Monday, July 27, 2009

Brazilian Journalism Is Pretty Bad, But Not for Those Reasons

I've often decried the quality of Brazilian journalism, so I found this editorial fascinating. The author, Jorge Fernando dos Santos, is horrified by the decline of Brazilian newspapers, as the title ("Brazilian Newspapers Are Dying an Inglorious Death") makes clear. He writes:
Two growing trends in the media market have become apparent. On one hand, there is the increased number of tabloids destined to the less favored sectors of the population. On the other, magazines directed to those with greater buying power
treat pseudo-celebrities as news.
The first trend has the merit of attracting new readers who were not used to reading newspapers, but has the flaw of sensationalism and shallow news analysis. These tabloids are big sellers.
Nevertheless, they violate the national language with blatant mistakes and underestimate the mental capacity of its readers. The second trend magazines usually have good graphic quality, but stumble by adulating the rich who are not always newsworthy.
I think this is pretty spot-on. At least with my experiences in Rio, nearly every newsstand is littered with these sensationalist tabloids that emphasize violence, sex, and celebrity (and I don't mean that in a codger-y way - many actually put barely-clothed women on the front page of the "newspaper" to draw your attention). If you actually look for a newspaper (again, at least in Rio), your option is usually O Globo, which, as I've commented before, is far from the standard-bearer of journalism that one would generally want. Finding something like the much-better Folha de São Paulo in Rio is not so easy (though no doubt, it's probably simple to find it in São Paulo).

The popular magazines are about as bad. You go to any medical office, dentist, etc., and you're bombarded with magazines that highlight, literally from cover-to-cover, what various celebrities are doing, where they're being seen, with whom they're being seen, etc. I do not exaggerate when I say these popular magazines (which many people even subscribe to in their mail) make People look like a literary review.

And those magazines that are interesting and engaged, offering critical analysis of the news or valuable literary and cultural commentary and production, such as Carta Capital or Piauí, respectively, are usually priced too high for anybody outside of the upper-middle class to spend money on them.

So print-journalism in Brazil is in a sorry state of affairs, no question, and it has been for a long time (at least since the dictatorship, when O Globo owner Roberto Marinho hopped in bed with the military in order to eliminate his opposition via censorship and repression).However, dos Santos blames two peculiar and specific culprits for this decline: the federal government, and the internet. According to dos Santos,
The end of the diploma requirement to be a professional journalist in Brazil is yet another chapter in the bitter story of Brazilian printing press' decadence. Days before the fateful decision by the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF), the Press Law had been dismantled, an act which left the sector legally vulnerable.
It should be noted that in almost every country there are legal mechanisms which regulate mass media. Here, it seems barbarity rules.
Dos Santos also admits that the print media itself has been complicit in lowering standards, but leading the editorial by blaming the government seems lazy and ignorant of the previous 30-40 years of Brazilian journalism. I don't know if the diploma requirement to be a professional journalist really matters or not - dos Santos offers absolutely no argument as to why this is a bad thing, but rather assumes the horrible-ness of the ruling of the Supreme Court is self-evident. What is more, while more Brazilians are getting into university, it's still a very class-based system, where students from the middle- and upper-class stand a far better chance of getting into the top schools (all of which are state-run, rather than private schools, and all of which are free of tuition) than the poor. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that one often has to attend an expensive private secondary school in order to gain the education required to enter the free, public universities; the poor quality of many public high schools, which the poor overwhelmingly attend while the middle- and upper-classes attend private schools; the difficulty of the exams requiring at least a year's worth of private preparation, something which costs a lot of money; and the lack of time many of the poor have to study for the entrance exams as they work to make ends meet. All of this does nothing to say how qualified somebody is as a journalist; as with any field, the simple possession of a degree does nothing to speak to your ability or knowledge. Dos Santos seems to be valorizing a diploma in a dangerous way for a society in which a majority still do not have access to a college education. And to be clear, the court's decision may ultimately be bad for Brazilian journalism, but there's nothing in dos Santos's argument to explain why that's the case, and he seems to be resting his opinion on a particularly class-based framework that excludes the possibility that many who do not have a college education in journalism could be and are still very capable journalists.

As for the internet, he blames its rapid pace for the fact that "daily newspapers got carried away by the speed of information, as if the radio had not been invented long before these new media. Cover page editors insist on publishing obvious and repetitive headlines which do not add to the facts." While I completely agree that the headlines are "repetitive" and lack facts, that isn't really the internet's fault - having looked at newspapers from the 80s and 90s (and earlier), it's been like that for a long time, honestly since at least O Globo's ascendance (though I'm not sure O Globo is to blame; it may be, but it may not, and it would be a worthwhile subject for a journalism or history dissertation unto itself).

At the end, I agree with dos Santos's specific complaints about Brazilian journalism. It is sensationalist; it is simplistic; it is celebrity-focused; it does lack critical analysis; it is focused on profits. However, the reasons are much more complicated and deeply rooted than dos Santos allows for in his blaming of the government and the internet. Even when he does say that journalism has taken steps itself to dumb itself down (particularly over the "profit" issue), he neglects other major factors, including (but not limited to) more than 10 years of censorship during the military dictatorship, which forced newspapers to reduce the complexity of reporting and analysis. Thus, while dos Santos's complaints are fully legitimate, I think he's more than a bit simplistic in diagnosing why Brazilian print media has arrived to the point it is at today.