Brazilian newspapers win public trust
Reporting corruption as well as news that eases daily life has lifted the press's profile.
RIO DE JANEIRO — On the first day of 2006, the lead story in Rio's O Globo newspaper was about the fireworks and festas of the night before. In the days before and after, ample coverage was given not only to domestic politics, trouble in the Middle East, and yearly retrospectives, but also to the seaweed invading the city's beaches, how to avoid traffic congestion on New Year's Eve, and the paper's annual competition to choose outstanding social entrepreneurs.
To some, the heavy accent on community stories might not be fitting for Brazil's second biggest-selling newspaper. To others, however, it is one reason why, in a era when journalists and editors in many nations are losing prestige and respect, the scribes of Brazil's fourth estate are held in ever higher esteem.
"Our priority is obviously news," says Luiz Garcia, a veteran columnist at the paper who writes a daily critique of the coverage for the staff. "But the thing we do well is provide a service. We tell you who to complain to if the meat at your supermarket is off.... We tell you how to do your taxes online. We help make life easier for our readers."
That kind of service has helped satisfy readers in South America's most populous nation. A recent survey by leading polling firm Ibope shows that 63 percent of Brazilians "have confidence" in the country's newspapers. Only doctors, the Catholic Church, and the military are considered more trustworthy.
In the US, by contrast, the credibility rating for the press is at a historic low, while its favorability rating remains high, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year.
The service provided by many of Brazil's 3,004 daily and weekly newspapers is a crucial factor in gaining and keeping the public's confidence, especially in Rio and at the smaller, regional publications, experts say, despite some reservations about transparency and professionalism. But journalists and press watchers say there are more substantial reasons, too, especially when considering the country's more serious papers.
Although its sheer size and geographical diversity mean no Brazilian newspaper has a truly nationwide reach, the few predominantly São Paulo papers that vie to be the country's best are doing so because they have played a vital part in Brazil's transition to democracy.
Ever since Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship ended in 1985, the press has been a consistent, and sometimes the only, monitor of politicians, police, and other powerful interests.
Last year, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper broke the story about a campaign-finance scandal that rocked the reigning Workers' Party and the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Weekly news magazines like IstoÉ and Veja have led the way in denouncing graft inside government ministries, banks, and other agencies. Most memorably, it was reporters who uncovered the corruption scandal that led to President Fernando Collor de Mello's impeachment in 1992.
"They got the story and went with it week after week and with more and more details. And after months people took to the streets because they were so angry," says Pedro Doria, a columnist who writes about media issues for the online magazine nominimo.com.br. "If it wasn't for the press there wouldn't have been any impeachment, and people remember that."
The public's confidence in the press is unusual for many reasons, not least of which is that few Brazilians actually read newspapers. The country's biggest selling paper, the Folha de São Paulo, sells an average of just 307,000 copies a day, according to the National Newspaper Association, a tiny number compared to the 44 million who tune in to the nightly news on TV Globo.
The papers carry weight, though, because their readers are the political and business elite and the educated middle classes. And people have faith in the papers, experts say, because compared to the corrupt and discredited institutions charged with running the country they are professional, effective, and believable.
"Law enforcement here is very weak, the attorney general's office has only been up and running for a few years. And the mechanisms for monitoring how the public's money is used by the state, by legislatures, and by the judiciary are all very recent and don't yet work satisfactorily," says Marcelo Beraba, Folha de São Paulo's ombudsman. "That means the press is more valued."
Mr. Beraba, however, says he was baffled by the public's trust in an institution he said lacked funding, transparency, and often professionalism. Newspapers are often biased or compromised by their business interests, and a lack of resources means that those charged with getting the story are often so stretched that they don't have time to cover all the bases thoroughly, he adds.
Moreover, even the top newspapers are reluctant to acknowledge errors. Only two of the country's 532 dailies have ombudsmen. The Brazilian press has never had its own Jayson Blair-type scandal, not because such examples of plagiarism or invention haven't happened, but because we haven't heard about them, says Mr. Doria.
"How did people know that Jayson Blair happened?" he asks rhetorically. "If The New York Times had just fired him, it wouldn't have been a big scandal. But they put lots of people on it and wrote a huge section saying look at the mess we made. No Brazilian publication would want to admit any culpability. The culture here is to cover it up."