Maps for investigative journalism, with the Pulitzer Center’s Gustavo Faleiros
We spoke to Gustavo Faleiros about his work as an investigative journalist covering rainforests in Brazil and beyond.
A few months into 2022, we got to speak with Gustavo Faleiros, a Brazilian journalist, who is the Environment Investigations Editor at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting’s Rainforest Investigations Network. As a part of his role, he oversees cross-border investigations from the Congo Basin, the Amazon and Southeast Asia — where the world’s largest rainforests can be found. Journalists seeking opportunities with the Rainforest Investigations Network can find more details at this link.
Gustavo is also the co-founder of InfoAmazonia, a publication that covers the Amazon region through reporting, maps and data. While his primary role is now at the Rainforest Investigations Network, he continues to advise the team at InfoAmazonia.
Before InfoAmazonia, Gustavo had stints at the Earth Journalism Network, International Center for Journalists, and was Executive Editor at ((o))eco, a Brazilian publication that covers conservation and biodiversity.
We spoke to Gustavo over a vide0 call about using maps and data for investigative reporting. Here’s the transcript, edited for clarity and brevity:
In Old News: What does a day in your work at Pulitzer Center look like?
Gustavo: Since November 2020 when I joined the Pulitzer Center, my daily thing is to follow up with the fellows who are doing the investigations. So I coordinate a small team. There, I have a researcher, co-ordinator and data editor. So I coordinate this team to make sure that they are helping the fellows with their priorities and organising the right training for those moments of the fellowships. So these are 12 month fellowships. A lot of my work is to make sure things are on track for generating good stories and good results.
So most of that my day is communicating with either my own team or the fellows having meetings and understanding where the stories are going. And we have different kinds of partnerships. The Rainforest Investigations Network right now has 13 fellows from several outlets. Usually, the larger outlets don't need or aren’t actually open to sharing their stories prior to the publication.
So I don't have actually the work of editing the stories. I only talk directly with the reporters, but the smaller outlets that are part of it enjoy and benefit from having a more hands-on approach from myself and my team. So sometimes that’s also reading stories prior to publication, helping to edit and even produce charts and graphics.
I think [what I] enjoy more is really giving the feedback or listening or participating in the stories and investigations. Being part of really advising or being part of the discussion of the stories and the challenge of the stories.
In Old News: Is that something that you always kind of gravitated towards?
Gustavo: I think that I'd be definitely gravitating around this position of being an editor/articulator. And it is interesting because I spent many years in denial. Like no, I'm just like a reporter, writer, soon it is going to change and I'll be publishing my books. I think you understand that every journalist has this conflict. I would be dreaming about these wonderful awards that I would win with my books and writing. But then, I always was leading somehow a team and coordinating and kind of assigning people to do things. And the funny thing, if I go really back in my history, I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old.
I was already doing this when I was 16 on the school's newspaper. I was the editor of this newspaper and was already fighting with teachers and students who wanted to write. I was always in this position of having some discussion with someone if it should be published or not. And then when I was in college, I had a little bit of this. I thought I would do this more on the kind of cultural music kind of coverage. And I was an editor of a drum magazine for two years. I played drums and I started writing for a drum magazine. And they said, okay you can be the editor in six months or so. I was like, okay. They were paying me I don’t know, I think $150. And I was thinking I was the big boss of the thing. It was nice. I met a lot of my idols and amazing drummers. Went to a lot of free concerts because of that. I think from that moment I also realised this position has a lot of influence and you know, you end up getting some feeling of power even if you don't have much.
I did have a good amount of years working as a reporter in a big newspaper, which I really enjoyed, but when I really started covering the environment and working for a news website called O Eco, which is in Rio. And there I spent many, many years. I think I was really lucky there and a lot of freedom to be, again, the editor of the whole thing. And I helped to create the website. But at the same time, I learnt with the founders of that organisation, that being an editor at this point in journalism meant also creating new projects, thinking about budget, teams, fundraise for newsroom. So that helped me to do this transition from only being a kind of editorial editor, to be a kind of a managing editor.
