Brazil: Did iG Piss on the Swiss?

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In other news coverage, the Swissinfo news service illustrates the story at issue here with a mountain of money. But not the mountain of money involved in the case it is reporting on. Caption: “Money seized in another police operation.” This is a bit like illustrating a story about Barry Bonds hitting a home run with a photo of someone else hitting a home run. “A home run was hit. This is not that home run, but another home run very like it in a general way.”

Attribution to another publication … cannot serve as license to print rumors that would not meet the test of The Times’s own reporting standards. Rumors must satisfy The Times’s standard of newsworthiness, taste and plausibility before publication, even when attributed. And when the need arises to attribute, that is a good cue to consult with the department head about whether publication is warranted at all.The New York Times, Guidelines on Integrity.

The OMBUDSMAN of the iG Web portal (Brazil) airs an issue involving the “Chinese whispers” dilemma.

Chinese whispers or Telephone is a game in which each successive participant secretly whispers to the next a phrase or sentence whispered to them by the preceding participant. Cumulative errors from mishearing often result in the sentence heard by the last player differing greatly and amusingly from the one uttered by the first. It is most often played by children as a party game or in the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies of rumours.

File under

How responsible is the “content aggregator” for the quality of what comes down the content pipeline? Ask the editors of the Guardian:

The Agênica Estado news agency had reported that an employee of the Swiss bank UBS, arrested in a federal police operation on suspicion of involvement in a money laundering and tax evasion scheme, made a controversial statement to federal police agents who arrested him.

The UBS employee denies making the statement.

Dentre os presos está o suíço Luc Mark Depensaz, funcionário do banco suíço UBS. Na ocasião, o Último Segundo publicou que, ao ser preso, Depensaz fez a seguinte afirmação a agentes (não-identificados) da Polícia Federal:

Among the prisoner was Swiss citizen Luc Mark Despensaz, an employee of UBS. When he was arrested, our news service published that Despensaz made the following statement to (unidentified) agents of the federal police.

“Eu não vou ficar preso. Quem tem dinheiro neste país não fica preso.”

“I am not going to jail. No one who has money in this country goes to jail.”

Se fosse verdadeira (não se sabe), difícil conceber afirmação tão agressiva, arrogante, auto-incriminadora e até racista como essa.

If true (which is unknown), it is hard to think of a more agressive, arrogant, self-incriminating and even racist statement than this.

The banker applied for habeas corpus last week and was turned down. A Tarde (Salvador, Bahia) reports:

Um dos pilares utilizados pela defesa de Depensaz foi o de que ele seria vítima de “constrangimento ilegal” e de “xenofobia” no Brasil. O advogado Eduardo Carnelós, autor do pedido, alega que a divulgação na mídia de que Depensaz teria dito aos policiais que o algemaram que “quem tem dinheiro não fica preso nesse país? estigmatizou seu cliente e teria motivado a manutenção de sua prisão. A direção da Polícia Federal em São Paulo informou no dia seguinte à operação que incluiu no inquérito a frase.

One of the principal arguments of Despensaz’s defense was that he had been subjected to “illegal embarassment” and “xenophobia” in Brazil. Attorney Carnelós, in the petition, alleges that media reports about Despensaz’s alleged remark stigmatizes his client and motivated the continuation of his custody. Federal police leaders in São Paulo reported the day following the arrest that the statement had been included in the official report on the case.

This last statement may not be well-founded either, according to the iG ombudsman, who writes:

Procurada, a Polícia Federal informou que não foi responsável pela divulgação da suposta frase de Depensaz. “A Agência Estado deve ter colhido essa informação pessoalmente. Não veio daqui”, informou o assessor William Souza. O mesmo assessor declarou que não sabia se a frase faz parte do inquérito, como foi noticiado.

Sought for comment, the Federal Police informed that it was not responsible for divulging the supposed statement by the UBS employee. “The AE must have collected that information personally. It did not come from this office,” said spokesman William Souza, who also said he did not know whether the statement was recorded in the case file, as had been reported.

And what was the rationale for denying his petition?

A origem da declaração é uma reportagem assinada pela Agência Estado de notícias. Mereceu destaque no jornal “O Estado de S.Paulo” e também em quase todos os maiores portais de notícias. Uma pesquisa no Google mostra que a frase atribuída ao suíço foi reproduzida mais de cem vezes, sem qualquer questionamento da veracidade, só na internet brasileira. A suposta declaração foi sempre reproduzida entre aspas, mesmo vindo por fonte não-identificada. Ou seja, o jornalista não presenciou a suposta afirmação, mas não informa que checou as palavras pronunciadas com diversas fontes. Informações em off exigem checagem muito rigorosa. Informações em off reproduzidas entre aspas (como se fossem literais, sem que se tenha certeza disso) deveriam ser evitadas inteiramente.

