A Sea Of Opportunities

Times of crisis and uncertainty offer a chance for the press to be valued again

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Moments of growing tension, high polarization, political crisis, and recession can also unveil the role of a free press. With its dichotomy crisis-opportunity, the presidential succession is giving Brazilian journalism an opportunity to be imperative and robust.

The shortest election campaign since the democracy reinstatement is getting to its first round with record audience numbers for several news outlets and in different types of mass media.

The game will restart for the second round. It will have an unpredictable script, adverse conditions, and political combats, but it will widen the window of opportunity for an evolving Brazilian press.

Folha's website had 41.4 million unique visitors in September, its best audience of all year. Interviews with presidential candidates increased TV Globo's newscasts' ratings and also quadrupled the ratings of Globo all-news cable channel, Globo News. Veja magazine's website hit a record 35 million users, with its 20 most viewed posts all about the election run.

In general, Folha covered the election well, with kudos to two scoops - journalistic slang for unpublished information - about the frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro (PSL).

The first scoop disclosed a phantom aide in the candidate's payroll and the second revealed a document in which Bolsonaro's ex-wife accused him of violence.

Added to Veja's scoop revealing details of Bolsonaro's divorce proceedings, they were all relevant information brought forth by the press. But the pieces also generated much criticism from readers.

I'd like to commend some investments from Folha's digital team, like the Election Match (a tool that allowed readers to find like-minded candidates to Legislative seats) and podcasts discussing both prior elections and the current one. 

On the other hand, Folha needs to improve on following the campaign in social media and messaging apps. It's imperative to invest and improve our monitoring of fake news and social networks. It's hard to create new and appropriate tools for a universe so rich in news stories waiting to be reported upon.

Another good example was the Electoral GPS, a series that analyzed the candidates' speeches using a mathematical model.

Larger endeavors will require actual taskforces, in order to uncover the candidates' motivations and the groups around them. Who they are, where they come from, how they support themselves and most importantly, what do they want?

Searching for balance should be a daily obsession, with an eye for false symmetry. The candidates and their policy proposals should be dissected, and each discovery to be put into context on its importance and meaning.

There was much criticism directed at Folha, from both left and right, due to coverage imbalances. Leading the complaints were the preliminary decision from the UN's Human Rights Commission about Lula's conviction and the #elenão protests. Other readers complained about an excess of stories and opinion pieces against Bolsonaro.

Looking back, I thought we also lacked humorous pieces, something that O Globo's website did very well with comedian Marcelo Adnet's imitations.

At one point or another, someone remembered the Legislative campaigns. It was too little, but a lot more than the almost nonexistent coverage of the state governors run. The reader wasn't made aware of how that political landscape was taking shape and will be probably be surprised coming Monday.

Polls were decisive to interpret the campaign. The mere suggestion of restricting them, which was attempted, is in itself a severe threat to the right of information. There's a lot to improve on the presentation and interpretation of poll data, and also on making sure we publish them with no errors, as it once happened.

Last week, Folha's request to the Supreme Court to interview Lula became a legal and political fight.
This campaign brought concerning threats to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. I was shocked to see that newspapers like O Estado de S. Paulo e O Globo had op-eds defending news censorship.

But there was also good news, and it came from the Brazilian population: the people's appreciation of democracy hit a record high. A Datafolha poll showed that 69% of people consider democracy the best form of government.  This is something that can comfort the pessimists.   

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language​​