That became much more the kind of thing what I'm doing. So that's not only gravitating but already landed on this.
In Old News: At what stage did you start looking at the intersection of environment, data and mapping?
Gustavo: So I always liked the graphic part. When I was working as a reporter in the newspaper, I was proposing something for the guys at the design [team] to illustrate my story. It was without noticing, [that] I was learning a lot about how to use spreadsheets. And funny enough from someone who wanted to be a drummer or a drummer writer, I ended up liking a lot, you know, to work with spreadsheets, reading reports and finding the data. That was [in the] beginning of the 2000s.
And then when I went to O Eco, there was a partnership to use satellite imagery and stories. Some guys in Rio, they were supplying basically Google Earth screenshots to the website, that was 2007. And I don't know why, I was just like mad about that thing. It's so amazing that you're doing a story about a protected area and then you can easily have satellite imagery to illustrate the story. I was so fascinated by that, and from that point on, everything kind of started pushing it in that way. I remember my partner, my wife, she showed me a website of NASA's free satellite imagery, and then I immediately got hooked with that and I rediscovered Google Earth. It's from 2005, but at that moment I started using Google Earth more intensely and I was falling in love. I would spend a whole day or week in using Google Earth. It was amazing. We should use this for these stories and that's how I started. And I started using and learning a lot about like how you can transfer a spreadsheet into a map. And without knowing anything that there is data journalism or whatever, it was just like, okay, we can get this file and open here and see the forest fires. And also I was very lucky that at that moment I was living in Brasilia, the capital, and I was editor. But also I used to go to a lot of the press conferences about the new deforestation rates, there were new systems of monitoring. And at that moment, the Brazilian space agency was a very forward thinking organisation. They are like, “oh, we are doing the open source data” and I thought it was really nice. I was really actually proud of that moment about my country. Well, they're not so bad, you know, like they're thinking that people should have access to data. So I learnt a lot with the sciences at that moment as well because they were talking about the importance of having open data about the first station, how the monitoring systems work. And so that started and when I saw [that] three or four years [later], in 2010-2011, there was this thing called data journalism, I was just like, well, that’s just basically what I'm doing.
In Old News: Do you remember some of the early stories you did using these techniques?
Gustavo: The first stories that I did was about forests within protected areas in Brazil because I realised that I could have those two layers and combine them, which was basically the boundaries of protected areas and the hotspots of which was given, by NASA satellites.
So we created, within O Eco, this project in 2008 and it’s still there actually. Some pictures [on the site] won't be available, I think. There were some embedded maps that for sure won't get work, but you will get a sense of how basic it was and but it was so fun to do it.
In Old News: Did this intersection between environment, data and maps helps you draw more connections and patterns between different geographies like rainforests across Amazon, Congo and Asia?
Gustavo: I do think so. When we were doing the thing like [what] I just shared, it was a very simple interpretation. It was basically, one layer overlapped on the other. Or how many points are there on the polygon? That was the analysis.
These already are some kinds of insights, although very simple, but if no one is doing it, you end up getting some insights and even audience.
Even charts give this kind of quick insight. But then as we move on, do more and more of this analysis, we definitely get much more sophisticated and complex insights. From the areas that are deforested, or making an analysis of the frequency of a phenomenon. And I think already a lot of the things that we are seeing on this project with the Pulitzer Centre, I think are the most sophisticated that I've done.
For example, the stories that Joseph Poliszuk published with El Pais about mines in Venezuela, that is powered by an algorithm finding the location of airstrips linked to gold mines. So it actually connects two features and sees if they're related. They are separate, mines and forests. But when they're close, it means that this is being used by — very likely in that area in Venezuela — by guerrillas or armed groups or any other kind of illegal groups that are dominating those areas. Then you start doing the investigation, the journalistic validation. Or going to the ground to get insights on what you can contextualise for that data.
In Old News: Correlations can also be like really hard for a reporter to spot, especially if they don't have a lot of experience about the location or about the particular beat that they're reporting on. So are there some tools or frameworks or thinking that you think are useful to keep in mind when people do that?
