news outlets," he said. The hostility served to strengthen the bonds among media professionals – as well as to highlight the values journalism serves, and its role in society.

More collaboration

This unity appeared not only in the defense of colleagues or the profession, but also in its practice. Two great examples of how collaboration in journalism has made progress in the Bolsonaro years are the Comprova fact-checking project and a consortium of news outlets created to cover the pandemic when facing a data blackout and the federal government's failure.

Both scholars see the practice of journalism as an institution that operates in society and is dependent on democracy while acting to maintain it. "In 2022, journalism tried to play more like an institution. An institution concerned with maintaining democracy, and dependent on it. There was a strong symbiosis between those two sides. And in 2018 [when Bolsonaro was elected], there (wasn't)," Christofoletti said.

According to him, State institutions themselves were not very active that year. He compared the speech of Supreme Justice Alexandre de Moraes [who was the president of the Electoral Court in 2022] right after the run-off this year with that of Supreme Justice Rosa Weber, who was the president of the Electoral Court in 2018.

Christofoletti believes that Rosa Weber was very soft. He believes the Electoral Court was stronger and more combative in 2022. So was journalism. "We even saw headlines from [newspapers] Folha de S.Paulo and Estadão saying 'Bolsonaro lies,' 'Bolsonaro distorts. This was impossible to imagine in 2018.” Christofoletti said that these examples illustrate an accelerated progress.

"It's very complicated to cover power. And it is very complicated to cover it normally during an abnormal government. A government that does not agree to follow liturgies, does not fulfill work pacts, or holds its standing as a public agent," he said. According to the researcher, the Bolsonaro government was consistent in this sense: It declared the press an enemy on the first day of 2019 and was only sympathetic to those who were aligned with the government.

Rafiza Varão, PhD in Communication Theories and Technologies and professor of Ethics and Journalism in the Department of Journalism at the University of Brasília (UnB), agrees that there was indeed a learning curve in journalism during these four years.

But she has some reservations.

For example, Varão recalls that in the 2018 elections, journalistic coverage was very focused on appearing to follow the strict principles that have historically governed journalism: objectivity, neutrality, [and] impartiality. But as Eugênio Bucci, journalist and professor at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (USP) underlines, at that moment, candidate Jair Bolsonaro was already making it clear that he was not willing to play in the democratic camp. He showed that when he defended torturers from the military dictatorship, the 1964 military coup, and mechanisms to inhibit or censor the press, for example.

As time went by, it became clear that Bolsonaro could not be placed – first as a candidate, then as a public figure – in the democratic camp. And then journalists realized that some practices and positions consolidated in journalism practice would have to be reviewed. This culminated with the 2022 elections.

Yet journalism has fallen into some traps.

Bolsonaro leaves his car in front of supporters gathered in fenced area

Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters in the "cercadinho" in front of the Presidential Palace. Photos: Daniel Marenco/HDLN

The instrumentalization of journalists

Declaratory journalism is one of them, notes Rafiza Varão, whose research approaches journalism from the point of view of ethics. For those who are not in the field, declaratory journalism is a questionable, though very common, practice of simply reproducing the statements of its sources – especially from official sources – in an uncritical way, without context and without considering whether the content is true and of public interest.

Varão notes that social media are taking the place of interviews in the practice of this type of journalism. The rise and dominance of these platforms in our daily lives has led political actors – especially those on the far right — to use these channels as a means of direct access to their voters. The result, for politics, is a permanent election campaign. And Varão's assessment is that journalism became "a privileged place of speech" for these actors, amplifying those statements in various journalistic products. She draws attention to the role of TV in this construction.

"[TV] journalism not only broadcasts screenshots of the speech [of the public actor], what is written, but also reads [the content of the speech] to those who are watching television. So it reinforces that material [posted in social media] in countless ways. And that material is placed strategically," Varão said. "Whoever produces it expects it to resonate in traditional media and other social media as well. So, in the case of declaratory journalism that comes from social media, Brazilian journalism still finds itself in a deadlock."

The result, the researcher believes, is that journalism ends up lacking the capacity to discern, to know when it is being instrumentalized by these public figures.

"When one's own speech becomes news, many times what ends up happening is that we journalists end up being used by the source. And political actors in social media put themselves in a position of being a permanent source. Even more so when you are talking about official sources. This creates a trap for us," she said.

False equivalences

According to a few experts, the blind pursuit of the basic values of journalism also exposed another weakness of journalism practice over the last years: the false equivalence, or false symmetry.

Christofoletti underlines that this is an issue that journalism has not yet managed to solve. Not because of lack of attempts, but because it’s really difficult. Why?

"Because false equivalence affects an aspect that is crucial within our profession, which is to seek balance, equidistance. I look for a distance where I stay close enough to my source to extract information, but I have to keep enough distance to be critical of it. It's very complicated to establish this," he said.

For Varão, the problem of false equivalence has become more acute with the acceleration of journalistic processes. She says that instantaneity does not make room for reflection and takes away the space for explanation. And it's not about explaining things to the audience. It is about a prior explanation, the one journalists themselves must have in order to cover a certain event.

"Many times, journalists can't explain things to themselves and end up being superficial. The false symmetry comes a lot from this superficiality that does not explain things to oneself. If we think from the standpoint of journalistic ethics, this is a very serious problem. Because we are also responsible for the construction of democracy," Varão said. "We are a fundamental space for people to understand what their rights are, for democracy to be represented, for freedom of expression to be there, and for the right to information to be respected as well. So when journalists can't explain to themselves what their responsibility is, the whole job is compromised.”

