Renata Affonso travels around her home country, Brazil, and around the world as a freelance documentarian - bringing light to social issues which might otherwise be left untold. Before going on her own, Affonso worked as the Executive-Editor and moderator of the weekly public policy debate program “Sala de Noticias” on Canal Futura, a non-profit TV channel owned by Brazilian media conglomerate TV Globo. Affonso recently participated in the Journalist to Journalist Global Health Conference in Washington DC and has been selected for the National Press Foundation’s upcoming HIV Vaccine program in Bangkok, Thailand.
Affonso discusses how her journalism career has evolved over the 25 years she has been in the industry: from censorship to non-profit journalism to working as a backpack documentarian.
Q: Many journalists dream of making documentaries and traveling the world, but you made that dream become a reality. How did you do it?
I always directed my career towards having the freedom to make my own projects. For example, when I was hired by Canal Futura I already had the Antarctica project in mind [a documentary on life in Antarctica and the research projects being conducted there by scientists: including, attempts to find a cure for the H1N1 virus and jubarte whale reproduction]. I had already secured the sponsors and had already the script done. I then travelled to the South Pole and made a documentary for Futura [on climate change]. This year I decided it was time to devote myself totally to documentaries. By March, l was already in Russia preparing my current project. It will be about the social transformations in cities that host major events. Russia will have the World Cup 2018, Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro will be the home of the 2016 Olympics. So I have lots of work ahead!
Q: Do you work as a one-man-band or do you have a team?
I usually work alone in the field and then have an editor with me later. But it depends on the project. In Antarctica I worked with a cameraman. In Russia, I needed a producer.
Q: Why did you decide to become a broadcast journalist?
Actually, I began in print and then I was hired to work at TV Globo, the major broadcast system in Brazil. I found that television was a medium where I could express myself completely with words and images and the emotion that paper cannot transmit. The sounds, and even the silences, make a good TV story.
Q: How did you get your career off the ground?
I started 20 years ago, when Brazil was just leaving behind a difficult period in its history- the military dictatorship that last more than two decades. So I learned to work still under a "soft kind of censorship,” if you know what I mean. I had the opportunity to cover big stories such as strikes, the first democratic election since 1960, the impeachment of a president, the sorrow of a whole nation. And I was just 22!
Q: Can you give some examples of what it was like to work under “soft censorship?”
I started working as a professional journalist in 1988, a year before the first direct presidential election. I had to learn not to say certain things, such as ‘military coup.’ We had to say 'military regime.' Or even the 'revolution of 1964' [rather than the coup of ‘64]. Some politicians who participated in the resistance movement could still not be quoted or interviewed in some media outlets and the workers’ strikes were covered in a very "careful" way as to not "stir up" and cause disturbances. Today the president can be criticized in the front page of newspapers .The press may publish whatever they want. Thanks to investigative reporting and press criticism, the first democratically elected president after the dictatorship- Fernando Collor de Mello -became embroiled in allegations of corruption and was later impeached in 1992.
Q: How did you become an anchor at Canal Futura?
I already had years of experience before I was invited to be editor in chief and anchor of Channel 11, then the second largest Brazilian broadcast system. I worked there for six years; presenting the afternoon news. It was quite rewarding, because we implemented a new concept of local journalism in Rio, focused less on urban violence cases and more on social and health issues; [in order words] less focused on the consequences of social problems and more on the underlying issues and prevention. When I was hired to be an anchor at Canal Futura I took this experience with me.
Q: Canal Futura describes itself as “more than a TV channel … an educational tool and an example of how the power of the media can be used to transform lives.” How is that?
Journalism is not an end, but a means of stimulating actions that will transform lives. Of course the audience size matters, but to encourage good practices in everyday life matters more. Futura sponsors a team of “mobilizers,” social workers that partner with journalists. The mobilizers work in remote regions of the country leading projects in education, culture, health and affirmative action for populations in need.
Q: Is there any story that you are particularly proud of?
Recently, my trip to Antarctica. It was the International Polar Year- when scientists from all over the world meet to discuss Global Warming. The following February, scientists reported back important information to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I spent 20 days there. We travelled with the Marines. Such an experience! The midnight sun, the Jubarte whales, the way the penguins live and reproduce, the lifestyles of people who literally live during all the year in this white world. Fascinating! Click Here to Watch the Special Report on Antarctica
Q: How do you come up with story ideas? How do you find interview subjects?
Walking on the street, talking to people- all kind of people, chatting with the bus driver, with ladies in the supermarket, listening to my teenage daughter, reading, reading and reading...
Q: The news media in the United States is in the midst of huge transformations that put conventional standards of who is actually a journalist into question. What is the future of the news media in Brazil? Are you prepared for any industry changes?
I think it HAS to change. The Internet is revolutionary. Radio and live television are not fast enough. Technology is becoming cheaper and cheaper, anyone can produce and spread images and informational news content. Honestly, I think it's a huge challenge for journalists and for people in general because we are overwhelmed by poor quality information with no analysis. It's time to practice what some theorists call "ecology of information." I believe that our role in this new society is to filter… to offer not only stories, but THE stories with quality and credibility at the speed that the world demands. Newspapers, even more so than radio and television, need to reinvent themselves.
Q: Freedom House, a Washington DC-based world freedom watchdog organization, gave Brazil only a ‘partially free’ rating in their 2011 Map of Press Freedom report. What is your experience working as a journalist in Brazil? What is the quality of journalism in Brazil?
Good question! I went to the Newseum [while attending the Global Health Conference in Washington DC] and I saw the press freedom map. I'm not quite sure about this rating. It's true that there are just a few big media companies in Brazil. Their editorials theoretically respect impartiality, but of course, they often reflect the interests of the companies.
On the other hand, there are different realities in the north and in the south [of Brazil], especially in small cities ruled by political groups. Press freedom is guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution. The president and governors are strongly criticized and corruption is revealed in the news every day. If we talk about the great newspapers and broadcasting systems which really have the power to influence public opinion, I would say that we could rate the Brazilian press- as a free press.
Q: Have you applied anything you learned at the Global Health Conference in your journalism?
Of course.The exchange of experiences with my peers [the other J2J fellows] from other developing countries and the comparison between our realities cemented my belief that global health and social justice cannot walk apart. Health is more than science and medicine. It's prevention. It's the fair distribution of resources. It's encouraging research as a priority. It's a concern that should make the rich and poor countries partners--because diseases also travel faster in a globalized world!
Q: What advice do you have for journalists just starting their careers or for journalists hoping to advance their careers?
Don't give up. Ever.
Earlier Blog Posts
How a VOA Journalist Keeps Africa ‘In Focus’…
August 2, 2011
Sign of the times
July 28, 2011
J2J Fellow Collins Mtika Jailed, Released In Malawi
July 26, 2011
Patch Reporter Combines Hyper-Fast With Long-Form Work
June 30, 2011
“Shoddy Schools for Vets’ Kids” Seen…
June 28, 2011