Muddy eyes of the media on the Brazilian mud burst

In the afternoon of November 5, two mining dams collapsed in Bento Rodrigues, a district of the Brazilian city Mariana. 55 million cubic meters of toxic mud swept through town. At least 11 people were killed. Two bodies wait for identification. Eight people are still missing. More than 600 were displaced.

The mud now spreads for over 500km, through cities, rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. The dams were operated by Samarco, a company owned by the Brazilian Vale and the Australian BHP Billiton. They were used to storage the mineral waste of iron ore production.

Water supplies of several cities are now polluted. Animals and plants are being killed in the process. Biodiversity, economy, housing and life quality are being affected.

“A tragedy of enormous proportions.” This is how Marilene Ramos, president of the federal environmental agency Ibama, described the event.

But who has heard about this? Amongst the other tragedies in the world — terrorist attacks in Paris, airstrikes in Syria and Donald Trump running for president — it hasn’t been exactly Trending Topics on Twitter.

Even Brazilian media has its problems covering the event. From the start, readers detected bias in favor of the big ore companies. News would diminish the companies’ fault, publish rumors and treat the matter as a random accident. People said news companies, as did the politicians, lacked in putting the responsibility for the disaster on some of their own sponsors.

In alternative news, social media and any bar table in the country, everyone became a media critic. A lot was said about the lighter weight television gave on the subject. A lot was discussed on the amount of news stories about it. And then, when the terrorist attacks hit Paris a week later, a lot of comparisons between the two tragedies were made.

In November 17, a study ran by reporters of the news website Portal Comunique-se compared the Brazilian coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the dam burst in Mariana. The main TV channel in Brazil, Globo, dedicated three times more news programming to Paris than it did for Bento Rodrigues. Three hours and 54 minutes were spent discussing the terrorist attacks, while Mariana had one hour and 12 minutes. The space for Paris was bigger in all the magazine covers collected by the study. Only in national print they received similar attention.

Even Facebook was colored according to the French flag. The website created a filter the users could add to their profile pictures, showing their support for France. As some Brazilian users started to color their pictures, others began to criticize.

Soon, social media for Brazilian users became a place of dispute. What tragedy meant most to you? What tragedy made you speak up? What tragedy was the most tragic?

The debate increased. Millions of people dying in the Middle East, Africa or Brazilian favelas everyday without a hashtag to prey for them. Acts of terrorism in other places of the world and no filter on Facebook. Murders that did not cause as much commotion as an event like this in a European first-world country did.

It created a cycle of arguments that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. However, people were turning their attention to the media portrays, bias and selectiveness. More than a dispute between tragedies, it was a claim for voice and space. For getting the whole story. For media responsibility. That is what these people were actually arguing about.