Gustavo: The mindset is to be careful with assumptions… especially on maps. These kind of overlays can [also] lead to very wrong or very wide and generic assumptions. For example, we had a map of the rescue of slave-type workers in the Amazon. It's a very common thing. People working in bad conditions, and not receiving a salary.
That's very common in the areas of deforestation. It's hard work, you know, to cut trees and take the roots out of the land. So they put a lot of people that have no conditions to defend themselves into this kind of work. So there's a database that was actually killed by Bolsonaro. That says so much about the characteristics of our agribusiness in Brazil that it was, to a certain point, updated every six months where you could see the amount of workers that were found by municipality of the Amazon.
So we created a map where you could see balls [over] the city that has the largest number of rescues. So if you overlay this with deforestation, the visual impact is immediate. You know, like where there's the deforestation, there's more slaves. There was this story that we came up with. And then if you add another layer, where there is more deforestation, there are more cattle.
That's the thing. So there are three layers that in theory by just looking there should be correlated because where there's no work all over, the cattle should be more. But then that's the first time when we decided let's do a correlation like, can you see if the same municipalities that have more slaves, do they have more cattle? As we can see, they have more deforestation. And we couldn't find a meaningful ratio or the number was not really something that we could communicate.
So in that sense, what we needed, was much more granular data. One municipality in the Amazon is the size of Portugal. So that the geographic unit can be very misleading as well. So to establish this relations, as you know, I think we would need to be, in most of the cases, very granular on the data and if possible, validate with the extra research, either science or journalism.
In our case, we need to do some boots on the ground to actually validate and bring some context. That's my advice.
In Old News: How does teaming up (of a philanthropy and a publication, or a publication with another publication) help with not just that reach, but also expertise?
Gustavo: I think this is the challenge that I've been seeing not only in Pulitzer, but it's a challenge that is very present right now within InfoAmazonia. And it does relate with the geographical angle as you rightly observed, it's like you are choosing a frame of geographic scope, in a map. I'm just looking at this area.
What fascinates me about the GIS (Geographic Information System) tools is that it’s interactive. It gives you the ability to zoom in and zoom out. So we're seeing the environment in the local and then you see, this is the [size] of this national parks [in relation to] this whole country, actually it’s very small. But when I was there, it was big. But when I fly out… It’s the same sensation when you go and see a pipeline or a road within the forests. You were there and you think that you were surrounded by trees. And then you go back to your house and take out the GPS tags and put it on a tool and fly out, and it’s like actually that was nothing. There's so much more devastation surrounding me than I thought. Yeah, there is this capacity that I think it's a language that more and more people are acquiring because they're using Waze, Google Maps, Pokemon Go, everything is geography-based. So the language of zooming out and zooming in, getting that dimension of navigating on a map, it's a language that is much more current and democratised these days.
In that sense, this challenges is being addressed by technology. But then there is the capacity of people to deal with global or local stories, that's really the challenge. What do I care about the local story or why do I care about the global story if I just live here? I should not care about anything else. I think this is case by case and this is very [much] linked to the narrative style. On environmental issues, I think the challenge is to tell this local story and then finding a way of connecting this with a global perspective [like] climate change. If we are talking about the disasters that we had in Brazil with rains recently, ‘how much can I zoom out and link this to a global phenomenon like climate change?’
Or now there's a very strong narrative that is really current here in Brazil is that all these disasters are being caused because the Amazon has been deforested. Sometimes I like to see that people are just using this in such an easy way that, ‘you see, we cannot cut the Amazon anymore. Look at the consequences.’ I mean, it's beautiful, the science that they're bringing behind this.
But for a journalist, this is much more complex, really [to] attribute causality. So in answer to your question: For me, to create this dialogue in this connection, only science can help us. Narratives and visualisation can also make it beautiful. But the concept for me is the only way we can, on environmental narratives, connect the local and the global is by exploring the science in a creative way, in a very precise way. And that's what we tried to do in InfoAmazonia a lot.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. [laughs]