The risks of letting Jair Bolsonaro hijack the news in Brazil

. Mar 06, 2020
The risks of letting Jair Bolsonaro hijack the news in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro talks to reporters. Photo: EBC

Since Jair Bolsonaro took office as president, it seems as if Brazil is living in a never-ending crisis loop. The press barely has time to analyze one controversy before another is launched from the presidential palace. However, it appears there is method to the government’s madness.

Mr. Bolsonaro has put outrage at the center of his political platform—meaning he is the ideal figure for the social media age. Whether it be adoration or disgust, everyone who’s talking politics on Facebook or Twitter is talking about Jair Bolsonaro.

And the same goes for the press, too.

</p> <p>We did an exclusive scan of over 500,000 headlines published by Brazil&#8217;s leading news outlets between July 2017 and February 2020. And the data shows just how much Mr. Bolsonaro has been able to hijack the news cycle in Brazil.</p> <p>More than one-third of political stories published by newspapers <em>Folha de S.Paulo</em> and <em>Valor</em> mention President Jair Bolsonaro by name in their headlines. On daily newspaper <em>O Globo</em>, the rate is slightly lower: one in four stories mention the president in their title. However, <em>O Globo</em> is the outlet that has published the most Bolsonaro-centric stories in February 2020 alone: 329, an average of ten every day.</p> <p>Much more than <em>Folha</em>&#8216;s 244 and <em>Valor</em>&#8216;s 105.</p> <p>In the entire analyzed span, <em>O Globo, Folha, Valor</em>, and the country&#8217;s leading weekly magazine <em>Veja</em> published a combined 22,514 stories about President Bolsonaro.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1521921"><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1521969"><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1521954"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>What allows Jair Bolsonaro to hijack the news</h2> <p>Clearly, a significant part of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s dominance of Brazil&#8217;s headlines is down to the fact that he emerged as a leading candidate for the 2018 election and then became president. What a head of state says is by definition more relevant than any rants from obscure congressional backbenchers.</p> <p>But the extent of the media focus on Jair Bolsonaro also speaks to his ability to use outrage to control political narratives. As soon as one subject becomes too uncomfortable for him or his administration, he manages to change the conversation—grabbing the media&#8217;s attention with outrageous tweets or declarations in press briefings, a tactic he stole from U.S. President Donald Trump&#8217;s playbook.</p> <p>But there is a third dimension that is more sinister.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has such ease in controlling the news cycle because the mainstream media devotes so much energy to simply relaying whatever he says. Thirty percent of <em>Folha</em> stories including the president&#8217;s name in the title come accompanied by reporting verbs, such as &#8220;Bolsonaro says …&#8221; or &#8220;Bolsonaro states …&#8221; At <em>Valor</em>, this rate peaked at 42 percent.</p> <p>One of the major strategies used by Jair Bolsonaro is his daily &#8220;impromptu&#8221; pig-pen press gatherings outside of the presidential residence. Every morning as he leaves for work, Mr. Bolsonaro addresses the press backed up by a gaggle of excited supporters, and these daily meets have become a rich source of outrageous quotes, such as when the president told a reporter he had a &#8220;terribly homosexual face,&#8221; or when he made jibes about the mother of another journalist.</p> <p>Online outrage means clicks, and clicks mean advertising money—even if these outlets receive low &#8220;cost per mile&#8221; (CPM) on these ads. So, it is unlikely that the Brazilian media will decide to back away from this daily Bolsonaro coverage, moving to analyze data on the government&#8217;s performance.</p> <p>This tactic has worked for Mr. Bolsonaro for almost a decade.</p> <p>He became nationally famous in 2011, after being <a href="">featured on the now-defunct TV comedy show <em>CQC</em></a>, when he was presented as &#8220;Brazil&#8217;s most controversial congressman.&#8221; The segment was filled with attacks on other politicians, as well as racist and homophobic comments. Despite the deplorable nature of his statements, it was a sure-fire recipe for boosting TV ratings.</p> <p>Not surprisingly, the &#8220;controversial&#8221; Jair Bolsonaro featured several times on <em>CQC </em>and other such programs.</p> <h2>The problems of &#8220;declaratory journalism&#8221;</h2> <p>What Mr. Bolsonaro does is to replicate a well-established technique of using conventional media to spread misinformation. The obsession of newsrooms around the world with &#8220;declaratory journalism&#8221; has turned the industry into an &#8220;attack surface&#8221; for those who spread misinformation, according to Dan Gillmor, co-founder of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University&#8217;s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.</p> <p>Back in 2018, he wrote an <a href="">open letter to newsrooms everywhere</a> stressing this fact:</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>Politicians have always told some lies. This is different. The people running our government, and their key supporters, have launched a war on honest journalism, on facts, and on freedom of expression in general. They are using misinformation as strategy. They want the public to become so confused by what is true and what is false that people will give up even on the idea that journalism can help sort things out. This is not business as usual. You may wish otherwise—and the relentless normalizing journalists still do of this abnormal crew shows how much you wish otherwise—but at some point, you have to recognize reality and react to it.</em></p><p><em>Your job is not to uncritically “report”—that is, do stenography and call it journalism—when the people you’re covering are deceiving the public. Your job is, in part, to help the public be informed about what powerful people and institutions are doing with our money and in our names.</em></p><p><em>&#8220;But but but but,&#8221; you say, &#8220;we call them out on the lies. We let them lie and then we refute it.&#8221;</em></p><p><em>Yes, sometimes you do that, but not consistently.</em>

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Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.

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