The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
In Brazil, where disinformation and harassment of reporters are part of the media landscape, the dogged investigative reporter Patricia Campos Mello is better prepared than most journalists to uncover the truth. She has reported from war zones, covered the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and persisted in reporting on Brazil despite threats from supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Yet it isn’t mining data or parsing epidemiological statistics that the Folha de S. Paulo journalist considers the most important skill for covering the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it’s a simple, human one: empathy.
“Whenever I'm doing reporting, what I try to do is put myself in the shoes of the person I'm speaking to,” she said during an ICFJ webinar. “I think this is the lesson that I learn over and over again.”
“When we are covering something so sad and so horrible as a pandemic, it’s even more valuable,” said Campos Mello, who also has covered the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. “Before you write something, think, ‘These are people.’ Think about their families, what they're going through. I think this is the most important thing.”
This week, Campos Mello was a winner of Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize, which recognizes journalists and news organizations with a distinguished body of work who has contributed to inter-American understanding. The Cabot Prize judges called her “a prime example of a professional journalist who continues to do her job in the face of adversity.”
She talked with ICFJ Community Engagement Director Stella Roque about her experience covering the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil.
“Do not get in the way of the doctors’ and nurses’ work, because they're not there to speak to journalists. They're there to deal with a disease that they don't even know how to cure. They're still trying.”
Here are additional highlights from the conversation:
On the challenges of reporting on the pandemic in Brazil
“We have the second-highest death toll because of COVID-19. And we are approaching two million cases, which means we're only second to the U.S. in terms of the seriousness of the pandemic in the country,” she said.
“We're also similar to the U.S. in the sense that we have a president that has been minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic since the beginning,” she said. “He was also saying it's not worse than a regular cold, so it's been very difficult to report about the seriousness of the disease and about all the problems and lack of equipment, lack of personal [protective] equipment and everything, because we have very conflicting messages” from health experts and the central government.
On reporting statistics when authorities try to hide them
In April, “the government stopped publishing the numbers of people who had died of COVID-19 on its social media channels. And in the beginning of June, they just decided to change the statistics method they were using in a way that it would end up omitting part of the death toll. They only stopped this because the Supreme Court in Brazil said they could not do this.”
To work around the government’s hoarding of statistics, “the main media outlets in Brazil, built a consortium with the local governments and do a parallel statistics and parallel accounting of cases. And that's because we can't trust government figures. That's how bad it is.”
“As a general rule, I would always be a bit skeptical about government statements and information at this point, because a pandemic is really a disaster for any government, not only in the humanitarian sense... but also that the economy is very much affected. So you have a propaganda machine that is working at the same time trying to spin the messages. So I guess it is a challenge for all of us to try to filter what's spin and what's actual information and real figures.”
On how to approach victims
“When I was covering the Zika pandemic in the northeast of Brazil, there was a hospital that had several mothers with their newborns or, you know, babies were a few months old and had microcephaly because of Zika. And there were like so many journalists around them. And I saw that scene and I thought, this is horrible...It's always really difficult and sensitive to approach someone who's probably going through the most difficult time of their lives.”
“If you notice that the person is [even] a tiny bit uncomfortable, just don't ask...This is so much [more] important than getting your interview and getting quotes. So, I mean, we always have to have this kind of empathy and thinking, okay, so this is a mother who is dealing now with a baby who has a very serious disability, in terms of microcephaly. Or when we went to the hospital here, COVID-19, we had several family members that were there waiting to see their loved ones who mostly were intubated in ventilators and couldn't speak. So, I mean, it's really like a matter of being very, very cautious when speaking to these people and family members.”
On how to find new stories about the pandemic
Explore story angles related to “what's going to change in the world after the pandemic or when we gradually get out of the pandemic?”
“Stories dealing with the poorer population are often underestimated or not reported on enough,” she said. “If you have a poor internet connection, how do you have online classes with your kids? How do you do social distancing in a poor community where, you know, five, 10 people living in two rooms?”
On wearing personal protective equipment during interviews
“When I was in Sierra Leone, I would not wear any of those really protective gear that you look like an astronaut because it's almost offensive to people you're interviewing, rattling. Oh, I'm afraid of you, you know, so I'm wearing all this. So I did not wear anything. I just didn't touch anyone. And I kept a distance because it's even you know, it's disrespectful. I felt that right.”
“But then again, Ebola was not as contagious as COVID-19. So, I mean, with COVID-19, we don't really have an option. We have to wear it.”
“Whenever you're going to a place where you might find people who are infected or even asymptomatic, you have to wear [protective gear].”
“When you interview someone, they are giving part of their precious time to us, you know, to talk to us sometimes about really sensitive stuff about their lives. So it's hard to gain trust and not to be invasive when you're wearing full protective gear. But with COVID-19, we don't have another option.”
On why media outlets are targeted
“I think it's every institution that [gives] checks and balances to governments. We have several populist governments with an authoritarian bent,” she said. Anyone who presents “an obstacle for them, be it independent media or activists, human rights activists or the judiciary is going to be targeted because the main goal is to discredit the enemy. In that sense, the media, whenever it does not bow toward the pressures of the government, is viewed as an enemy.”
“There is a systematic effort to delegitimize traditional media, professional media. It got to a point that the main media outlets in Brazil stopped sending their reporters to the presidential press briefings because they were being attacked by the president and his supporters were always either yelling ‘fake news media’ or ‘communist’ or something along those lines.”
On the need for laws to combat disinformation
“One thing I think has changed is that COVID-19 made the internet platforms understand that when it's about a disease that can kill, there is no hands-off approach to moderating content. It’s the first time that they are actively labeling content as disinformation or unproven.”
“We know that just [any] piece of legislation is not going to solve it. It could end up making it worse. We've seen in a few countries that it tends to criminalize just regular social media users at the same time.”
In some countries “there is no accountability whatsoever. It's not just a regular person who's sharing some fake news, it's criminal organizations that are spreading fake news and defamation campaigns. And I think in that sense, there is a realization among both legislators and non-governmental organizations that there has to be something done against the professional part of this.”
“But there needs to be so much caution as to not to end up criminalizing speech or just violating privacy rights or freedom of speech. I think at this point, at least, there is a realization that this is a problem and something has to be done. And now we just need to find the middle ground not to end up with legislation that is even worse than what we have now, which is no legislation.”
On maintaining credibility and the trust of audiences
“Be transparent as much as possible,” she said. Explain your reporting and fact-checking processes to audiences, because “maybe if we explain how it works...it could be a way for some people to regain trust in what you do.”
Dorroh is a senior program director at ICFJ.