On 15 March, when debating wildfires in Portugal that, such as the ones that killed 114 people in the summer of 2017, Portuguese prime minister António Costa pointed his finger to journalists and said: “One of the biggest problems in our country is the terrible quality of information.”
Despite his criticisms, both in public and in private, Costa’s government has demonstrated a knack of looking towards one particular sector to fill communications roles, and sometimes even more senior positions: the media.
Qualified, underpaid and overwhelmed by the ongoing crisis in the Portuguese media, many journalists have accepted offers to work for the government in exchange for much better salaries and working conditions. “This has serious consequences for journalism,” Carla Baptista, a media expert and professor at the New University of Lisbon, said. “If we look at this as if it were a combat between two sides, it’s pretty obvious whose interests are going to prevail.”
When telling about her passage from journalist to public official, Sara, who requested anonymity, also talks about “two sides” — and is clear which she prefers. “Back when I was a journalist, I saw many people moving to this side. There were people I never thought would do this. But they did and, to everyone’s surprise, they did just fine,” Sara, who has joined a government position after working as journalist for eight years, told Mapping Media Freedom. “This is a bit like suicide. It has a contagious effect when you see other people do it. But in this case, it has a happy ending.”
Sara looks back at her journalism career as an ongoing struggle to balance her professional aspirations with what the national newspaper she wrote for expected from her on a daily basis. “Every day was spent trying to specialise myself in one area, while my superiors thought of this as a childish whim,” she said.
Sara goes back to the day when, after insisting for many weeks, she got an email saying she was given access to the minister responsible for the area she covered for an exclusive interview. However urgent and extraordinary, this didn’t grant Sara any leeway from daily tasks assigned to her in the newsroom. “I still had to be at my desk and publish random news-agency wires and only after that did I get permission to go and interview the minister. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how a journalist can interview the minister of their responsibility and still publish news-agency wires from 7am.”
Situations like this, coupled with a monthly salary of under €900, led Sara to openly look for a new career. As word got out, she was given a job first at a public institute and later for the government. Both positions focused on the area she covered as a journalist. In her current job, Sara’s salary is two-and-a-half times more than what she was making after nearly a decade in journalism.
Money was also a problem for Inês, who requested anonymity. After spending 12 years working at one title, her newspaper fell behind on wage payments. After three months with no income, she accepted an offer from another publication. However, its slower pace and quieter newsroom, unlike that of her previous newspaper, took away her motivation. That’s when she got an invitation to work for the ministry she dealt with on a daily basis, for double what she earned in her first title and approximately €600 more than what she was making then. She accepted it in a heartbeat.
“I’m working around the exact same topics I wrote about as a journalist, so my experience won’t go to waste” Inês told MMF. “It’s just that I’m on the other side now.”
Looking back at the prime minister’s remarks toward journalists in March, Inês acknowledges that “he shouldn’t have said it” — but strictly from a PR point of view. “Like in every other profession, journalists don’t like criticism. But the truth is that nowadays there is a terrible quality of information and I was a part of it too,” she added.
“The fact that journalists have to write articles all the time keeps them from confirming most things they publish. They end up becoming an echo chamber,” Inês said. “Members of parliament say anything, journalists quote them and don’t even care to fact check.” This, she added, is done by “inexperienced young journalists working at a hallucinating speed and without any guidance”.
Now that she is working on the other side, Inês is very well aware of this reality and admits to taking advantage of it. When asked if her job is made easier by dealing with mostly unseasoned journalists, she quickly replies: “Of course. I was in their shoes not long ago. And while I know that I can say certain things that won’t go through a more experienced journalist, others will accept them right away. Because they can’t afford thinking.”