Has Olympics coverage shortchanged Brazil?

August 18, 2016

The scale of the Olympics enterprise is startling. For every athlete participating in the Games, there are now three members of the press scurrying across Rio de Janeiro looking for stories to tell–as many as 30,000 accredited journalists in total. For years, there has been very little global journalism focused on Rio and the 6 million human dramas unfolding there daily. Suddenly, stories about Brazil are inescapable, even if some–like the purported armed robbery of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and his teammates–turn out to be falsehoods that reinforce damaging stereotypes about a complicated place.

Rio is a marvel of a city: a diverse urban environment brimming with feminists who start carnival bands, government ministers who devour novels, break-dancers whose competition winnings go toward feeding their children. Yet instead of drawing out Rio’s intriguing complexities, much of the Olympics coverage has reinforced clichés, causing locally based correspondents to grind their teeth in irritation at the lost opportunity.

The hacks rush past even the freshest symbols of Brazil’s contradictions, such as newly built chess tables overlooking a polluted waterway outside the Olympic Park, often seeking instead to traipse through Rio’s informal settlements, or favelas, in search of well-worn tropes about the poor or drug traffickers. With so many reporters fresh off the plane, it is unrealistic to expect immediate insight into the social, political, and economic struggles of a country finding its own path to progress. Even for seasoned foreign correspondents based in Brazil, a complete grasp of the country can remain elusive. Still, the press has a responsibility to avoid exotic portrayals of Brazilians at this rare moment when the country occupies the global stage.

There is no manual for covering the Olympics. Each host city is unique; every set of journalists covering it has a different set of skills. But lessons can be learned. The most significant decision a news organization planning to cover an Olympics is to put a team in place well ahead of time. The urge to simplify must be resisted. As the first country in South America to host the Olympics, Brazil has been something of a proving ground for the media. If future Olympics are held elsewhere in the developing world, the motto might well be “first do no harm.”

The finest journalism of the 2016 Olympics has been produced by those with years under their belt in the host city, including Simon Romero’s peerless coverage of Rio’s entrenched inequality and public security challenges for The New York Times. There were the determined efforts by the Associated Press’ Jenny Barchfield and Brad Brooks (now of Reuters) to expose the complete failure of Rio’s state government to reduce the flow of raw sewage into the Guanabara Bay, where Olympic sailing competitions have been held. Other journalists who have spent time in the country have provided thoughtful analyses without resorting to reductionist stereotypes.

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Some of the successes have been diluted recently by blinkered digs (occasionally in these same outlets), including a snarky story that ignited a war over Rio’s culinary scene by pointing to the ubiquitous (and undeniably tasteless) Globo biscoitos as the finest the city has to offer–akin to saying that Atlanta’s cuisine should be judged on the basis of Waffle House. 

When it comes to evaluating crackers, the opinion of the international media does little more than exasperate the locals. But when covering favela issues, global attention can have a long-term impact on city policies. “The international media, especially the journalists who tend to parachute in for mega-events, traditionally produce the most stigmatizing and inaccurate reporting on favelas,” says Theresa Williamson, a city planner who runs a nonprofit that supports community organizations in favelas and publishes a media watchdog site called Rio on Watch. Because of poorly researched coverage, people in Brazil and elsewhere view favela-dwellers negatively, which shapes how the government treats them. “The pacification police, for example, think it is perfectly fine to torture people in these communities,” continues Williamson. “The logic behind that is that these communities are inherently criminal and that the public will essentially approve of this approach.”

The tale Lochte told NBC of being robbed at gunpoint might have had a similar impact. The story, which was eagerly publicized up by some foreign reporters, “caused so much damage to Rio’s brand abroad that I think Brazilians deserve a clear, consistent account of what happened,” Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, told The New York Times.

Despite this, Williamson sees signs of improvement, pointing to a recent Vox report that avoided making favelas a scapegoat for all of Brazil’s ills. In an innovative initiative to give global readers a new lens through which to see Rio, The Guardian in recent months has partnered with several community journalists whose diaries reveal dreams for the country’s Olympic legacy and present an insider’s view of the slow unraveling of the state of Rio de Janeiro’s UPP (Police Pacification Unit) Program. The UPP program, used to reassure Olympic officials during Rio’s bid for the Games, was meant to fundamentally change public security in the city and had some early success reducing crime.  The growing consensus today is that the initiative is failing due to questionable implementation, budgetary shortfalls, and severe lack of public trust in the police.

Once the Opening Ceremony got under way, the global and national response to the spectacle was positive–a collective sigh of relief and appreciation that the organizers pulled off the ceremony without a major hitch. Yet even amidst the beauty of opening night, Getty photographer and longtime Rio resident Mario Tama captured a surreal vision of the divided city in a photo taken in the Mangueira favela, which shows a family watching the lavish fireworks display at the Maracana stadium from what feels like a world away. 

“There’s an expression in Brazil, ‘para ingles ver,’ for the English to see. To impress foreigners while obscuring a harsher reality,” Tama explains. “Perhaps this photograph illustrated a bit of that sentiment.”