The origin of this quote was a report bylined to the Agência Estado. It was reported prominently in the Estado de S. Paulo daily and on all the major news portals. A Google search indicates the statement attributed to the Swiss banker was repeated more than 100 times, without any questioning of its accuracy, on the Brazilian Internet alone. The supposed statement was invariably printed in quotation marks, even thought it came from an unknown source. This is to say, the journalist did not hear the supposed statement first-hand, and does not inform the reader that the statement was verified with several sources. Information passed along anonymously demand rigorous fact-checking. Quoting other people’s words at second-hand, based on anonymous sources … should be avoided entirely.

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Scene from Teleamazonas (Ecuador), Patiño Video No. 1.

De acordo com a versão divulgada pela Polícia Federal, a suposta quadrilha, composta por funcionários dos bancos UBS, Credit Suisse, AIG Private Bank e Clariden, trabalharia através de uma pretensa doleira, Claudine Spiero, também presa. A tal suposta quadrilha é acusada de enviar fortunas para fora do Brasil de maneira ilegal, fraudando as leis tributárias e prejudicando o país.

According to a statement by the Federal Police, the alleged criminal group, comprising employees of UBS, Credit Suisse, AIG Private Bank and Clariden, worked through an alleged black-market currency broker, Claudine Spiero, who was also arrested. The group is accused of sending huge sums out of Brazil in an illegal manner, thwarting the tax laws.

A operação de prisão a cargo da Polícia Federal foi montada de acordo com o figurino usual: aparato policial, agentes uniformizados, armamento pesado, foto de pilhas de dinheiro sobre uma mesa em que aparece o brasão da PF, acusados algemados e operação batizada com nome sugestivo, para facilitar as referências na mídia “Kaspar 2”.

The operation was staged in the usual way: A large police presence, uniformed agents, heavy weapons, photos of mountains of money on a table alongside the emblem of the federal police, handcuffed suspects and a suggestive name to make it easier to refer to in the news: “Kaspar 2.”

Como nas outras ocasiões, as versões da Polícia Federal são reproduzidas docilmente por jornalistas e seus veículos, inclusive este iG. Agentes, delegados, promotores recebem amplos espaços. Suspeitos viram criminosos. Suposições transformam-se em verdade. Jornalismo malfeito vira presa fácil para a manipulação da opinião pública. A versão dos acusados é escondida quando não simplesmente omitida.

As on other occasions, the accounts given by the federal police are reproduced meekly by journalists and their publications, including this news portal. Agents, supervisors and prosecutors get ample space. Suspects are referred to as criminals. Suppositions morph into truth. Bad journalism is easy prey for the manipulation of public opinion. The side of the story told by the accused is hidden, when not simply omitted.

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“Exterminate the brutes” perp-walk, Globo-style, for Josias 50: Media circus for a dead man walking.

Ninguém pergunta: e se a polícia estiver errada? E se for um mal-entendido? Ninguém fiscaliza a competência e os procedimentos das autoridades. É um processo sumário, num tribunal de exceção, sem direito a contraditório nem apelação. O réu não tem direitos. A condenação é imediata e eterna. O direito do cidadão, de ser inocente até prova em contrário ou, melhor, até condenação definitiva em última instância, após execer todos os seus direitos de defesa, é ignorado pelos meios de comunicação manipulados pela polícia.

No one asks: And what if the police were wrong? What if this was a misunderstanding? No one double-checks the competence and procedures of the authorities. It is a summary trial in a star chamber without right to defense or appeal. The defendant has no rights. The condemnation is immediate and irreversible. The right of a citizen to be deemed innocent until proven otherwise — or better, until definitively condemned after exhausting all appeals, after receiving a full defense, is ignored by news media who are manipulated by the police.

O fundamento dessas operações da Polícia Federal são gravações feitas ao longo de meses com autorização judicial. As gravações em si já passíveis de questionamento como método de apuração. Quando abrangem um período tão dilatado são obviamente volumosas. Então geram “relatórios” supostamente precisos, que o juiz lê e, talvez com base neles, autoriza a prisão. A partir daí, o grupo acusado passa a ser tachado pela PF, pelo Ministério Público e por veículos da imprensa, de “esquema” e, comumente, de “quadrilha”. O sensacionalismo e a demagogia imperam, sem que ninguém se choque. Não é feita investigação independente, nem apuração dos fatos que dê espaço justo e proporcional, de verdade, a todos os lados (especialmente aos acusados, pois a versão oficial sempre ganha logo as manchetes).

