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Damaged credibility and a new threat in Brazil

“Electoral campaigns, especially that of the president-elected Jair Bolsonaro, accelerated a disintermediation process characteristic of the social internet.”

The 2018 elections in Brazil provided a preview of the scenario journalism can expect to face in 2019. Electoral campaigns, especially that of the president-elected Jair Bolsonaro, accelerated a disintermediation process characteristic of the social internet. The maxim that information has less need for traditional mediators to circulate was decisively evident, shaking the already weakened credibility of journalism.

Benefiting from a scenario of polarization, intolerance, and aggressiveness, the end-to-end connection principle established a reality often oblivious to facts. In this new ecosystem, political actors present the scenarios that interest them most. On the other end, the audience receives a narrative that best represents their way of thinking. All this bypasses journalism and its mediating role.

The communication strategies of the transitional government and its attitude towards the press don’t just demonstrate a further aggravation of this 2018 reality — they also indicate a trend that transcends political journalism.

In 2019, it will be the role of journalism to pay attention to this modus operandi. Exposing the entrails of social platforms will be crucial. But it will not be enough to once again convince society our work is important. To respond to disintermediation, journalism will need to deepen its relationship with audiences. This will mean not only to understand them better; it will be critical for us to see that the audience increasingly understands the contradictions of our practices. The answer to this mistrust will be to increase transparency and invest more in diversity and collaboration.

For the third time, Farol Jornalismo and the Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (Abraji, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism) invited journalists and researchers to forecast journalism in the upcoming year. Challenged to think about 2019 with the dust of the election season still unsettled, the authors of a special issue of O jornalismo no Brasil outlined a framework that considers the complex scenario 2018 leaves us. The horizon is one of great challenges, but also great opportunities. To take advantage of them, however, waking up is key.

Perhaps the greatest example of the dichotomy between challenges and opportunities lies in what we understand as credibility. The journalist and researcher Sílvia Lisboa argues it’s not enough for a journalistic vehicle to claim to be credible — credibility built in one way only is nothing but a marketing strategy; it needs to be demonstrated in such a way that it can be perceived by the audience.

One possibility to ensure this perception, according to Lisboa, is for the vehicle to be more transparent about their funding and their attitude towards the facts. Another one is for journalism to “get out of the trap of being a mere reflection of the cultural wars that spring up in the underground of the internet and seek to set an agenda that reconciles with the pillars of modern ideals,” according to the journalist and researcher Rosane Borges.

Transparency also permeates the reflection of the journalist and editor of Projeto Comprova, Sérgio Lüdtke, on misinformation. Facing an ecosystem marked by bubbles that get thicker and thicker, in order to contain misinformation, it’s imperative that current fact-checking efforts are maintained. But it will not be enough for journalists to keep exposing the problem. It will be necessary to convince people that the journalistic narrative seeks the common good. For this, journalism needs a “new contract of trust with society.”

This new contract involves a greater effort to get to know the public. In the case of fact-checking, the Filtro Fact-Checking journalist and researcher Taís Seibt suggests the adoption of formats that better converse with the environments where Brazilians usually get information. She believes that video or audio checks may be more likely to succeed on WhatsApp, for example.

In relation to the journalism performed away from the urban cores, the researcher Claudia Nonato pointed out the challenge of understanding the concerns of the part of the population that voted for Jair Bolsonaro. Being almost always of a progressive bias, journalistic initiatives that seek to give visibility to lower classes will need to adapt their strategies to approach and support these people, although without leaving aside the ethical standards that regulate the profession.

Diversity strategies will also be important for journalism in 2019. Researcher Gean Gonçalves indicates the possibility of Brazilian newsrooms adopting gender editors, as El País and The New York Times did this year. It’s also up to journalism, Gonçalves points out, to be aware of the pressure that groups of women and LGBT people may apply when facing the policies of the new government, as well as to “monitor and report on violations that may get worse and affect those communities more harmfully.”

Surveilling Bolsonaro’s steps will also guide the efforts of journalism in the Amazon forest. Journalist Elaíze Farias draws attention to the difficulties of acting independently in that strategic region, far from the economic and political center of the country. To fight the subservience that rules devastation, coverage will need to embrace the complexity of the Amazon, leaving aside stereotypes and buzzwords.

The challenge to be faced by journalism in the Amazon is not only narrative but also economic. The lack of resources doesn’t strangle journalism only in the north; across the entire country, local journalism suffers from broken business models that render innovation impossible, according to Sérgio Spagnuolo, editor of the Volt Data Lab and coordinator of the Atlas da Notícia project. The distance from the journalism produced in large cities increases, and so does disintermediation. Without news organizations capable of covering small- and medium-sized cities, their populations are left at the mercy of misinformation.

One of the solutions, in terms of business, may be what Patrícia Gomes, product director at JOTA, calls “journalytics.” Looking closely at the data generated by the users may be a way of getting to know them better. Adapting journalistic products to the behavior of those who consume them will help reestablish a relationship of trust between journalism and its public.

In 2019, Brazilian journalism will need to rediscover its public. And in finding them again, it will need to disarm itself. “The credibility crisis that the press lives today must more and more contribute to journalists getting out of their fort and asking their readers what it is that makes them not trust what they read in the professional press,” writes Guilherme Amado, reporter of Globo and Época.

The assurance of journalism’s role as a relevant social mediator will depend on this reunion. Because in order to win the War on Truth, The Guardians — Time’s 2018 Person of the Year — will need the public by their side.

Moreno Cruz Osório is cofounder of Farol Jornalismo.

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