Inside Story: Reporting on the Amazon Rainforest Highlights Accelerating Destruction
Jessica Brice and Michael Smith's reporting for Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg Green on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest won Second Place for Outstanding Feature Story, Large, in the Society of Environmental Journalists' 21st Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges praised the project, stating, "The result is a new understanding of the complexity, humanity and scope of the problem." SEJournal Online recently caught up with Brice via email. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Jessica Brice: Extensive traveling through the region to get on-the-ground stories, combined with a high-level, computer-aided analysis of millions of public records to see how the Amazon deforestation machinery ticks.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece and how did you solve that challenge?
Brice: Traveling during the height of the COVID pandemic was super risky, on top of risks to personal safety that environmental journalists in the Amazon always face.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting?
Brice: Many of the folks who burn down the rainforest are actually impoverished families abandoned by their government. They are being manipulated by Big Agro so that industrialized farmers can swoop in after the crimes have been committed and "replant," building empires of soybeans and cattle in the process. Meanwhile, the lots of the Brazilians on the ground who are cast as criminals never improve.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Brice: As an American who has lived in Brazil for almost two decades, I felt I could tell the story from the point of view of people who rarely appear in the international media.
SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have disproportional impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?
Brice: I made a point to speak to the people whose voices rarely appear in stories about the Amazon. To do this, I tried to live side-by-side with these folks deep in the Amazon to build their trust and find my characters.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?
Brice: I would try to tell the story as a series, because I think there are so many additional threads to follow.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story or project?
‘Human rights are a key piece of
the puzzle if we're going to
save the Amazon rainforest.’
Brice: Human rights are a key piece of the puzzle if we're going to save the Amazon rainforest.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Brice: Team up with a data journalist. Look at both the macro picture and the micro picture through on-the-ground interviews. Spend as much time with your characters as possible.
SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting (estimated costs, i.e., legal, travel or other; or estimated hours spent by the team to produce)? Did you receive any grants or fellowships to support it?
Brice: The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported this story. It took more than a year to produce this story.
Jessica Brice is a senior investigative reporter at Bloomberg News. She has lived in São Paulo, Brazil, for 15 years and worked various beats, from commodities to government and markets. She served as Bloomberg's Brazil bureau chief for five years and more recently has focused on coding and data journalism to produce hard-hitting investigative work. Born in San Francisco, Brice received her bachelor’s in economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master’s in creative writing from U.C. Riverside.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.