Journalism can be a dangerous business. Forty-two journalists and media workers have been killed around the world in 2022 alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Those threats to press freedom have intensified in the U.S. and abroad, which is the subject of “Endangered,” a new documentary on HBO Max.
“If you take away people's access to information, you wind up with uninformed, manipulable voters,” says Ronan Farrow, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and the film’s executive producer. “You wind up with greater flexibility for repressive leaders to do that kind of repression.”
Journalist Patricia Campos Mello from Brazillian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo was featured in the film. She published a series of stories revealing illegal election manipulation by the campaign of then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Campos Mello sued Bolsonaro’s son for moral damages and won – but not without experiencing vicious misogynistic attacks, including by Jair Bolsonaro himself.
“I had never been targeted personally,” Campos Mello says, reflecting on the exposure she faced. “It's really horrible. I kept on working, but it was really, really difficult.”
On why they’re both still working in journalism amid attacks on press freedom
Patricia Campos Mello: “It's the best job in the world. It still is. It's difficult. It's not well paid. But it's such a privilege to be able to listen to people's stories and to know what's happening and try to make a difference and tell stories.”
Ronan Farrow: “The directors of this project, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Low Key Films, and I connected early on and were all passionate about the idea of highlighting what our colleagues in journalism go through.
“As I've seen these incredibly powerful and inspiring stories of people facing challenges, like Patricia and like the others in the film in the U.S. and beyond. I have felt galvanized in doing what I do because they face their challenges, but also they keep going. And the film really underscores how foundational that is to maintaining our basic freedoms and to having healthy, functioning democracies.
“The film is quiet in its approach to storytelling, it is about personal stories. We didn't want to do a film that was homework or a survey piece. We wanted to humanize it. And in humanizing it for me, I found the answer: I want to keep going because we've got to and because people in tougher situations than I are keeping going.”
On connecting with people who are ideologically opposed to what mainstream media reports
Farrow: “One of the things that I'm proud of is that [the film] gives a pretty complex portrait of the factors that play into [that] attitude. It's not a survey piece where you're seeing a ton of stats and talking heads, it is this sort of transfixing journey through the trenches with people who get at the margins of those experiences.
“[The film is] a pretty clear picture of the collision of news deserts, including across the United States, where economic pressures and uncertainty about the future business models of our profession have led to community after community that doesn't have a local newspaper, the social media empires that have made their fortunes on misinformation culture and developed algorithms that either incentivize, or at the very least, don't tamp down on, misinformation campaigns, and then some of the attitudes, like the misogyny, that runs riot in those settings online. All of that comes together into these individuals who are anti-press and believe that the press is purely left-wing. And even when they see exceptions to that, people who really are doing kind of down-the-middle reporting, they are angry because they've imbibed a lot of this anti-press rhetoric.
“That is a profound problem that is going to be very hard for us to break out of as a culture. This combination of traits is an important shift in our country. It underpins everything that's happening politically. It's not a sidebar issue. It's not just a human rights issue for journalists. It is integral to the future of all of our rights. And I hope people see this film and see the stories of the journalists in it and pay a little attention to those troubling trend lines. And hold the companies and platform holders accountable on the social media side. Support local journalists on the news media side.”
On media echo chambers in Brazil and how Campos Mello has tried to fight back
Campos Mello: “I used to try to show people that we investigate politicians in all the parties, regardless of ideology. I gave concrete evidence saying, ‘See, this investigation we did on the left-wing guy, on the right-wing guy.’ But it's really not about evidence or facts. It's so nice that there has been a democratization of information and of sources that people can access. But at this point, it's like entertainment. If you don't like a piece of news you're listening to, you just change the channel or you pick another source.
"There's not much we can do at this point. We can't compete with the same weapons, in trying to give people what they want to read or what they want to listen to. But at the same time, how do we get these people to listen and to read? These are some of the things we're trying to figure out.”
On traditional definitions of journalistic objectivity and whether they hold up amid authoritarian threats to press freedom
Farrow: “I support journalists adhering to an actual definition of objectivity, meaning you are conveying the facts with as little inflection as possible. You are perhaps telling the story of how the facts came to be or perhaps humanizing the issues, but you're not putting spin on the ball in an agenda-driven way.
“I think the framing of objectivity, of ‘It's got to be both sides,’ is a bit of a fallacy. You convey both sides, as in issues that are adversarial and have multiple sides to them, but that doesn't mean you carry water for sides of the issue that aren't supported by the fact pattern. You look closely at what is supported and what's not and you tell it like it is. That's all of our job. But I will say I am troubled, as many have been, by the news media's acquiescence to a simplistic and tempting definition of objectivity theater rather than objectivity itself.
“I come from a cable news background and I've been in that setting where you're in the anchor chair. And the way we get objectivity is we let a Democrat shout and we let a Republican shout, right? And we don't really fact check any of it. And then we say, ‘Thanks so much for coming.’ And that's a dangerous thing. It's particularly a dangerous thing in a moment when there is a surge in authoritarianism; there is a surge in misinformation culture. It's our job to fact check rigorously and to tell it like it is, even if it happens to be an issue where there are not two sides that are supported by the facts. We shouldn't be scared of that. We have to give up the desire to be liked in cases where there just isn't support for facts on one side. And that is a challenging cultural shift that we all need to undertake individually and institutionally.”
Campos Mello: “I think one thing is trying to be pluralistic. The other thing is false equivalence or simply showing two sides of facts that do not have two sides. One is true and the other is the lie. So when we are doing this, if we think that people today are being bombarded by information all the time, their attention span is really more and more limited. If you give space to voices that are, plainly seeing lies or unconfirmed information, you're just being counterproductive. You're actually helping disinformation.
“I think we have to be very different and as journalists, we're not activists. We have to try to be balanced and not biased. But when you open it to different points of view or different sides, there are some things that do not have two sides or three sides. There's just one fact and one truth. And we have to be careful about that.”
On advice for young journalists and the future ahead of them
Campos Mello: “This is something a friend once told me, and I think it's very useful: If you want to be a journalist, you have to listen much more than you speak. This is something that I always think about, just listening much more than speaking or giving my opinions or anything like that.”
Farrow: “I think it's actually a theme that emerges loud and clear across the film, which is: Never stop reporting. Keep going. Because even when the going gets tough, even when we're at a moment in history where the institution is embattled and threatened in various ways, those are the moments when it becomes more important than ever not to acquiesce and not to stop.
“I think that is a philosophy that will serve you well in the micro sense when you get pushback on a tough story, as many of us do. And in the process when our nations and our democracies need access to uninflected facts, and if you've got the chance to be a part of that, if you're a young person considering whether to be a part of that, think of that as an honor. I certainly do. And I watched this film, and I'm moved by what the journalists in it do to keep reporting no matter what. And I hope that I can hold myself to that standard.”
This segment aired on July 15, 2022.