Different measures

An objective evaluation of the election coverage would offer better parameters for editors and readers

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

First, it was the colorful personality. Then came the sound bites, and following that, voters' increasing support and most recently, the stabbing attack. For all these reasons, presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has been sucking all the air in the news.

Last week, Folha reported that Ana Cristina Siqueira Valle, Bolsonaro's ex-wife, told the Brazilian Foreign Service in 2011 that he sent her death threats and that was why she left the country. The account is written in a diplomatic cable that our reporters gained access to. Valle denied and attacked Folha on social media.

On Thursday, Veja magazine obtained the couple's divorce filings and reported that Bolsonaro's first ex-wife accused him of stealing a safe, hiding assets and reported "explosive behavior" and "unrestrained aggressiveness". Folha summarized Veja's findings in a Friday article.

I have received many messages from readers who criticized both outlets and questioned their balance and impartiality, especially Folha's.

A reader wrote: "In this election, Folha is not at all being nonpartisan: it is blatantly against Bolsonaro. And it's already choosing to be on the side of whoever runs against him in the second round. Folha is lying when it says it doesn't take sides."

Other partiality accusations were aimed at the editorial pages, in which readers saw a clear imbalance among the op-ed writers.

I don't agree with the main criticism, but I concede that the newspaper needs to fine-tune its methods. The thorough search for balance should be in all decisions, big and small.

Two examples from Friday show the issue: 1. In some moments Folha's website had almost all callouts to stories related to Bolsonaro, and most of them were negative; 2. After all this criticism, Folha ignored a video where Bolsonaro's first wife defended her ex-husband.

It's also important to record that I also received reader criticism that saw favoring towards Bolsonaro, because we reported his policy proposals and interviews with his economic advisor, "sounding like he was already elected".

But a Datafolha poll showed that 75% of Folha's readers don't think that any candidate is being favored and 77% say that none of them are also being negatively impacted.

Folha's impartiality in this election coverage was one of the positive features most spontaneously cited: 22% identified this trace. In the opposite trend, 22% mentioned partisanship as a negative issue.

Deputy managing editor Vinicius Mora said: "be it in the news pages or the editorial ones, the newspaper is careful to even out mentions that could be either positive or negative to this year's candidates."

He says that, because pieces and reporter's investigations sometimes will be prioritized for publication because of their newsworthiness, there might be a perceived imbalance if the analyzed period is too short." 

To reach an overall conclusion, Folha is counting all the political coverage pieces, including opinion ones, since the beginning of the campaign and will publish a full recap as soon as the election ends, as it does in every election.

A quick read-through in the most recent Folha print editions, beginning in early September, when Bolsonaro was stabbed and Haddad's candidacy was made official, is elucidative.

Until Sept. 29th, 20 headlines were directly about the elections. Not counting poll results (4 headlines), 7 were about Bolsonaro, 3 about PT, 1 about Alckmin and another about former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso appealing to the center. Ciro Gomes (PDT), the third political force in this election cycle, had little coverage.

The search for impartiality and balance is subjective to a degree. It's natural that the leading candidate to be given more attentions and have his proposals more thoroughly covered. His leadership causes the interest for his moves and projects.

It's part of the newspaper's service to its readers to expose ideas and facts from the candidates' past. However, it's also its obligation to open more pages to alternative discussions, especially in such an undefined election as this one.

It would be more useful to Folha and the readers if this quantitative analysis of Folha's news and editorial coverage were to be done more often. They would be objective tools for editors and goalposts for readers. They're less valuable when disclosed after the election. 

After all, Monday morning quarterbacks don't score touchdowns.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language