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Brazil’s Major Newspapers Lost National Relevance. If They Ever Had It

O Estado The current political scenario marked by the Senate crisis and suspicions regarding the management of Petrobras bring back to the table the familiar issue of media’s biggest newspapers reach and influence, namely, Folha de S. Paulo, Estado de S. Paulo and O Globo. Do these major newspapers deserve the importance attributed by the political and “intellectual” elites in shaping the Brazilian public opinion, vis-à-vis, for example TV and/or the Internet?

I have been insisting otherwise, even before the expansion of the Internet. It does not however mean they should be ignored. Not at all. It means to not assign them a national relevance which they no longer have, assuming they had such influence to begin with.

This argument, despite new evidence about the Internet’s reach and the relative democratization guaranteed by its access is frequently chastised by those who believe the major newspapers and their columnists are responsible for defining the national public agenda.

The issue is complex, therefore I do not seek to solve it, just continue the debate.

Two aspects of the argument.

I will not take on all the aspects of the debate. It is well known newspaper sales are falling. Similarly, much has been discussed about the “recycling” of major newspapers’ articles by radio and TV stations.  I also believe the recent questioning of these newspapers’ credibility is an important issue. However, I do not wish to debate these points but note two other aspects.

First, the regional character of these big papers. O Globo is mainly a newspaper from Rio de Janeiro while Folha and Estadão are from São Paulo. They are not sold neither read nationally.

The second aspect is actually a consequence of the first but should be looked closely. Exactly, towards whom are these papers written?

One of the research topics in newsmaking seeks to relate the social reality constructed by the media to the values shared by journalists about how they should practice their craft.

Evidence suggests that news pieces implicitly reflect the journalists and their sources to a greater extent than the readers themselves. This means that while journalists know little about the readers, the bureaucratic, organizational and professional structure of the newspapers have a decisive influence over what is going to be news.

It’s worth mentioning the journalists’ expectations, political orientations, professional values do not come from the “public” towards whom they are writing but from their “reference group: colleagues and sources.”

In reality, the sources with which journalists regularly “talk” constitute a main part of their audience. Correspondents get more feedback about their coverage, reports and analyses from their source than any other social group. Reporters are permanently in contact with their sources and therefore get compliments, corrections, complaints, affronts, etc.

Therefore, as Paulo Kucinski stated “the dominant elite are simultaneously the protagonist and audience of news; a cycle which excludes the greater public from the written world.” The case applies to the national territory. Thus, major newspapers, besides being regional, are exclusive to Brazilian elites, be it national, regional or local.

What about the consequences?

The professional practice of journalism, not only within big newspapers, creates a permanent and self-serving cycle between sources and journalists. But this relation tends to tip towards the journalists. This cycle undermines the sources because they now feel “captive” of a select group of news reporters.

On the other hand, this sequence favors the journalists because (1) they have privileged access to these “authorized” and “accredited” sources, (2) the reporters have power to select, omit, emphasize and distort information and (3) they now “operate” under the protection and preserve the interests of these media groups for which they work.

Therefore, it seems correct to state major newspapers and their reporters work within a circle restricted to specific layers of the Brazilian political and “intellectual” elite.

Let it known the undue overestimation of these newspapers’ influence, often times, causes a misguided evaluation of what is the “public opinion” and, consequently, can lead to significant mistakes in public policy-making by sectors of the government.

The actual influence this political and “intellectual” elite on national politics remains to be known. If one takes the 2006 presidential elections as an example, the diverse “public spheres” of Brazilian society revealed relative autonomy from the major papers.

Does this case also apply to the other aspects of daily life? That remains to be known?

Venício A. de Lima is a senior researcher at the NEMP (Núcleo de Estudos sobre Mídia e Política – Center of Studies on Media and Politics) from Universidade de Brasília. He is the author, among other books, of Diálogos da Perplexidade – Reflexões Críticas Sobre a Mídia (Perplexity Dialogues – Critical Reflections on the Media) with Bernardo Kucinski. This text appeared at Observatório da Imprensa.

Translated from the Portuguese by Aldo Jansel. You may reach him at ajans001@fiu.edu.

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