Marcelo Moreira, the executive producer of special projects for TV Globo’s news team in Rio, and a coordinator of the Brazilian network’s Olympic coverage, views the unsophisticated approach of some foreign coverage as insulting. “They have an arrogant point of view,” he says, bemoaning a frequent lack of nuance. “They see us as a city in the jungle, and think that those from more developed places need to know that we can’t offer good food, good service.”

It is challenging to be an effective witness without a good grasp of the territory. One misleading headline in Business Insider purported to tell a tale of infrastructure failure, when the accompanying photo in fact showed the planned demolition of an old overpass–an act that paved the way for one of the surest benefits of the Games, an open-air public space in the old port region.  An online post from Sporting News quoted a security expert, whose rudimentary understanding of Rio’s neighborhoods based on two weeks in the city gave the false impression the entire place was a war zone. There are plenty of infrastructure catastrophes–such as the deadly collapse of new cycle path earlier this year–and security is a genuine concern, but that’s no excuse for irresponsible hyperbole by the press. Rumors about journalist buses hit with projectiles or athletes held up at gunpoint are easier to stand up or down with a good network of contacts.

The makeup of the media squad currently in Rio ranges from Finnish fashion photographers elbowing to snap Usain Bolt in his famous pose to more seasoned sports news reporters like Tariq Panja of Bloomberg. Because the Olympics are such a high-stakes undertaking, Panja says most news organizations understand the need to send a hard-hitting lineup.

“There is a field of sports news that has developed over the past few years that is much richer and deeper than it had been in the past,” Panja says. “These sports events for news organizations are not about hitting the ball only, or running, or any other sporting discipline. There is a profession of sports news journalists around the world, and they have come here, and they are asking some difficult questions to the IOC and to Brazilian organizers. Look, the swimming pool is green. The seats are empty. There is a greater focus on every aspect of Rio right now. And they can’t hide from that.”

The pervasiveness of social media at Rio 2016 also means that no single journalist will define the Olympic narrative. It is being written by everyone, all the time. New headlines emerge from tweets or other social media posts from members of the public, officials, and athletes. With at least 20 sporting events on tap daily, the sheer speed of the news cycle impedes sophisticated reporting. Parachute journalists are at a greater disadvantage than ever when it comes to assembling compelling narratives.

Take the Rafaela Silva story. The judoka from the City of God favela who won gold presented an ideal opportunity to pull back the curtain on Brazil’s social inequalities and, in particular, the erroneous global perception that Brazil is a racial democracy. But the rush to get any clip from Silva on the air was costly. Some media reports managed to be simultaneously condescending and falsely admiring of her personal story. Silva’s hard work and Olympic success offered a rare chance to show the profound inequality in Brazilian society, that many people live in isolated, often violent communities, but also that there is more to this story. That window on the real Brazil closed quickly, as another winner moved to the podium.

Stephanie Nolen, The Globe and Mail’s Latin America correspondent whose celebrated coverage of race has examined the little-discussed hierarchy of whiteness in Brazil, says that she has been particularly surprised by the press corps’ willingness to complain about core issues such as transportation in their published material, yet not reference the underlying reasons for the problems, including a set of decisions made by a select few who benefited from Olympics-related public works projects. Too few journalists seem to be asking the crucial, “Why?”

“To say that the Olympics had to be scattered around Rio the way they are is just not true,” Nolen says, noting that Rio’s previous bids to host the Games included plans to locate the events in disadvantaged parts of the city where they would have spurred revitalization and where travel distances would have been compressed. Those proposals were nixed in favor of putting the main Olympic hub in the Barra region, an idea favored by real estate developers.

“The implicit degree of legitimacy that a country gets by hosting the Olympics means that it is doubly important how vigorously you’re interrogating what actually is going on in that country,” Nolen adds.

Some Brazil-based correspondents have turned to Facebook Live as a means of injecting their distinctive experience into the flood of coverage. BBC Brasil, CNN, and Reuters have used this raw broadcasting platform to reach digital audiences with portraits that resist prescribed Olympic narratives. Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR has maintained a barrage of tweets throughout the Games, introducing her followers to neighborhoods in Rio where millions of people are experiencing less rather than more security during the Games. Like many Brazilians, these correspondents refuse to settle for deep-rooted corruption or substandard construction simply because they happen to live in a sunny place where people know how to have a good time. 

Journalists are fond of crediting the legendary musician Antonio Carlos Jobim as saying “Brazil is not for beginners.” Rio’s Games neither need to be completely dismal nor peppered with scenes of samba dancers. Brazil is not that simple. Residents will enjoy the public spaces and use the infrastructure built for the Games; they will continue to find a “jeito,” as the Brazilians say–a way to make things work, against the odds.

As the media shuttle buses speed by Sugar Loaf Mountain in their special lanes, the cariocas (Rio’s natives) play nighttime soccer matches under the lights. Garbage workers in their signature tangerine uniforms clean the streets. On the night of the closing ceremony for the Games, some photographers will document the moment from a vantage point that illuminates not just one scene, but a tapestry of lives.

CJR Delacorte Fellow Carlett Spike contributed reporting.

Sarah E. T. Robbins is a journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation and has lived in Brazil since 2012.