Concerns with the Brazil Narrative

Thank you to Rio Gringa and Andrew Downie for calling out international coverage of the recent collapse of several buildings in Rio de Janeiro. Numerous English-language media outlets have used the tragic collapses, which left 17 dead and dozens injured, as a platform to talk about infrastructure in Brazil and the country’s preparedness for 2014 and 2016. The latter is a marginally important topic but one whose significance is given disproportionate weight and ink relative to many other issues worthy of coverage in Brazil.

For example, Downie says of his reporting for CSM:

This piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the collapse of three buildings in Rio de Janeiro was supposed to be about Brazil’s housing deficit and the shoddy workmanship that left residents of new houses with damp walls, cracked floor tiles and unpaved roads. All just months after they moved in to their new homes”.

But now, the Rio de Janeiro disaster is the news and the Monitor used that to start off a broader piece about construction, infrastructure projects, and Brazil’s preparedness to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics”.

Country narratives like these, as Rachel at Rio Gringa points out, are dangerous because they impact the way foreign audiences interact with a country. Yet they do serve a purpose in that they present the general reader with a heuristic about the place.

Heuristics have value. Among other reasons, we use heuristics to characterize and familiarize ourselves with foreign places (in the current example, Brazil = Samba and bikins). While these are helpful for snap decisions, they make for poor long-form analysis and true comprehension.

Brazil is hardly alone here. Rachel writes that the same phenomenon occurred in South Africa and worries that once 2016 ends, so too will international interest in Brazil:

The same types of speculations were made about South Africa before the World Cup. Things worked out fine, in the end, and they likely will in Brazil, too, even if things wrap up at the last minute or if certain projects have to be abandoned. The more important questions, of whether all of the preparations for the events will benefit Brazil, or if rushing to finish projects for the events will negatively impact the country (as in, buildings collapsing out of thin air), are discussed infrequently outside of Brazil in the mainstream media. It begs to question: once 2016 rolls around, will anyone want to cover Brazil anymore?

My gut reaction to this question is yes but not as much, and only if there is a narrative that will engage foreign audiences about the country the way the sports, sex, and violence can. No small task. While samba and bikinis help draw attention, they create a narrative that distracts from other pressing issues (violence excepted, as urban security is a major concern) and exciting developments (e.g. massive funding for tech startups).

The challenge for Brazil, then, if they wish to change the stereotype, is to leverage this attention to craft a different narrative, one that focuses on less sexy but important topics. Continued headlines about Brazil’s emergence as a global economic power will help and may keep the focus on the country, but probably not as much as China or the Middle East, at least in the United States.

Maybe Brazil doesn’t want to change this image. Studies (they exist) say Brazil is one of the coolest nations. My hunch is that the constant references to carnival, beaches, samba, soccer, etc. are a major reason for this perception. Or maybe it is because changing a country’s image is a supremely difficult task, a fact to which Brazil’s neighbors in Colombia can attest.

Brazil is a country the size of the continental United States with a population of close to 200 million people. Naturally every single issue will not gain mainstream media attention, and the more awareness brought to Brazil, the better (at least through the lens of Latin America observers). In an ideal world, that coverage would be as varied as the country itself. But for now, look for more World Cup and Olympics-related articles.

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