Headline Bias, Corruption, and the News Media: From Perception to Reality

Barbon of Porto Ferreira, rural São Paulo. If journalists without college degrees or a license to practice journalism are not real journalists, then the fact that the diploma-less Barbon was assassinated because of reporting he published does not count as the murder of a journalist. Or so the Brazilian national union for journalists continues to reason. Just makes you want to break out into a rousing chorus of “Solidarity Forever,” don’t it? See also Brazil: Who Is a Journalist? New Cases in Point.

Bribery of the news media in too many countries robs citizens of credible information they need to make personal and collective decisions. This comprehensive research for the first time gives us an index that ranks 66 of the world’s nations for the likelihood that print journalists will seek or accept cash for news coverage from government officials, businesses, or other news sources.

The Brazilian journalist does not feel free to write. More than just having to follow the editorial line of the publications they work for, the complaints principally have to do with coercion by political or business groups. –“A Profile of the Brazilian Journalist”

The question of measuring “corruption” continues to eat at me, principally because of the volume of gibbering, pseudo-quantitative nonsense that gets printed on the subject.

And because of the degree of practical commitment to the Reality Principle demonstrated by the principal promoters of this meme:

Much of that nonsense is typified by the sort of crude logic-chopping we saw in this recent editorial on the subject by Spain’s Libertad Digital:

And in other venues around the world:

Today, then, a couple of new additions to the bookshelf in an attempt to answer the question, “And what does the reality-based community have to say on the subject?”

One is a comprehensive critical study of “the state of the art in corruption metrics,” from March 2006, by Alejandro Posada of the [Corruption and Transparency Documentation and Analysis Laboratory of the Institute of Social Investigations] at UNAM (Mexico) (PDF).

The other is a book titled Diagnosis: Corruption, on the dimensions of the problem in the Latin American public health sector, published by the Interamerican Development Bank.

The blurb for the IBD study — you have to buy it — notes that while many surveys indicate a high degree of public confidence in the integrity of the medical sector in Latin American countries, in many cases that confidence is not justified. Not by a long shot.

Brazilians will immediately think of the sanguessugas scandal here, which afflicted both the previous government and the current one.

Despite attempts to politicize the issue, tarring elected officials of one or the other competiting political faction with the scandal, it probably has more to do with the astonishing degree to which permanent bureaucrats feel free, if they do not like the public policy proposals of elected official, to go ahead and tell elected officials to go fuck themselves.

In the “bloodsucker” affair, legislative earmarks were used to channel funds into ambulance acquisitions under a federal program for states and municipalities, from which tons and tons of money was allegedly skimmed and injected into the doleiro-run black economy, much of it possibly destined for caixa dois political slush funds.

Diagnosis Corruption offers an antidote to the subjectivity that has characterized much of the public debate over corruption. Although concern over corruption has moved to center stage in recent years, anti-corruption efforts have suffered from the impression that they are based on anecdotal or even biased information. For example, the widely discussed Corruption Perception Index, published once a year by Transparency International, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Germany, has been dismissed by some critics as an imprecise indicator because it is based on the opinions of international business people and research firms.

Including me. Though the CPI may be more or less properly caveated in the fine print, it is commonly misused as a “measure of corruption” as if it perception were reality. And TI does not exactly dispatch reams of letters to the editor pointing out the specious absurdity of such interpretations.

According to the IBD, you can, yes you can, reality-test perception-based measures of corruption, which are prone to “headline bias” of the type openly promoted, for example, by Transparency Brasil’s Deu no Jornal project — whose director contributed that notoriously stupid Lula = John “The Teflon Don” Gotti hit piece in the Los Angeles Times a while back.

To improve upon this, data collected for Diagnosis Corruption is based on the daily experience of people who frequent or work in public hospitals and work with hospital procurement records.

It is enormously helpful to have a complete list of all attempts to quantify the problem in a practical way, aside from TI’s frequently abused “metrics,” with a brief evaluation of their methodology. Studying.

One of the items that caught my eye, for example, was a “global index of payment for news coverage” attributed to the International Public Relations Association. The reference is to the International Index of Bribery for News Coverage, which dates back to 2003.

Interesting reading, especially in light of headlines like the following:

The data on Brazil is interesting, but also seems a bit counterintuitive, on the face of it: Brazil gets a 5 out of 5 on “ethics codes,” for example.

On the actual ethical commitment to accuracy of information by Brazilian journalists working in the public relations field, however — Brazilian labor law does not recognize a distinction between the two professions, which is a pretty telling fact in itself — see also:

But there are reasons to hope the situation might improve — especially with labor-law reform, the success of a public TV initiative, part of a wider bid to create more competition in the media markets in general. See

On “high degree of liberal education and training among professional journalists,” Brazil received a 2 out of 5. Which seems about right. Possibly somewhat generous in specific cases.

Likewise, in the category, “degree of competition in the market of information services,” Brazil (in 2003) scored a 2.

But then again, Russia scored a 5 in that category, note.

In Russia, a very large proportion of the once-independent and diverse media have been snapped up by the state-owned Gazprom and now parrot the Kremlin line. See

In Russia, they (who?) have journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikoff, whose reporting rubs the powers that be the wrong way, brutally rubbed the fuck out, gangland style:

There are cases of this in Brazil as well:

So I Brazil scores an abysmal 2 in this category, and Russia is the paragon of competitive diversity, imagine the situation of Brazilian journalism.

Still, it is a start.

The notion that the deliberate adulteration and vicious slanting of news reporting, and the deliberate omission of facts of public interest, is also a form of “corruption,” is a start.

Because that is what actually goes on here in Brazil, in spades.

And what is especially noticeable, I think, is the campaign to promote “headline bias” in order to promote what Elio Gaspari calls “the folklore of corruption.”

“Accepting cash” may be too narrow an interpretation of “bribery,” however. It might also be useful to widen the definition to “bribery and coercion.”

Because as Narco-Mafie points out in its recent article, the alternative to taking money can sometimes be having quicklime shoveled over your bullet-riddled corpse in the dead of night.

Then again, a simple “You will never work in this town again” might do the trick.


On which more soon.


But it is an interesting place to start thinking.

What a concept: Adulerating and falsifying public-interest information as a form of corruption.

Veja magazine screams hysterically about the pernicious influence of lobbyists in federal politics.

Its parent, the Editora Abril, then deploys armies of lobbyists to twist arms over a legislative matter that affects it directly.

These people are … well, simply unbelievable.


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