Journalism is loosing its role in electoral debates

Debates between candidates have become anachronistic as informational programs on the eve of elections. At most, they can now gain entertainment airs or forums for technical discussions about government projects. It seems that this statement looks as one concerned with making an impact, but, as a matter of fact, it reflects a reality that has run over journalism, insofar as it is no longer possible to check whether the statements of candidates participating in debates on TV are false, distorted or out of context.

Photo Bandeirantes TV / Promotional material

The two debates promoted by the Rede Globo on the eve of the first and second rounds of the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections clearly showed how powerless journalism was to fulfill its mission of providing voters with data and facts capable of guiding them in choosing who to vote for. Both programs were presented to the public as a news event, which induced voters to trust what would be broadcast live. But the reality was quite different.

In the first debate, before the first round, presenter William Bonner was lost in the middle of a kind of verbal machine gun battle between the seven candidates for the presidency of the Republic, many of whom lied, exaggerated, and omitted with impunity. In addition, several participants, such as the self-styled Father Kelmon, disobeyed the rules of debate unanimously approved by all the candidates’ representatives.

In order for the program to receive the journalistic seal, for every lie told by a candidate, Bonner should have shown a kind of red card to catch the violation of norms of the program, giving viewers an indication of what could or could not be reliable and important for a voting decision. In case of repetition, it would be necessary to remove the liar from the debate to avoid the generalization of the use of false statements. Bonner is not a judge but a journalist, so he would be technically and functionally unprepared to deal with an inevitable judicialization of the debate. Result: The presenter practically lost control of the first debate.

Mediator or Master of Ceremonies?

Scalded by the problems that arose in the first debate, the global mediator assumed, in the meeting between Lula and Bolsonaro, the figure of a mere master of ceremonies, with only one intervention. For the rest, he bureaucratically followed the program’s script, leaving the participating candidates free to control the time, the course of the debates, and the choice of topics. Both accused each other of lying, but as it was impossible to quickly check the veracity of the data and facts mentioned, the most used strategy was to change the subject quickly, leaving many doubts in the air and pressing the public to take refuge in their previously assumed perceptions.

In the absence of journalistic concern, debates tend to turn into electoral shows, where candidates are more concerned with performance than with content. In the absence of any credibility control (checking data and facts mentioned) the strategy of impressionism becomes more important than persuasion. The main concern is to impress viewers with impactful gestures and statements in order to influence people’s perception of whether the debate was good or bad.

The television stations that promote the debates seek to create the expectation of a fight, almost a boxing match, where the concern is to know who won and who lost, without taking into account the fact that the event can decide the future of 230 million Brazilians for the next four years. All the glamor built around the program is also conditioned by the goal of attracting millionaire ads for the advertising breaks and with audience marketing.

But the effort to make the debates spectacular faces the concern of the candidates’ marketers to avoid a political knockout. The result is extremely careful strategies to avoid slipping by any participant, which contributes to the inevitable multiplication of half-truths or complete lies. Risks are carefully avoided, which makes the debate monotonous for the viewer conditioned to expect a spectacular event.

Finally, there are the defenders of debates focused primarily on government projects and worldviews, an imminently technical discussion, mediated by a magistrate endowed with disciplinary power to avoid breaking rules and verbal excesses. There would be a great gain in deepening proposals and ideas, but a loss of audience, because the program would hardly be able to attract the attention of the less informed public. Experts believe that the audience would be 2/3 smaller than the one that watched the Brazilian debate before the October 30th presidential election.

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Carlos Castilho

Jornalista, pesquisador em jornalismo comunitário e professor. Brazilian journalist, post doctoral researcher, teacher and media critic