Sensationalism in the Pandemic

Headline larger than the news article attracts clicks but misinforms and frustrates readers

Two articles published on the Folha website last Tuesday (22), pointed out new difficulties in covering the pandemic.

"Vatican allows the use of vaccines against Covid-19 made from the tissue of aborted fetuses" was the call for a text, originally from Reuters, about a statement from the Vatican to the Catholic community that spoke about the morality in the use of vaccines against Covid-19.

"Olavo has been hired as a reporter for Folha?”, summarized a reader, in reference to Olavo de Carvalho, who has already created turmoil by accusing a brand of soda of using cells from aborted fetuses as a sweetener.

The newspaper lacked the perception that the association of words such as vaccine, fetus, and abortion, in general, composes the same narrative of groups that seek to mix science and faith with the aim of discrediting the former.

As proof that it was possible to have done it differently from the beginning, the next day the newspaper redid the headline ("After criticism from anti-abortion groups, the Vatican defends the use of the vaccine against Covid") and reformulated the text, much higher in quality than the original one.

“The first report was published with less context than it was desirable, and the second version improved the general understanding,” says Mundo's deputy editor, Beatriz Peres.

The time between one version and the other, however, contributed to undermining efforts by scientists to clarify that vaccines are not made from aborted fetuses and caused the country's largest newspaper to lend its credibility to anti-vaccine groups.

"They [Folha] made it public that there is this thing inside vaccines ... in addition to human fetuses, animal remains, and other metals and various things," said a representative of one of these groups, in a video published on the social networks.

Although there was no mistake in what was published, the sensationalism of the headline was enough to wreak havoc. In addition, experts consulted by the column have reinforced that it is not about "tissues of aborted fetuses", but about cell lines derived from embryonic cells and developed from two fetuses legally aborted decades ago.

Experts also claim that there are no embryonic cells in the immunizers: the cells are used to grow the virus, which will then be isolated, purified, and used in the vaccine formulation.

Another point is that the Vatican has already spoken publicly out about vaccines before, in 2005. The return to the topic seems to be yet another attempt at dialogue with the more radical believers.

Finally, Folha does not read Folha, which published a text five months ago that contradicted a tweet that talked about vaccines and babies.

On the same Tuesday, a second article said that street vendors were selling fake vaccines against Covid-19 for fR $ 50 in Madureira, north of Rio de Janeiro.

Something like this is not at all unexpected in places of great agglomeration. It turns out that Folha's investigation had (has) problems, so much so that the text had three different versions, with the last one followed by an erratum explaining that the changes made (“Anvisa and PF investigate the sale of a false vaccine after reports”) better reflected the content of the news.

The biggest problem was that the article had been anchored in the testimony of a single source (a cultural producer), who first went viral on social networks. But other evidence also appears to be fragile.

Reports written about it bring the same producer as a source. In the updated version of the text, Folha says that at least three other residents of the neighborhood say they have seen or have been offered the vaccine, but do not detail the testimonies, which would have lent more credence to the article.

There are also doubts regarding the origin of the only photo of the alleged vaccine, which would have been taken by the cultural producer.

In the picture, the vaccine box is from the Chinese Sinopharm, not tested in Brazil. After some research, the checking agency E-farsas stated that there is robust evidence that the photo was taken in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, at an event promoted by a local company on December 11.

The editor-in-chief of E-farsas, Marco Faustino, spoke with company employees, who confirmed the event and recognized the background of the photo - the gym floor.

Furthermore, says Faustino, another indication that the photo was not taken by the producer interviewed by Folha is that it was already circulating on the internet at least one day before it was published by him.

About the case, the publisher of Cidades da Folha, Luciana Coelho, says that the reporter interviewed two people over the phone and collected two other reports through social networks, and says that she did not go to the place of sale because, "according to reports, the episode was not taking place at that time ”. CNN did go to the place.

"Unless a reproduction of the same photo published before the episode surfaces, it will be kept in the article," says Coelho.

Amplified by the press, cases like Madureira's or the Vatican's legitimize other agendas, in addition to putting the credibility of the media in check.

Journalism is expected to avoid sensationalism, know how to filter the noise from social networks, and acknowledge its mistakes, which, after all, are part of the process. Otherwise, it does society a disservice and still runs the risk of “embarrassing itself”, as one reader said.

Flavia Lima

Reporter specializing in economics, she has a degree in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been Folha's ombudsman since May 2019.

Translated by Cassy Dias