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The war that appeared on TV

Group studies media narrative as building a general view of criminality

Gone are the times when children wanted to go out for Carnival dressed up as Spider Man (he who “never hits but always gets hit”) or as a sailor. This year they disappeared from the shops to be replaced, amazingly, by mini uniforms of the Bope (Battalion of Special Operations), protagonist in the successful film “Elite Troop”. Proud parents paraded with their sons dressed in black with a skull and dagger badge. “The Elite Troop, a hard nut to crack/Get one, get’em all and you as well”: from the age of 3 to 80, there is no one who does not know the words of the punk tune that opens the film. Happy with the “get them all”, few, however, identify themselves with the “you” of the lyrics. “The media built an ideal of inevitable suffering and, as such, according to the media’s discourse, crimes would be ‘avoided’ if state security forces were honest and competent. This line of discourse proposes a separation between ‘us’, common individuals frightened by ‘urban violence’, and ‘them’, bandits and the State incapable of providing security for their taxpayers/clients,” observes Paulo Vaz, Professor at the School of Communication at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ECO-UFRG), and coordinator at the Laboratory of Media and Fear of Crime, supported by the Research Aid Foundation of Rio de Janeiro (Faperj).

The objective of this project is to find out how the media constructed, and constructs today, the roles of the people who cover violence in Rio de Janeiro: the image of the victim, the criminals, the shantytowns, the security forces and punishment of the crimes. Vaz is continuing to pursue a previous study that compared the press coverage in 1983 to that of 2001. “The idea is to finish the sampling, in order to analyze the changes”, he explains. The Laboratory also plans to create a site where the material would be available in the form of videos and newspapers. “Based on this, it will be possible to see that there is a problem in how the media constructs the figure of the criminal, and the possibility of avoiding suffering caused by crime through authoritarian means. What we are questioning is precisely this recent consolidation as common sense to the alternative advocated by conservative populism, namely, that to reduce suffering you need more policies, stricter laws. It is important to perceive that the solution proposed is itself a problem”, he warns. For Vaz, coordinator of postgraduate studies at ECO, it is important to return to the spirit of Nietzchean criticism of the “improvers of humanity”, as “certain ways of making sense out of suffering cause further suffering”.

Thus, he observes, the danger of the media is that it can lead us to confuse real suffering with the fictitious. “To attract the audience, they highlight the spectacular elements, those that look like fiction, and transform those who should be citizens into an audience. The selection of and emphasis on some suffering reduces the visibility of others, determining our lament unfairly.” Vaz discovered that in the 80’s the media dealt with crime in various ways. “Modern culture attributes suffering to a structural cause. Why was there crime? Because of the uneven distribution of wealth. Consequently, you think that to end crime you must improve the distribution of wealth. Thus, changing society was a way to reduce human suffering,” he analyses. However, there was, according to him, a belief in the impossibility of “curing” the criminal and the press opened space for the voice of the aggressor, as it tried to understand the “passions” and causes that led to the criminal act. From 2001, he says, the new “hedonist” society became consolidated, and one can see that the media increasingly avoided typically passionate crimes while allocating more and more space to crimes committed by strangers in public spaces and to the random choice of victims. The new packaging was “Anyone of us could be the victim.”

“If in 1983, the audience identified with the possibility that it too could commit a crime, in 2001 it has its eyes trained on the possibility of becoming the victim.” Vaz notes that the media had (and has) autonomy of editorial choice and focused (a political option) on random victimization, which provokes a culture of generalized fear across society. “This could explain, for example, society’s disproportionate fascination, at its various layers, for a film such as Elite Troop, in which torture is legitimized and presents itself as a solution for the violent and ostensive police presence, which looks even better when it is ready to enter a conflict and go on a killing spree.” The researcher draws attention to the fact that the leading character in the film is a torturer transformed into victim, as was the case of the first Rambo, and that the strength of Elite Troop lies precisely in its supposed “realism.” “This ‘real’ image of the media regarding victims and bandits follows the same line as a film of fiction, as it is made equally from various stories of good and bad,” he explains.