The foundation of these police operations are court-ordered wiretaps. Wiretaps themselves are subject to question as a method of investigtion. When they covers such a long period of time, there is obviously going to be a large volume of transcripts and evidence. From these, “reports,” supposed to be accurate and detailed, are prepared for the judge to read, and on that basis, to rule on arrest warrants. Based on that process, the group is branded by the police, prosecutor and the press, as a “scheme,” and, very commonly, as a “gang.” Sensationalism and demagogy rule the day, and no one is shocked. No independent investigation is done, or fact-checking that would give a fair, proportional amount of truly equal time to both sides (especially that of the accused, since the official version always grabs the headlines.)

In the U.S., “trial by media” fairly often succeeds as grounds for a change of venue, under the theory that this kind of media coverage has “tainted” the jury pool.

If Brazilian prosecutors and police who like to try their cases by media — as the media eggs them on to do — started losing otherwise good cases for this reason, and getting due blame for it, the practice might start to disappear.

Think of the Duke rape case.

Massive prejudging of guilt, stereotyping of keg-pounding “jock culture” as a “rapist culture” by hysterical protestors, and sensationalist trial by media.

The supposed victim, however, was a young woman with documented emotional problems whose statements did not add up. The prosecutor tried to hide evidence casting doubt on her credibility from the defense.

The young men were finally cleared.

The prosecutor in that case is being disbarred.

He will have to find another line of work. He cannot practice law anymore. He is a disgrace to the profession. And those journalists who egged him on and published the lurid tales he told? How do they reflect on the credibility of their profession?

The federal police here have shown some signs of clamping down on “leaky police” and exerting some responsible institutional message control.

On the other hand, we have not yet read about the firing of federal police delegado Edmilson “Bruno Surfistinha” Bruno.

The editor of the news service responds:

(1) O Último Segundo publica cerca de mil e quinhentas notas por dia. A maior parte é conteúdo fornecido por agências como Reuters, Agência Estado e New York Times. O iG só compra e reproduz informações de agências com histórico de credibilidade (como é o caso da Agência Estado). Além disso, o iG também publica conteúdo oriundo de apuração própria junto a fontes primárias e secundárias. Os critérios de checagem descritos no manual do Último Segundo se referem ao conteúdo produzido pelo próprio iG. O material proveniente de agências de notícias é publicado da mesma forma que recebemos porque confiamos na qualidade das nossas agências. Nem poderia ser diferente dado o volume de conteúdo veiculado diariamente. Vamos deixar essa diferença clara no Manual.”

This news service publishes nearly 1,500 articles a day. Most is content provided by agencies like Reuters, the AE and the New York Times.

And the BBC 2.0, whose response to recent reputational woes in this regard was to try to minimize through massive applications of gabbling Orwellian spin. See

This portal only buys and reproduces news from agents with a history of credibility (as is the case with the Agência Estado).

The New York Times also has Jayson Blair, Judy Miller and Larry Rohter — and Henry Blodget — in its history. Under Bill Keller, it is making a credible effort to address that history, however — unlike some other news organizations one can think of. See

Furthermore, iG also publishes original reporting based on primary and secondary sources. The criteria for fact-checking described in our manual refer to the content we produce ourselves. The material furnished by news agencies is published in the form received because we trust in the quality of our agencies. We could not do otherwise, given the volume of content we process daily. We should make this difference clear in the manual.

(2) O Último Segundo não faz campanha difamatória. O Último Segundo não fez campanha difamatória na cobertura sobre a operação Kaspar 2. O iG simplesmente reproduziu o material fornecido pela Agência Estado, uma das principais e mais respeitadas agências de notícias do País. O iG sequer deu destaque à frase citada pelo ombudsman.

The Últiimo Segundo news service does not conduct campaigns to defame people, and did not do so in the coverage of Kaspar 2. It simply reproduced the article furnished by the Agência Estado, one of the biggest and most respected news agencies in Brazil. We did not even give prominent play to the phrase cited by the ombudsman.

Your reputation for credibility, plus fifty cents, will buy you a Snickers bar in Omaha.

Millôr Fernandes: “If a rumor comes into your possession, better pass it along to the next guy, and quick: It could be lie.”

“We select our news sources because we think they are credible, generally speaking, but do not have time to actually confirm that they are accurate in specific cases. Pay us good money for this service.” I think not.

Was any sort of credibility check performed in the selection process of news sources? When “content alliance” deals are signed, is a journalistic quality assessment, and agreement on shared standards and practices, even formally discussed?

