In 2023, trust in news media will continue to decrease in any country that has a government with any semblance of normalcy. This will be most evident with the continuation of the Biden administration in the U.S. and with a new post-Bolsonaro government in Brazil. With outwardly anti-press presidents gone, and more critical coverage of relatively stable governments, trust in news media will decrease simply because newspapers will have fewer allies in the audience.
I like to talk about Brazil not only because it is where I am from and where I think about most of the time, but because almost everything that happens in the world happens in Brazil, sometimes sooner, often louder. Really, you should all be paying attention to Brazil. Growing economic inequality, particularly in times of crisis? Brazil has always had that. Causes and effects of global climate change? Part of our history. Rise of a populist right-wing? Going on for a while now. The right-wing wave receding against a moderate-to-left coalition? Happened in our latest elections this past October, a little later than in the U.S., but sooner than in other places.
This Brazilian mirroring of global events happens in the news media environment as well. The well-known trends are all there, and I saw them first-hand working in newsrooms from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s: decline of traditional print, the surge of online-native news media, doubts about business models, influence of tech in our daily news consumption and in the formation of anti-democratic pockets of the audience. And now, we are seeing a great laboratory about the decrease of trust in the news media.
The lives of Brazilian journalists have never been easy, but since 2013, Brazilian news media has had to deal with an openly hostile political movement that has labeled journalists as enemies of the people (sounds familiar?). That movement would eventually take the presidency in 2018. This period has seen increased aggression and death threats against journalists.
On January 1, 2023, Bolsonaro’s administration will end, but that hostility will remain among his supporters. At the same time, journalists will set their sights to the incoming left-leaning government (that is, left-leaning for Americans, center-left for the rest of the world), with the inauguration of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in his third term (the first two being 2003-2011). Critical coverage of this new government (which has already begun with the list of ministerial appointments) will finish decoupling the press and left-leaning audiences who will remember what the critical coverage was like in the previous administration by Lula’s party, PT. In Brazil, the three largest or most consequential traditional newspapers (Globo, Folha de S. Paulo, and Estadão), regardless of their particular ideological or editorial leaning, have all been historically unfriendly to PT.
Hardcore Bolsonaro supporters (anywhere between 30% to 40% of the electorate) are lost to traditional newspaper audiences. They will forever see the centrist, PT-critical press as left-leaning enemies of the people and retract themselves to their own media environment. No level of outward appeasement will get them back. Traditional newspapers can try hiring right-leaning columnists, writing denouncing editorials that equate Bolsonaro and Lula, reorienting their coverage to be even more critical to this new administration. But nothing short of a complete reorientation and abandonment of editorial principles of objectivity and fairness will work to regain those readers.
To Brazilian traditional news media, the right-wing readers are lost, most of the left-wing readers will move away, and only a decreasing sliver of the center will hold. What remains? Maybe it can find new audiences, a cohort of the public that is not currently attuned to news, that does not feel represented. Maybe they are the younger generation, who are increasingly turning to TikTok for news. Maybe they are the urban and rural poor, who have their own media ecosystems untapped and undiscussed by establishment media. Whoever they are, they may hold the keys for future social relevance of traditional news media in Brazil and in the United States. Let’s keep an eye on Brazil and find out.
Daniel Trielli is an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Loyola University Chicago.