On May 21, Catalytic Communities (CatComm), through its bilingual news site RioOnWatch.org, held its third interactive Live teach-in event on the topic of “Mistakes the Press are Making Covering Coronavirus in Favelas.” Six community journalists from Rio de Janeiro favelas shared their expertise on how both national and international press should improve their coverage of coronavirus in favelas, building on the conclusions of RioOnWatch‘s collaborative article, “7 Mistakes Made by Journalists Covering Coronavirus in Favelas,” and addressing recent media trends.
The roundtable discussion featured: PerifaConnection columnist, assistant at Rio de Janeiro’s Public Defender’s Office, and founder of the social development group Projeto Manivela Salvino Oliveira from City of God, in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro; journalist and co-founder of the community newspapers Fala Roça and Favela em Pauta Michel Silva, from Rocinha, in the South Zone; journalist and founder of the Mulheres de Frente women’s entrepreneurship project Beatriz Carvalho, from São João de Meriti in Rio’s outer Baixada Fluminense region; journalist, communications assistant at Fórum Grita Baixada, and RioOnWatch columnist Fábio Leon, from Duque de Caxias, also in the Baixada; journalist and reporter for both Voz das Comunidades and FavelaDaRocinha.com Gracilene Firmino, from Rocinha; and journalist, communications consultant for international NGO Witness, co-founder and editor of Favela em Pauta, and Bombozila collaborator Daiene Mendes, from Complexo do Alemão in the North Zone. The teach-in audience, in addition to foreign correspondents and members of the Brazilian press, also included a mix of favela activists, residents, and concerned citizens from cities across Brazil.
Empathy, Inequality, and Criminalization
The Live format provided an opportunity for the speakers and the audience to reflect on the structural and contextual realities and challenges of working in journalism in the favelas, confronting historic marginalization and contemporary stigmatization. Opening the evening’s conversation, City of God’s Salvino Oliveira emphasized the importance of treating favelas and their residents with empathy, saying “before any article, before any writing, [journalists] need to have empathy for others and put themselves in their shoes.”
Oliveira explained that the way favelas are viewed must change and that journalists need to understand that they are an integral part of Rio de Janeiro, which is a very unequal city. Complexo do Alemão’s Daiene Mendes added that the press is a product of this inequality, but also plays a role in perpetuating divisions. She said that journalists need “to understand the glaring inequality that has been established in Brazil […] and how it is organized structurally.”
Offering a specific example of the potential repercussions of journalism without empathy, Oliveira brought up the question of physical safety. “There are very high levels of territorial violence [in Rio de Janeiro], so some errors can even cost the lives of those that are interviewed,” he said. Oliveira is part of Frente CDD, a City of God community coalition that has mobilized to distribute food and hygiene materials to the favela during the pandemic. The group found themselves trapped inside a resident’s house on May 20 as a police operation and resulting shootout raged outside—they had just finished distributing 200 food parcels. They soon found out a local teenager had died in the operation, 18-year-old Jõao Vitor Gomes da Rocha.
Oliveira criticized the media’s attempts to criminalize the teenager as well as Frente CDD’s acts of solidarity in the community. He concluded that the media had “normalized death, including criminalizing those that fight against it.”
For Mendes, part of the issue is that the press benefits from such tragedies. “The basis of the press is inequality [… and] what sustains the press that we have here [in Brazil] are exactly these issues related to inequality. And the press profits from the suffering in our lives, they make money when a tragedy happens like the one yesterday in City of God,” she said.
For Rocinha’s Michel Silva, the same urban divisions contribute to a lack of professionalism by traditional media outlets when working with favela journalists. “Those who do journalism inside favelas are always referred to as ‘local correspondents,’ ‘local communicators’ […] I think that this is wrong because what we do is journalism.” He explained that traditional media outlets “copying and pasting” the work of favela journalists is a major issue: “I often see traditional media outlets copying information that they would not have been able to access if I hadn’t published that information […] and forgetting to quote the original source.”
For Silva, this amounts to a conscious act of exclusion. “We can see that the traditional newspapers, big media, between themselves, they quote each other, but when it is a local source, a source that doesn’t have so many financial resources, they end up forgetting them,” he said.
São João de Meriti’s Beatriz Carvalho told a story of two freelance journalists who photographed a young pregnant woman in City of God with her consent, but had then sold the images to mainstream media outlets without the young woman’s permission. The media outlets subsequently broadcast the images nationally and the young woman received all manner of online abuse. In response to this story, Carvalho asked a vital question: “How far does the power of the press go? When this was really [an example of] selling poverty […] but there is a person behind the image.”
The lack of professionalism extends to the way that journalists outside favelas interact with those inside favelas on a personal level. Michel Silva and Gracilene Firmino, also from Rocinha, both spoke about being contacted via WhatsApp with information and contact requests with no suggestion of payment for the work. These requests often involved favela journalists putting themselves in physical danger.
Firmino said that at the start of the pandemic, a journalist asked her to break lockdown to report on events in Rocinha.“It is unjust. How am I going to produce something like that for those guys?” asked Firmino. “And not just produce it, do the research, send photos, send text, send an interview, and then they will say, ‘thanks’ and not even quote my name when the article goes out.”
Silva spoke about a further problematic outcome of unprofessional exchanges with mainstream media outlets: they don’t pay favela journalists for their work. He explained, “I think there needs to be a separation between when there is an opportunity to help, when we can genuinely help with something, and the question of being a production assistant, or ‘fixer.’ They forget that we are also journalists and you pay [for that].” The question of financial inequality is central to the issue. Silva concluded that the “press has to pay for this mania of treating favela journalists as sources. Because also, if we take the annual profit of each newspaper, of each media outlet, their profits are absurd.”
Mendes showed how the lack of professionalism extends beyond the parameters of professional exchange to the mistreatment of favela journalists in their personal lives. Mendes explained that a producer from SBT Brasil had contacted her for an interview on the availability of beds and respirators in hospitals, but when Mendes declined, the producer accessed her Facebook account without permission, misleadingly compiling images of her and a family member for a report in a national newspaper. In response to the experience, Mendes described the dangerous hypocrisy of coercive journalists in big media as the greatest error. “They believe that this is heroism […] which they reproduce in their articles when they talk about us, but in reality, they want to be the heroes.”
Firmino spoke about what she considers to be the very serious problem of the lack of research in mainstream media articles about favelas. Entire areas of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the issues they hold, go uncovered. Firmino pointed to a “lack of information we have about other favelas in Rio de Janeiro. They always concentrate on Rocinha, Complexo do Alemão, parts of Maré, Manguinhos, and we don’t know what is happening in other favelas.”
Carvalho spoke about the challenge of addressing violence against women and children in the context of under-reporting during a pandemic and now increasing levels of police violence. To highlight the importance of the issue of insufficient coverage, Carvalho described how difficult it is for victims of domestic violence to get help from the State. She explained, “the first time you make a report, you are made to repeat your statement ten times to make sure that you aren’t contradicting yourself and obviously this [process of repeating] ten times was made and thought up so that you contradict yourself.”
Duque de Caxias’ Fábio Leon picked up on this point and explained how the problem is reflected in media habits. “We don’t question our own machismo, the machismo caused by society, machismo which intoxicates us, including as professionals […] I think that the press could be more critical in its narrative, including of public policies that should be better implemented concerning the issue of domestic violence.” Given the prevalence of coercive powers and structures that can obstruct successful community communication practices, Leon believes that it is the media’s responsibility to create an “anti-chauvinist pedagogy.”