What would such a process look like? Name me some examples, if you know of any.
Personally, for example, I prefer Bloomberg to Reuters — though Bloomberg does not do general news to the same extent. I have reasons. Long, boring lists of reasons.

But it boils down to this: Reuters, by its own account, has extremely weak governance on institutional conflicts of interest — which it markets as “innovation synergies.” “Toxic slude is good for you,” in other words. See

This is a bit like the BBC’s standard boilerplate: That it does not vouch for the content of third-party Web sites it refers to on its own Web site.

The standard procedure, of course, is to issue the correction sent over the wire by the issuing news agency, as is standard practice at Dow Jones, Reuters, Bloomberg and the like.

Assuming that that agency is efficient at catching its own errors, and bothers to correct them — or that it has not committed them on purpose.

See, for example

The iG editorial standards are actually based largely on the Estado‘s own (1990) editorial integrity guidelines, which I own a copy of  — and which are sometimes honored more in the breach than in the observance. Other times, not. It depends. Depends on what the alpha  males of the Mesquita tribe, up there in the executive suite, are in the mood for, I guess.

If news agency agencies no longer control carefully for quality — or listen to the recommendations of their ombudsmen — and if their wholesale customers do not check for quality, and moreover do not consider themselves responsible for the quality of what they do not produce themselves, then who is responsible for quality control?

Caveat lector?

Is that the best you can offer me?

It is a bit like saying, “The automobile I make is of excellent quality, but I cannot vouch for the motor, which is made by Yugoslavian goat herders out of recycled tin cans.” What kind of sales pitch is that?

Who should the end consumer take up quality issues with?

If the retail distibutor does not try to prevail on the pipeline to boil its content before pumping and dumping it, who will?

The domino theory of moral responsibility apparently now rules the world.

“In some ultimate, metaphysical sense, no one is responsible for anything.”

“We are all prostitutes!”

Likewise if journalists do not cancel their Faustian bargain with the leaky police in the name of the public interest — leaks from secret police investigations are a serious problem in combating organized crime in Brazil, it seems to me, and the never-ending flood of vicious, gabbling ratfink, Veja-style, only add to the general atmosphere of legal uncertainty — then who is going to?

The iG Ombudsman is a hard-ass on this issue as well. If I ever meet the guy, I am going to buy him a beer (or a beverage of choice, if he teetotals):

Seria um retrocesso jornalístico e ético se o iG modificasse seu Manual para adotar critérios menos rigorosos de verificação das informações que veicula. Ou que deixasse a responsabilidade pela audição dos diversos lados da notícia a cargo exclusivo do serviço fornecedor. Pois o leitor considera, com razão, que é do iG aquilo que ele lê ou vê no iG. Este, além de oferecer o serviço, faz questão de colocar sua marca em cada página. Segundo a lei, os veículos são responsáveis pelo que publicam.

It would be a journalistic and ethical step backwards for iG to modify its standards to adopt less rigorous criteria for information we (merely) publish. Or if we left the responsibility for hearing various sides of a given issue exclusively up to the service provider. The reader, quite rightly, thinks that what he reads or sees on iG comes from iG. Besides offering the service, iG makes a point of placing its branding on every page. According to the law, vehicles are responsible for what they publish.

Último Segundo is actually kind of a disappointment for this very reason, I find.

It sets high standards for itself, but because it produces very little of its own content — except for bloggers — it sometimes seems like those standards there are mainly there as an empty spectacle of due diligence. Those standards apply to very little of what it publishes, that is.

I had some real hopes for Globo’s G1 news portal, which showed signs of doing some original journalism on the Web that went strongly against the Globo grain. It often answered, or tried reasonably hard to answer, all of the Five Ws questions, for example. Not something Globo generally gives two shits about.

Unfortunately, somebody — Ali Kamel, probably — seems to have noticed this incipient commitment to information quality-assurance and ordered it taken out and shot, as some sort of Communist plot.

G1 seems to be reverting to form as a mere conduit for cross-promoting soap operas, celebrity journalism, and moral-panic poster-child crusades that live in the grey area between fact, fiction, and the marketing of celebrity.

They even messed with its information architecture and design for usability, which was actually pretty good — infodense, navigable — and now is quite bad — the “lots of white space to drive more clicks” theory.

Which is too bad.

Globo has lots of genuinely talented and serious people working for it.

The problem is that the talented and serious do not tend to rise into positions of great (ir)responsibility. Which tend to be occupied by craven, gabbling Moonies and world-class practicioners of puxa-saquismo.

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