Decoding Datena

“Entertainment has superseded the provision of information; human interest has supplanted the public interest; measured judgement has succumbed to sensationalism.” Bob Franklin (Newszak and News Media, 1997)

 Midweek 6pm, central São Paulo: workers are drifting into the local boteco for a cold beer or pinga, perhaps killing time to avoid rush hour before their long & complicated commute home. A few are wearily transfixed by a battered television in the corner is showing captured CCTV taken from the front of an apartment building, which loops incessantly. In it an armed motorcyclist is threatening a group of young adults and to the viewer’s horror, he begins shooting. The scene is terrifying, while in the foreground you have the rotund figure of former sports journalist (José Luiz) Datena, gesticulating in the manner of a preacher, decrying the moral failure that can facilitate such crimes.

 This type of television is satirised in Jose Padilha’s ‘Tropa de Elite 2‘ (Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)  with the character Fortunato – State Deputy & presenter of the show ‘Mira Geral’.

  Datena was not the first and is not unique, in the late 1980s and early 1990’s, presenter Luiz Carlos Alborhetti fronted Programa Cadeia, which bore similar characteristics.

 During the São Paulo protests of 2013, Datena gained some unexpected international notoriety as an excerpt of one of his broadcasts went viral. In it, he polled viewers asking if they supported the protests – from which he concentrated on footage of a small vandal fringe. Viewers voted unanimously in favour of the protesters, despite his moralistic framing. In despair he then altered the question, explicitly specifying violent protest & vandalism – the responses in favour just kept on coming, and in the end he abandoned the poll altogether. This was unfortunately a rare moment of light relief amongst the terminal nightmare dystopia depicted by Datena’s TV shows.

 These kind of programmes are so familiar to Brazilians they barely register beyond white noise, but to new visitors the given impression can be startling.

 They are considered by many to be a source of fear, hatred, and race/class prejudice in Brasil. There is also an argument that these shows fulfil a purpose for those living in dangerous areas and peripheries.

 There is also the issue of self-perpetuation – a mountain of research dating back to the 1970s affirms that television violence encourages the development of aggressive behaviours and attitudes, something uncontroversial yet often refuted. In this video Psychologist Rachel Moreno describes how symbolic violence on Television reproduces stereotypes and prejudice, and that the few regulations to reduce this type of violence which are found in the constitution of 1988 are not being implemented.

  And the effects are not only indirect – new documentary ‘Quem Matou Eloá?’ (Who killed Eloá?)  by director Livia Perez details a tragic and shocking incident in 2009 where this type of sensationalist, saturated live coverage of an ongoing kidnapping incident, by Datena and others, is said to have led directly to the death of Eloá Pimentel at the hands of her estranged ex-boyfriend Lindemberg Alves. A Police raid on the apartment was scheduled for maximum television coverage, and a presenter communicated directly with the kidnapper on air prior to the murder.

The Fear

 As we can see the world over, fear of crime is a powerful political tool. Perception of crime is subjective, and chronic fear of crime is far worse for an individual’s health than the actual experience of crime for the vast majority of people.

 Many visitors to Brasil observe that their prior perception of crime does not reflect the reality they experience. This is perhaps because most “newsworthy” statistics do not differentiate geographically and the kind of places foreigners are likely to be are generally safer and more organised than elsewhere. Yet it is not uncommon, for example, for São Paulo visitors to be told erroneously that you “must not walk on the street”.

 Current events in Europe and the United States may have many middle class Brazilians questioning assumptions about public security.

 Datena’s show, ‘Brasil Urgente‘ on Bandeirantes Network  is one of a handful of live crime programmes occupying late afternoon spots, such as ‘Cidade Alerta‘ on TV Record (which he also presented before switching channels) which both harness and feed this fear of crime.

 These shows brands & formats are syndicated to various state & regional TV networks. In the late afternoon schedule they compete for the most sensational depiction of real crime and live police actions. Datena uses CCTV of gun crime, assaults, accidents, carjackings and so on as a backdrop to his own moral/political & sometimes plainly religious sermons.

 Media scholar Jason Mittell writes: “Viewers bring their own frameworks and expectations to the decoding process, including their particular social situations, like age or economic class, as well as their personal tastes and experiences. Thus the process of decoding is an intersection between a text that contains a multitude of encoded messages, and a viewer with a range of influences that shape his or her perception—out of this junction emerges a limited number of different possible interpretations. Scholars have charted a spectrum of decoding as it specifically relates to the ideological messages within a text. At one extreme is a dominant decoding, which fully accepts ideological messages as common sense.”

 Broadcast each day at 5pm and widely watched, these shows can induce anxiety in the viewer, a sensation of ubiquitous crime & chaos, both titilating and demoralising in equal measure. Violence & fear as entertainment.

 Most countries have their version of the real-life crime show format but, along with the statistics, in Brasil these are taken to another level entirely – the net effect on the population is a very worthy area for study. The lack of specific research in Brasil is acknowledged in this report which notes “the scarcity of Brazilian research on violence in the media on the public health and also the necessity to adjust theories and methods to the national context’. Likewise, none of the 35 references in this – “Effects and consequences of exposure to TV violence” – were native to Brasil.

Something similar was was carried out in 1997’s ‘The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries‘ by the British Journal of Psychology. The study investigated effects of the emotional content in television news programmes on mood state and the “catastrophizing” of personal worries. Three groups were shown 14-minute TV bulletins edited to display either positive-, neutral- or negative-valenced material. Viewers of the negatively valenced bulletin showed increases in both anxiety and sad mood, and also a significant increase in the tendency to catastrophize a personal worry. These results are consistent with theories of worry that implicate negative mood as a causal factor in facilitating worrisome thought.

