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Of Responsibilities

03/26/2018 - 11h32



The incessant dissemination of fake news last week prompted murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco's sister and her widow to initiate a judicial proceeding seeking the removal of deceptive videos, based on more than 16 thousand e-mails denouncing false information. The case is worth reflecting on, especially since the diffusion of lies, for the most part, started with an article published by Folha the day after the councilwoman's murder.

The article, put up on the *Folha*'s site on March 16th at night and published the next day in the print edition, highlighted a post by Magistrate Judge Marilia Castro Neves on a social network. On the site, the title and a small line declared: "Judge says that Marielle was involved with criminals and is an 'ordinary cadaver'; Marilia Castro Neves made this comment on Friday (the 16th) on Facebook. In the print edition, the title was: "Magistrate says that Marielle had a link to criminals".

The article was composed of nine paragraphs. The first five reproduced and contextualized the origin of the declaration. In only one paragraph was it mentioned that a group of lawyers was calling for the magistrate to be denounced by the National Judicial Council (CNJ) for "mocking" Marielle's death. The magistrate herself was cited in the last three paragraphs, saying that she had never heard of Marielle before, that she had copied the content from a friend and that she was against the politicization of the murder.


I see several problems. First, the newsworthiness of the post, second, the way that the article was constructed and third, and most important, the titles that Folha chose and published for it. From any point of view, the newspaper needs to ponder its share of the blame for being the origin of the dissemination of the fake news.

I cite the *Folha*'s new Copy Editing Manual: "Titles and subtitles constitute the primary, if not the only, point of contact for many readers with the news. Their formulation should be attractive and responsible, especially on digital platforms, where the wider context can be lost." It recommends: "Avoid click-bait tricks, like sensationalistic formulations or omissions intended to mislead the reader".

According to a report in the Globo (Globe) newspaper, the repetition of fake news about the councilwoman came mostly from the site Ceticismo Político [Political Skepticism] (which provided the title "Judge destroys PSOL Party narrative and says that Marielle was involved with criminals and is an 'ordinary cadaver'" and cited Folha as the source.

As journalist Pedro Burgos aptly pointed out, the majority of prominent media vehicles reproduced the judge's accusation without substance in the title. None of the reports failed to note, at some point, that she had no reliable source to back up her accusation. Some even highlighted the disparity in subtitles.

"In other words: in terms of information, the reports are 'correct'. But they could have been better. The most important 'information' was that something patently false was spreading on social networks and one of the vectors was the judge who believed too much in things from WhatsApp, Burgos concluded.

Folha should also have investigated who the judge was before publishing the article. It might have changed its evaluation. She had previously mocked the first female professor with Down Syndrome, played down accusations of harassment made by women and referred to the CNJ as a "spurious entity".

I asked the *Folha*'s Editor-in-Chief, Sérgio Dávila, if the newspaper has a specific policy regarding fake news. He responded that the newspaper is so concerned about it that it is cited explicitly in the Editorial Project, where it says that professional journalism is an antidote to fake news.

In his evaluation, it is impossible to uncover and disprove all the fake news that propagates, primarily on social networks. "The primary mission of professional journalism shouldn't be to disprove fake news, but to bring true news that is relevant and exclusive to readers.

Dávila explained that Folha, along with other newspapers and news sites is part of the First Draft Project, a consortium that was born out of Harvard University and is now in Brazil and which seeks to attack fake news at the moment it begins to gain traction on the internet. The idea is to produce assessments that disprove fake news articles and reports, especially during the elections.

It is a welcome initiative. Fake news is a grave threat that is getting worse and worse. It occupies the center of worldwide debate. It is up to journalistic vehicles to adopt adequate procedures and find instruments and strategies that can prevent or diminish the damage caused by fake news to individuals, people, groups and whole countries.

Paula Cesarino Costa
Is a journalist and has been the newspaper's Ombudsman since April of 2016. She has been with the Folha since 1987.

Translated by LLOYD HARDER

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