< Poor Reporting


Friday, December 09, 2005

BOB GARFIELD:: Every day tourists in Rio De Janeiro who seek an experience beyond Carnaval and the Copacabana sign up for the popular favela tours that examine the social landscape of Rio's vast shantytowns. Earlier this year, an enterprising Argentine imported the idea to Buenos Aires, where the excursions have quickly become a hit - among journalists. Ian Mount looks at what happens when a bunch of reporters show up at the next big thing, only to learn that they are the only ones who think so. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

IAN MOUNT:: Before Argentina's 2001 economic crisis bankrupted the family business, Martin Roisi used his white van to deliver tee-shirts. These days it's for shuttling tourists on four-hour, 60-dollar excursions through one of Buenos Aires's largest villas miserias, or "misery villages." Driving toward the shantytown, blasting cumbia, the local answer to Johnny Cash, he explains village politics. [SPANISH]

INTEPRETER:: All the villages in the capital have their president, who's voted by the people. In each block there's a deputy. In Village 20, there are 28 square blocks, the biggest of all of them. There are 25,000 people. [SPANISH]

IAN MOUNT:: The group stops at a humble furniture workshop, strolls down alleys lined with drainage ditches, visits a children's soup kitchen and takes pictures - lots of pictures. The visitors on this bright fall morning aren't backpacking students or Bermuda-shorts-wearing pensioners. Three out of the four of us are journalists. There's a duo from the Colombian magazine Soho, a German tourist, and me. As I'm taking pictures of a backyard farm with ducks and chickens, the Soho photographer takes my picture. Moments later, on a pitted road next to precarious brick houses, Soho writer Daniel Riera and I interview the most articulate participants we can find - each other. [SPANISH]

INTEPRETER: What do you think? What article are you going to write? [SPANISH] It's strange. I feel a little strange. You? [VOICE ON LOUDSPEAKER]

IAN MOUNT:: Roisi says he became a "poverty tour" guide by chance. He'd just finished casting a movie in the village last December when a European tourist interested in poverty asked to be shown around. Soon after, a reporter called to do a story about the film, and Roisi mentioned that he had brought a tourist to the location. [SPANISH]

INTEPRETER: And a few days later, on the cover of the newspaper, it said, "He brings tourists to the village."

IAN MOUNT:: After that, Roisi's tours started to generate plenty of headlines - and controversy. Soon he was on the front page of Argentina's largest daily, Clarin, and on one of the most popular radio call-in shows. He explained how he wanted to show the poorest human beings and how he donated all proceeds after expenses to village residents. But still, people were offended. [SPANISH]

INTEPRETER: People were calling me, and calling me names. "You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch. What were you doing?"

MEI-LING HOPGOOD: I don't think there has been anything like it before.

IAN MOUNT:: Miami Herald correspondent Mei-Ling Hopgood wrote one of the earliest stories.

MEI-LING HOPGOOD: And people were sort of disgusted, interested - just generally perplexed by the idea why any foreigner would come to Buenos Aires and go on a "poverty tour."

IAN MOUNT:: And, in fact, on Hopgood's tour there were virtually no ordinary tourists. Remember that piece from Clarin I mentioned? Hopgood and an English freelance journalist took the tour with the reporters who did that story. In that piece, they supplied the quotes.

MEI-LING HOPGOOD: We became the two foreign journalists on the tour. We became the tourists.

IAN MOUNT:: She did find one American college student who'd taken the tour, but in general, Hopgood reckons that Roisi's price is too high for the backpacker set. According to Roisi's own figures, he's only taken about 99 journalists on these tours, but they've generated more than 80 print, radio and TV stories. And if he's getting bad press, he blames, naturally enough, the media. [SPANISH]

INTEPRETER: The media made the village tour into something that never existed - boom in social tourism. There is no boom in social tourism. The only boom is in journalism.

IAN MOUNT:: It's easy to simply blame the coverage on media sensationalism, but as Hopgood notes, the idea of touring Third World poverty is novel. And Roisi's tours give journalists a unique opportunity to visit and report on Buenos Aires shantytowns where the population has swollen from 12,000 to more than 140,000 in the last 20 years.

MEI-LING HOPGOOD: I think it's not an easy thing. You can't walk into these neighborhoods without someone that knows the neighborhood, that's either from there or has permission to be there.

IAN MOUNT:: Plus, Roisi's tours provide a ready hook for a story about poverty, a tough subject to cover, according to David Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America.

DAVID SHIPLER: To get editors interested in publishing something about poverty, it's got to be kind of quirky or extremely dramatic. And unfortunately, a lot of human problems are pretty steady, constant and monotonous.

IAN MOUNT:: Roisi's quirky tours may never inspire a 10,000-word series on Argentine poverty, but Roisi is reaping a 10,000-dollar windfall from his most recent tour concept. That's what one Australian tourist paid for Roisi's new, quote, unquote, "private reality," which takes his four-hour "poverty tours" a step further, into high-end participatory slumming. Participants get two weeks hanging out and being filmed with the city's leading transvestite hookers, and instead of depressing photos of poor people, they take home a personalized videotape of themselves all done up in spandex and leather. In Buenos Aires, I'm Ian Mount for On the Media. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Up next, experts who guess wrong and the media who love them, and media crusaders lock and load to defend Christmas.

BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media from NPR.