February 17, 2016

With the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro less than six months away, a new website aims to monitor the Brazilian government’s success in organizing them.

Lupa is not Brazil’s first fact-checking initiative. Agência Pública launched “Truco” in 2014 and “Truco No Congreso” in 2015 when Aos Fatos also started operating. Cristina Tardáguila, Lupa’s new editor, was herself running O Globo’s print and online fact-checking initiative, Preto No Branco, during the 2014 presidential election campaign.

“It’s hard to measure the impact they have because they’re relatively new tools in Brazil and their reach is still limited,” Paula Daibert, a Brazilian journalist and producer for AJ+ Español, told me via email.

The demand for fact-checking, however, is not in doubt. Fabiano Maisonnave, 2016 Nieman fellow and Folha de S. Paulo senior reporter, said to me via email that “Brazil in desperate need of fact-checkers, especially if they build a solid reputation and make good use of the social media. Brazil has that Obama-is-a-foreign-born-Muslim phenomenon in a much larger scale, as we spend more time in social media than other countries.”

Lupa will be fact-checking national political figures and upcoming local elections. However, Tardáguila hopes to make Lupa into a broader space for watchdog journalism.

For instance, her team is monitoring the government’s pledge to bring Brazil in the top 10 of the medal table in the Rio Olympic Games.

The pledge was part of “Brazil Medals”, a plan announced in 2012 by President Dilma Rousseff and her then minister of sports, Aldo Rebelo. The plan was accompanied by a generous dollop of cash: the government promised to invest 1 billion reais (approximately 250 million U.S. dollars at the moment of writing, but exchange rate fluctuations somewhat understate the importance of the investment) to achieve this goal.

The money was to be divided between a fund to build or revamp 22 training centers (R$ 310 million) and one to support athletes and coaches directly (R$ 690 million).

With the games fast approaching, Lupa reports the government has both overspent and underdelivered. The government spent R$ 452 million to build 10 training centers (of which only five are open today) while dispensing a ‘mere’ R$ 328 million on athletes.

Lupa has also been covering the Zika virus outbreak. On its Facebook page, active before the site was launched Monday, it rated “False” a claim by Dilma that the virus was identified in Brazil at the end of 2015 – the ministry of health had noted and minimized the risk far earlier that year.

More uniquely, Lupa investigated what information local authorities were giving concerned citizens about prevention measures for Zika. In early December, it created two generic Facebook profiles and reached out to the social media accounts of mayors’ offices and health authorities in 14 cities most affected by the virus to ask for guidance. The reaction times varied broadly – and didn’t include the most up to date advice the Ministry of Health was giving to concerned citizens.

Lupa will be funded by João Moreira Salles, a documentary filmmaker from one of Brazil’s wealthiest banking families. More to the point, Moreira Salles is the founder and publisher of piauí, a monthly magazine sometimes referred to as Brazil’s response to The New Yorker.

In reality, piauí seems like a slightly different publication. The analysis of the magazine included in a long essay by leftist historian Perry Anderson is worth quoting in full.

The magazine that issued from this arrangement is a stylish affair, sometimes seen as a kind of tropical New Yorker. But though certainly smart enough, it differs not only in design, printed on matt paper in larger format, but spirit, as its title indicates. Piauí, one of the poorest states of the north-east and a byword for backward provincialism, was chosen as ironic antithesis to Manhattan. […] Beneath the veneer of worldliness it still affects, what the New Yorker delivers today is mostly a sententious conformism. Piauí is more mordant, less easily placed […] Piauí has developed the matter-of-fact, deadpan profile into an art more ruinous of its subjects than detraction could ever be. […] In the same impassive tone, the magazine has excavated some of the ugliest episodes and niches of public life: financial brawls, congressional shenanigans, legal enormities.

Lupa’s work will be published on piauí and on a subdomain of the magazine’s website. Filipe Campante, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, told me via email, “I think being at piauí magazine gives it a brand name with credibility within the circle of Brazilian elite opinion-makers.” He added that “since these are the circles that would really pay attention to this type of initiative anyway, I think it makes a difference in terms of its reach.”

Moreira Salles, contacted via email, says he agreed to invest in Lupa because he believes “a fact checking agency could play an important role in sorting out the facts in Brazil’s very fractured political climate, where disbelief is the default reaction of the citizenry.”

His investment will cover a staff of four journalists for three years. That should give Tardáguila sufficient time to test the sustainability of Lupa’s business model, which will rely on syndicating its content in the style of a news wire.

Unlike the Canadian Press, whose Baloney Meter only runs on subscribers’ websites, Lupa’s fact checks will always also appear free to access for readers on its own site.

Lupa has signed a deal with GloboNews, a cable news channel, and is negotiating with a weekly magazine and a few newspapers. Tardáguila believes local newspapers will also be interested in syndicating Lupa’s fact checks (especially during election season), just as several local media have signed up to be state-level PolitiFact franchisees in the United States in recent months.

Will the business model work? As Maisonnave has written for Nieman, Brazilian media is in a state of flux. When asked whether Lupa will find other willing buyers for its content, he tells me via email that “I think this is still an open question. Many media outlets, such as Folha de S.Paulo, have their own fact-checking initiativesand I am not sure if they are willing to “outsource” such an important part of the reporting. What is more likely is that Lupa, Truco and Aos Fatos will stimulate that it becomes a more regular part of their daily coverage.”

Fact-checkers worldwide are considering alternative avenues to expand their reach and their funding opportunities. They will be keeping a close eye on Lupa’s track record in the coming months.

Editor’s note:  This article was updated to include Fabiano Maisonnave’s comments which were received immediately after publication. As they did not alter the article’s general message but added relevant insights, I add them confident that anyone who has shared/read the earlier version will not find the newer version less useful or appropriate.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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