The one question to ask

In the past few days the North of Brazil has been hit by severe flooding. I was trying to gather some figures today when I came across a statement by the National Civil Defence Service. It read:

"Over 796 people have been affected in ten states; 38 people have died; and 270 minicipalities face floods due to excessive rain in the states of Ceará, Maranhão, Piauí, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Bahia, Alagoas, Amazonas, Pará e Santa Catarina".

These figures, with the same exact phrasing, had been published all over the national media. But I had a simple doubt: what does “affected” mean?

Without any fear of sounding pretty stupid (after all, being a journalist IS asking obvious questions such as "what does it mean", "where is the money going to", "are you lying, sir?" ), I decided to call the National Defence Service.

I reached them in the morning but, to my surprise, nobody at the press office could answer my question. I talked to two people in there who both sounded like they had never been asked this question before:

– Mmm, I believe it means people who’ve had to flee, but I’m not sure… Let me check with the technical staff.

Yet early in the afternoon the press office people had still not reached any conclusions. I had to call several times. Only in the beginning of the evening a woman, sounding extremely tired, told me:

– No, no, whoever told you that was wrong… These are people without water, electricity, road, plus the homeless, dead or injured….

That is an easy conclusion to get to, one could say. However, it’s precisely the type of thing that can not be assumed by a journalist, or in this case, by a big part of the media industry.

Plus, the fact that the press officers had no idea what their own statement was saying (and that the entire national media had been repeating the same stuff without any questioning) came as a shock to me.

The fact that it took them an entire day to figure out so simple a question was also pretty shocking. In any case, if one’s in a hurry to break the news it’s always best NOT to ask simples questions.

But then again, whoever gets their news from the web (there’s a saying: like the sausages, one should never try to learn how news are made) is more than used to endless repetitions of terms, and figures, and data – and many times, nobody knows where they come from. So here’s a hint of how news – or sausages? – are made in Brazil.