Varão sees a rise, in recent years, of a journalism "that doesn't explain to itself what is happening." "It's not that it gets the information wrong about the event itself, but it gets it wrong because it doesn't understand the event," she said.

Think of a traffic blockade in a major city as a result of a demonstration against hunger, for example. A reporter who looks at the event only from the point of view of the right to come and go, although she can do it accurately, may not understand what is happening if she ignores the reasons for the demonstration. By choosing to register the size of the traffic jam and collect testimonies from drivers rather than seek the reasons for the blockade, the journalist will not "explain to herself" the event.

According to Christofoletti, the editorial published by Folha de S.Paulo on Oct. 29, the day before the presidential election run-off, is another example of the dilemma of false equivalence. While noting that Lula’s and Bolsonaro’s were two very different presidential candidacies, the article claimed that Folha would remain impartial. "But it's not about being partial. This is very hypocritical of Folha de S.Paulo, because on other occasions Folha has taken very clear positions," he said.

According to him, because Folha has a body of editorialists, the text must have passed through many hands, and in the end it was reticent. Seibt said the editorial even establishes the differences between Lula and Bolsonaro, but "it doesn't put its foot down." "I think this was a dashed expectation," she said.

Between fascism and democracy

In a recent interview with digital news outlet Nexo, Eugênio Bucci stated that certain sectors of the press still believe that there is an "equidistant point between fascism and democracy." "And that is a misconception, it is an optical illusion. Between fascism and democracy, journalism has the duty to take the side of democracy," he said.

On the other hand, Bucci believes that, unlike in 2018, the press had a more mature, critical and solid stance towards Bolsonaro in 2022. "The side of journalism is not a partisan side. It is one side of the state and society organization paradigm. It is on the side of the Republic and on the side of democracy. This cannot be taken lightly," the professor said.

Fabiana Moraes, a professor and researcher at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), believes that the problems of journalism – especially mainstream journalism, represented by the traditional media companies – go beyond specific issues, such as declaratory journalism or false equivalence. She believes that by hesitating to treat Bolsonaro as a unique figure, journalism has helped to erode the Brazilian democratic environment.

Fabiana Moraes understands that it is not easy to change how to cover a president. But the attempt to cover Bolsonaro like earlier presidents ended up normalizing him.

"He [Bolsonaro] was almost asking 'Don't treat me normally.' I think a milestone for Brazilian journalism was when he put a comedian in the ‘cercadinho’ [a fenced area in front of the Presidential Palace reserved for journalists and Bolsonaro’s supporters], dressed as the president, to answer journalists' questions for him, and to throw bananas at journalists," she said. Moraes adds that "the ‘cercadinho’ institution" needs to be re-assessed, because "perhaps it is a symbol of this attempt at normalization."

It was women journalists, Moraes said, who began to change the tone and put Bolsonaro in a more specific place. "I felt this when they began to say, both to Bolsonaro and to people connected to him, ‘I'm going to finish speaking and you pick it up again’ [when they kept being interrupted]. In a way, this happened because of the gender issue, but it was also because of the authority figure of the journalist," she said. For the researcher, the posture and the testimonials of women journalists – especially those of the traditional press – represent a turning point in the way professional journalism began to treat the president.

Complexification of racism

Moraes also notes other advances during this period. The way journalism approaches racism and gender issues, for example, no longer has an activist character. "The press has absorbed these issues a little better. I think there is more willingness to understand some issues in a more complex way in journalism. Not placing these issues in specific boxes and understanding how they have tentacles and provoke effects in different social arenas," she said.

But the researcher also remembers that it took the George Floyd episode, in the United States, to change some of the gears of journalistic coverage here in Brazil. She quotes a line by journalist Helaine Martins, creator of the project "Entreviste um Negro” [“Interview a Black Person"], who died in 2021. Moraes recounted that she once asked Martins whether journalists were asking for this database. "She told me that in five years of Entreviste um Negro, the time it were most in demand was when George Floyd was murdered [by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020, which led to massive demonstrations against police violence towards Black people in the U.S.]. I think this episode speaks volumes about how we normalize the murder of Black people in Brazil," Moraes said.

The role of fact-checking

One cannot analyze journalism in the last four years in Brazil without looking at the work of fact-checking agencies. Although we can sometimes be pessimistic about the results of this kind of professional practice – after all, the amount of misinformation will always be much greater than journalism's ability to fact-check it – the experts heard for this feature story agree: it is better to have fact-checking than not have it.

Christofoletti said that fact-checking has made a lot of progress in the Bolsonaro years and that these specialized agencies have been fulfilling a role of making visible, counting, and highlighting the lies of Brazil’s current president. In the near future, he said, it will not be possible to think of journalism without fact-checking agencies.

Seibt, whose doctoral thesis analyzes the practice of fact-checking in Brazil, also has the feeling that we are on a fool’s errand. But everything would be worse without fact-checking.

"For those seeking verified information, it is important that there be professionals looking and following the trends of viralization to be able to produce content and give an answer to those seeking it. If we didn't have this partnership with the [social media] platforms, it would be worse," she believes. "I try to soften this impression a bit that we’re on a fool’s errand by saying that, well, it's necessary. It's not the only way out [of disinformation], it will never be."


*This article was originally written in Portuguese and was translated into English by Carolina de Assis. 

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