It is impossible to hold the powerful accountable alone

Brazilian journalists have not yet discovered the benefits of collaboration. We have trouble collaborating within our newsrooms, and with colleagues from other news organizations across the country and around the world

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Photo by Mirko Macari

“It is impossible to be happy alone,” says a verse of “Wave,” one of the best bossa nova songs, the famous Brazilian mix of samba and jazz that made Tom Jobim and other great Brazilian composers famous around the world. This verse has been coming to my mind since I started researching collaboration in investigative journalism as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Investigative journalism is like happiness. It is impossible to hold the powerful accountable alone. Brazilian journalists, however, have not learned the lesson of that great song, nor yet discovered the benefits of collaboration.

During my first months at Stanford, I have interviewed 20 Brazilian reporters and editors, who told me tons of stories about the difficulties of collaborating — and the predominance of unhealthy competition. I talked with journalists who cover different beats and who have experience working for Brazil’s main newspapers and TV stations and for media startups, from the Northeast to the South. Although there were great exceptions, I listened mainly to stories which showed that we have trouble collaborating within our newsrooms, and with colleagues from other news organizations across the country, and around the world.

One of the main obstacles in Brazil is cultural. Many reporters don’t even understand why they should collaborate with other journalists. The stereotype of the solitary detective predominates in Brazilian investigative journalism. The norm is that reporters often work alone and sometimes even sit apart from one another.

That doesn’t mean every reporter and every story should be collaborative. Everyone has the right to work alone, and healthy competition is fundamental. It pushes you to go further, to work with more energy to get a document before your competitors, or to insistently try to interview a source before another outlet gets to them.

News organizations are partially responsible for the lack of a collaborative culture. Some Brazilian news organizations incite competition among their own reporters, who fight for the prestige that scoops bring. Editors usually highlight individual work, creating jealousy and resentment among their teams. Some newsrooms don’t even share their daily story budgets among their team, for fear that a reporter may spoil something just because of competition. The most picturesque story I heard during my interviews was from a reporter who noticed that his colleague avoided talking near him about her story ideas.

The individual’s work is also much better rewarded than teamwork. For example, being a columnist, one of the most prestigious positions for reporters in a Brazilian newsroom, highlights individual and not collaborative work. There is no problem on that. The problem is not rewarding teamwork.

The lack of collaborative spirit is maybe the reason we have so few investigative units across the country. Although investigative teams have been a successful trend for years around the world, Brazil’s news organizations have no lasting examples and have even terminated successful units. It happened because of some managers who have felt threatened by the success of investigative teams and have been more focused on the internal “Game of Thrones” of each newsroom than on good journalism.

News organizations in Brazil also create barriers between themselves. One of the most pronounced is the division between mainstream and independent media. Those who work for major newspapers, websites, and TV and radio stations are criticized that their work is not as serious or does not have the same independence as those who work for small startups. On the other hand, the mainstream media usually ignores those who work for small outlets.

Journalists on both sides often forget that everyone is doing journalism, often with the same quality strengths and weaknesses. They prefer to point fingers rather than focus on improving their work and helping colleagues. We need to focus on the journalism, not the competition!

Major outlets publish fewer stories from farther regions. In the Northeast, a reporter complained about the lack of collaboration to cover cities from the poor semi-arid region. Her newspaper does not have correspondents in these towns anymore. The result is that millions of Brazilians from small cities live in news deserts. The number is impressive. The Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas), a project launched in November by the Institute for the Development of Journalism (Projor) and the data agency Volta Data Lab, revealed that 70 million Brazilians live in cities without local newspapers or sites. How many partnerships among big and local outlets could be done to change this number?

Cross-border collaboration is an even bigger challenge. For those who cannot collaborate with people that sit near them, working with people you have met in person seems impossible. News organizations do not understand the benefits of transnational collaboration and let misjudgments prevail. The most famous group of investigative reporters from around the world, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), for example, has only one active member from Brazil, the investigative editor Fernando Rodrigues.

Fortunately, Operation Car Wash, the giant corruption scandal that revealed a deep-rooted scheme of bribery between Brazilian construction companies and Latin American politicians, made imperative some cross-regional partnerships.

There are successful exceptions who should serve as examples. Let’s mention some of them to illustrate the broad meaning collaboration has in journalism.

A year ago, Zero Hora, the most important South local newspaper, created a “Spotlight” team, a great investigative unit inspired by the famous investigative team at The Boston Globe, and focused on local stories.

Teamwork is the essence of any TV production and we have had great television stories being done in Brazil for decades. TV Globo’s stories frequently receive awards from around the world, mainly because of successful collaborations among different professionals in its newsroom.

Professional people management is one of the secret sauces of Jota, one of the most successful media startups in Brazil, specializing in the justice beat. Felipe Seligman, one of the owners, produces and publishes “Jotacast,” a weekly podcast exclusively developed for the employees. The podcast engages employees in a fun way, with jazz and a great script, to highlight collective and individual achievements.

There is a good example of cross-organization collaboration between Folha de S. Paulo, one of the finest nationwide outlets, and Agência Lupa, a news agency specializing in checking facts. Lupa publishes every week a fact-checking column in Folha.

The best example that must be highlighted is the Brazilian Investigative Journalism Association (Abraji), the most important national journalistic association (I’ve just been elected vice president of Abraji for the next two years). It was born 15 years ago after two meetings, in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo, of reporters and editors concerned about the safety of the press around the country. In that year, Tim Lopes, a great reporter from Rio de Janeiro, was brutally killed by drug dealers.

The collaborative spirit of Abraji should be an example for Brazilian journalism (Photo: Abraji)

Today, Abraji hosts one of the best Latin American journalism conferences, fights for the safety of the press and support to the professional development of Brazilian reporters and editors around the country and worldwide.

Collaboration can create incredible stories, and it is essential in a world as interconnected as ours. Brazilian news organizations need to understand that newsrooms built primarily on individual work can actually undermine great journalism. Stories in Brazil already show that powerful people have recognized the benefits of collaborating for illegal purposes. Journalists now have the opportunity of working together to hold them accountable.