Fact and fiction are combined in a subtle and explosive manner. “We work with the concept of the ‘right to risk’, a characteristic of neoliberal societies, where there is the freedom of choice to assume a risk or not, but at the same time, when something happens, there is an unreal distribution of responsibilities between the individual and the State. The general tone is that everything is the State’s fault, which takes the weight off the shoulders of the individual, who gains the right to complain about how violence is changing the routines of his life, forcing him to stay at home or bullet proof his car.” Vaz recalls the pillaging that took place in the tunnel that leads to the shantytown of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, when, with respect to the just desperation of those involved, the general argument was that intervention by the police, “whose police post was just 200 meters from the spot” (this, notes the researcher, would become an important cliché in the media coverage), would have made a difference. “Who guarantees that policemen shooting guns in the Rebouças tunnel would have been a better solution for what happened? This repeats the puerile argument of Elite Troop, namely, that the middle class is responsible for drug traffic. If they stopped consuming drugs, crime would soon stop. Who could guarantee this, as the heavily armed drug dealers might move into other arenas?”

Vaz observes that this “culture of fear” is a global phenomenon, seen, for example, in the disturbances involving Arab minorities in France or in the Iraq War. “The political and economic consequences of this industry of fear, which generates scapegoats, are assiduously studied. Certain social segments are threatening, and therefore it is necessary to treat them violently. If they die, so much the better, as they are ‘non people’. Without exception, this only favors an authoritarian State, based on exception, conservative.” By this rationale, certain people are bad, and end of story. Thus society can do as it wishes with them. Even exterminate them. At the other extreme is the “victim” who is always innocent. “The vision that the problem with security is collective, and requires the efforts of all of society, has been lost. It is easier however, to split the world into the good and the criminals, a division into two parts that does not demand that we stop to think about collective solutions. Some individuals are worthy of our efforts (generally those who are ‘like us’), while the others are not. The solution for the violence is to free minds to think through the issue in other ways.” However, the researcher ponders, it is hard to find dissonant voices in the media, which in general, presents a homogeneous discourse that enhances fear, with no concern about dosing it with real facts.

“What is the vision of tourists who visit Rio? That there is violence all over the city. After all, they, like the older people (who rarely go out) are fed by the media’s line of discourse. This, by the way, is trickling through society, who, more and more frightened, are ceasing to go to public places, feeding criminality, and who are being informed only by the media,” he warns. “The media’s construction of an idea of inevitable suffering, is not socially neutral. It promotes a strategic distribution of the parts played by the aggressors and victims. In the case of crime in Rio de Janeiro, the shantytown dwellers, through the efforts of the media and their physical proximity to the drug dealers, can be qualified as ‘virtual criminals’.” There is however, a piece of good news (to be confirmed) on the Laboratory project: “Although the 2001 model has remained unchanged, there has been a change in the treatment given by the media to the poorer victims, who were previously disdained and overlooked in favor of upper and middle class citizens. We are curious to see whether a new pattern will be established, in which shantytown victims will be considered just as relevant as a victim in [the upscale district of] Leblon.”

For Vaz, we are not so much dealing with an issue of human rights, but a way of thinking about the future. “The format of the modern future was: ‘Suffering exists because society is bad’. Soon, in the future, it will be necessary to construct a good society. However the format of the modern future was one in which we would be happy. Today it is the opposite. You want the present to remain and fear that the future will be a threat to the continuation of the present. So the future has the format of a catastrophe to be avoided,” he analyses. The solutions that were so highly appreciated, such as putting the Army on the streets and increasing the presence and violence of the police, continue, and will cause exactly the problems that we intend to solve. “It will be necessary, for example, to find ways of coping with the issue of arms traffic. It was greatly due to this media discourse that the arms industry and their sympathizers managed to turn the game round on the referendum on disarmament.”

With the focus centered on fortuitous crimes, few thought about the weight of deaths due to proximity, as they were contrary to the “reality” put forth by the media, and also put the reader and spectator in the uncomfortable position of “potential criminal,” while they prefer to see things from the viewpoint of the victim. “There is a preference, born out of this line of discourse, in the voice of the individual and through the authority of experience to the detriment of scientific knowledge and quantitative information.” The issues that ensue from this line of discourse, which confuses fact and fiction, are graver than the success of Elite Troop, although the film is symbolic of this new “rationale” that insists that we must be “cruel” and “cold” toward those we think “lack empathy” for humankind.