Crucially they also suggest that negatively valenced TV news programmes can exacerbate a range of personal concerns that are not specifically relevant to the content of the programme.

 In 2012’s Fundamentals of Media Effects the authors make the straightforward but often ignored observation that “Violent crime serves as the most obvious example of television’s distortion of reality…research has shown that among certain groups of people, heavy viewers of television tend to cultivate the same distorted pictures of reality that they see on television…..In addition, heavy viewers consistently overestimate real-world crime statistics.”

 University of Nebraska published a paper in 2011 called ‘What your TV habits may say about your fear of crime‘. In it, Lisa Kort-Butler, UNL assistant professor of sociology and the study’s lead author states that  “the non-fiction programs offer more realism and may have more psychological impact than fictional dramas”. “Non-fiction shows” she said “add more context than dramas — interviews with victims, families and friends can be used to point out how crime could happen to anyone and play on fear for dramatic impact. They also convey a sense of proximity: Fictional crime dramas are often set in big cities, but non-fiction documentary shows are often set in smaller cities or suburbia.”

Most of us would probably see nothing controversial in any of the above.

In this article Barbarians on air: Brazilian television and violence stimulation,  author and Psychologist Lelo Leal observes “The fact it is presented as “journalism” makes it escape a parental guidance rating, offering children and teenagers a festival of hate and violence. The authors of such achievements are not the characters, in general black and poor, introduced daily on TV crime shows with the sound of breaking glass. They (the authors) are the hosts themselves, along with reporters and producers, under the command of network directors that open up airtime for this freak show…”.

Leal goes on to single out Datena: “On the show Brasil Urgente, from Rede Bandeirantes, the host José Luiz Datena conducts a poll to find out who believes in God and adds: “…I don’t want Atheists watching my show. – “Oh, but you are not democratic.” – Concerning this issue I am not, because an atheist, in my modest opinion, doesn’t have limits, and that is why we see all these crimes everywhere…” With these sentences alone the host violated six Brazilian laws, three multilateral pacts signed by Brasil and, once again, the Journalistic Code of Ethics, furthermore disrespected principles and declarations in the defense of freedom of expression.”

The Candidate

 Datena, like Tropa de Elite’s Fortunato character, is not without political experience, having previously worked for São Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin, with whom he reportedly discussed his potential PSDB candidature for Mayor of the Capital during meetings held at Bandeirantes Palace.

 He is now however expected to run as candidate for the “free market” Partido Progressista (PP), founded by former SP Governor & Mayor Paulo Maluf (Who is himself wanted by Interpol and thus unable to leave Brasil). This platform which will place him in direct confrontation with incumbent progressive Fernando Haddad, who is seeking a difficult re-election on a PT platform with a hostile & conservative São Paulo electorate and former Mayor Marta Suplicy who has recently switched to PMDB. Haddad came to office in 2012 via a unity vote against evangelical candidate Celso Russomano (who is now indicted for fraud).

 Datena is naturally expected to run on a platform overtly focussed on crime & public security, playing to the concerns long hardened by his own television shows. The effect of crime statistics and the climate generated by these shows is widespread public consent for a harsher treatment of criminals, or those perceived to be criminals. A demonstration of this came when perpetrators of lynchings were defended by TV & Radio news presenter Rachel Sheherazade who satirised “defenders of human rights” and encouraged them to “adopt a robber”.

 Far-right ex-military congressman and potential fringe 2018 Presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, also of PP, is another who benefits politically from the hysteria by adopting a hardline stance on criminality. It is also the engine behind ongoing campaigns to de-regulate the holding of firearms.

 In Peter J. Benekos & Alida V. Merlo’s Crime Control, Politics and Policy we read that a “war model approach” to crime control has several latent consequences “1. Intensified racial tensions resulting from targeting minorities. 2. Concerns about the erosion of civil rights as aggressive law enforcement strategies are encouraged. 3. increased costs of criminal justice, especially for prisons. And 4. Continued fear of crime and criminals because efforts to reduce the correlates of crime are generally minimal.”

The third point is crucial in Brasil given that many right-wing politicians favour privatisation of the Penal system, as has occurred in the United States with disturbing consequences, namely the creation of a “Prison-Industrial Complex“. The U.S. now incarcerates a higher proportion of its black population than Apartheid South Africa. Brasil’s self-identified Black Population just passed 50% of total, meanwhile its mainstream media is maintained almost bereft of Afro-Brazilian faces.

 A majority of Paulistas may well be hostile to Fernando Haddad’s Workers Party at Federal level – it has always been so – but it is unclear how many city dwellers are hostile enough to actually entertain the prospect of Mayor Datena come polling day. For a Left-Wing PT Mayor he has received plaudits abroad from such unlikely sources such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times for his team’s urban vision. Haddad’s administration has encouraged the renewed use of virtually abandoned public spaces, and the new city plan includes provisions to prevent any more areas being lost to walled security without ground-level interaction – something that contrary to security industry & customer intent can and does actually generate higher risk of crime on the deserted streets that result. Meanwhile the Ciclovias and Sunday closure of Avenida Paulista have allowed citizens to rediscover their city by abandoning the automobile, which enthusiastic residents feel is helping to create a new sensation of public security, confidence & community.

 One widely circulated meme joked that Datena, if elected, promised that he would convert the Cycle Lanes implemented by the Haddad administration into Prisons.

Additional Research: Maria Carolina Soares