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Fact Checkers Gain Importance In Brazil's Muddled Media Landscape


Let's head to Brazil now, where President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from her duties pending impeachment trial. Vice president Michel Temer has assumed power. And if you find it difficult to keep up with events there, you are not alone.

This is all happening at a time when the country's news organizations are also crumbling. Out of all this turmoil, a website is gaining readers by offering something simple and crucial but hard to find in Brazilian politics - the facts. Catherine Osborn has this story from Rio de Janeiro.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: The impeachment case against President Dilma Rousseff has divided Brazilians and brought them to the streets in the hundreds of thousands.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).

OSBORN: Protesters have held noisy marches and occupied the Brazilian Senate. But a lot of people say they're exhausted by trying to find information they can trust. Here's Ananda Porto, who works at an art gallery in Rio.

ANANDA PORTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "The news magazines' coverage of all this has been very sensationalist," she says. "And there's some publications I don't even read anymore."

PORTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: She says it's hard to even talk about politics with family and co-workers because things are so polarized, people disengaging from media and politics is a fear of many Brazilian journalists. They've watched massive layoffs in news organizations because of a recession plus digital disruption.

And this comes at a time when a controversial impeachment case will probably cause major changes in the country's governance. Since 2012, more than 1,400 Brazilian reporters have lost their jobs.

MARINA AMARAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Marina Amaral worked for over 20 years in major Brazilian news outlets and now runs the investigative site Publica. She thinks the current media environment is extremely dangerous.

AMARAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "People are choosing content that supports only their beliefs," she says. They're also living with a lot of fake news. The University of Sao Paulo found 60 percent of the most-shared articles on Facebook in the run-up to the vote to impeach Rouseff in the lower house were false.

Researchers have found Brazilians increasingly get their news from social media. This is the challenge that 30-year-old Tai Nalon is fighting. Nalon covered Brazil's federal government for the newspaper Folha. She left to found a site last year called Aos Fatos, Portuguese for To The Facts. It's the first stand-alone fact-checking site in Brazil.

TAI NALON: We like to elevate the value of the truth.

OSBORN: Nalon and two colleagues fact-check claims by top politicians and do data-based investigations. One of their biggest stories today looked into a basic question about Rousseff's impeachment trial. Rousseff is charged with using money from public banks to cover holes in her budget. Presidents before her also did this. So Nalon used government data to compare records.

NALON: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: She found Rousseff used 35 times more money for this than past Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso combined. Aos Fatos published this last month in the run-up to the lower house impeachment vote. And it was huge news. It was on the radio, mentioned in newspapers and ran on national television.

NALON: I think that we guided the coverage that week.

OSBORN: Aos Fatos is now focused on the records of the lawmakers who are likely to try Rousseff for impeachment in the Senate and those who could be in charge in her wake. And their readership is booming. They got 60,000 unique visitors last month, and they've made several partnerships with UOL, the country's largest web portal. Ananda Porto, the Rio art gallery worker, has become a fan.

PORTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "All of the data is laid out on the site," she says, "and I can see on social media that people ask questions about the information from both the left and the right. For Nalon, getting criticized by readers across the political spectrum means they're coming to the same place for information.

She says accurate information is the baseline Brazilians need in order to rebuild trust in their politicians and in each other. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.