Exploring data journalism in Brazil

Conversations with Data: #85

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Welcome to the latest Conversations with Data newsletter.

In this week's conversation, we focus on the data journalism scene in Brazil. As shown in many countries, data journalism in Brazil has served to increase quality and credibility, combat disinformation, and build trust with audiences.

To better understand Brazil's media landscape, we caught up with Natália Mazotte, a Brazilian data journalist, consultant and social entrepreneur. She speaks to us about the Coda.Br, Latin America's largest data journalism conference and the chapter she wrote in the second Data Journalism Handbook -- now out in Portuguese.

You can listen to the entire podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Natália Mazotte below.

What we asked

How did you first become interested in data journalism?

To explain my involvement with civic tech and data journalism, I have to return to my childhood. My father was an electrical engineer and had a business in the 90s involving technologies. This meant I was exposed to computers at a very early age. Few people had access to personal computers back then in Brazil. During this time, I developed a huge love for technology that followed me into adulthood. Meanwhile, my mom is a cultural producer. As I grew up in theatres, this shaped my passion for storytelling.

Then I went to college to study journalism. At the end of 2008, I did an exchange programme in the US and came across data journalism entirely by chance. I found an IRE workshop with David Donald; he was giving this workshop on computer-assisted reporting. I realised that there was this whole new universe where I could explore my passion for technology and stories and within journalism.

Tell us about your journey to founding the School of Data Brazil.

When I came back to Brazil, I started researching and studying everything I could about data journalism. The IRE materials were essential because we didn't have materials in Portuguese, and it made me realise that communities matter when we are learning something new. In 2011, one of my old professors generously opened up some space in one of her classes at the Federal University for me to teach data journalism. After teaching this class, I met the founder of Open Knowledge Brazil, an NGO that focuses on open government and data literacy.

I volunteered to start the School of Data project, which launched at the end of 2013. We developed partnerships with important players in the media philanthropy landscape and trained more than 60,000 students face-to-face and online. We viewed dozens of online tutorials in Portuguese and fostered communities of journalists. This was the most important project I've run so far, and it also opened the door for other opportunities in my career.


Talk to us about the data journalism scene in Brazil.

Today data journalism is a very strong field with a vibrant community here in Brazil. But back in 2014, it was just beginning. The School of Data and the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism were decisive in this change. Almost all the big newsrooms in the country now have a journalist specialising and working with data. We have dozens of courses and tutorials about the topic in Portuguese and even some graduate courses like the one I developed at Insper University.

It is still a growing field, but I've seen more and more job opportunities for journalists who have some data experience. Data journalism has not yet become mainstream in Brazilian newsrooms; it's still in a silo. We still have work to do, and I hope that one day the practice of working with data will be so widespread amongst journalists that it will no longer make sense for us to talk about data journalism as a field. It will be just journalism.

You've moved between civic tech, academia and journalism. How have these experiences advanced your career?

That's an interesting question. Working with technology and transparency has given me a vision that journalists usually don't get in traditional careers. I realised by being amongst programmers that the practice of collaboration is quite common. I believe it is also essential to be open about our projects and methodologies. After all, collaboration is at the heart of some of the major technology projects of our time.

But journalists used to be the complete opposite: Super secretive, closed, competitive. This is the usual ethos of journalism, and I didn't feel I fit in. So since most of my career, I spent doing journalism projects in NGOs, I was able to try another ethos. Programmers influenced me, and this made a huge difference for me. The very fact that I wanted to document and share what I was learning about data journalism put me in a place of reference that I didn't expect to reach. So I engaged in advocacy for more transparency and open data, mostly in governments and data literacy amongst journalists. And that led me to lead Open Knowledge Brazil. So it was a very unusual path for a journalist.


You helped start up a digital magazine called Gênero e Número. What's the focus of the publication, and what motivated you to launch this?

The initiative to start this project came from Giulliana Bianconi, the current executive director of Gênero e Número. She wanted to create a journalistic project about gender. She came to talk to me, and at the time, I was running School of Data Brazil, where I was developing workshops and classes but not publishing data-driven stories. And I missed that. I wanted to publish stories with the knowledge I was sharing. So we started to develop what became a digital magazine to cover gender issues beyond the anecdotes -- contextualised with data.

In our first year, we got some funds from the Ford Foundation, and we managed to publish stories about women in sports, the gender gap in politics and so on. We used to publish nine or 10 data-driven stories per month. But then the magazine became another thing. Now it is an organisation, and it has different projects. I'm glad that I had a chance to start this initiative because it's brilliant, and it's going super well right now.

What are your favourite examples of data journalism in Brazil?

This is difficult. We have a lot of excellent examples, and I must say that the data-driven stories produced by Brazilian journalists have reached the level of the best in the world. No wonder we always see Brazilian projects shortlisted in the main international data journalism awards. A recent example that has received several awards is this project made by the Brazilian fact-checking agency Lupa with the support of the Google News Initiative. The piece is called "At the Epicentre". The story shows what would happen if your neighbourhood was at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. No Epicentro was first published in Portuguese and then translated and published in English by The Washington Post.

We have several newsrooms doing a great job investigating and telling data stories in Brazil. Another example is by Gabriela Caesar at Globo. She produced a very interesting data journalism piece to monitor the votes of city councillors in some Brazilian cities, and it made it easier for citizens to follow the work done in city councils. A data journalist's role is not just about producing an incredible data visualisation. It is also important to capture and organise the available data and make it more accessible to a wider audience. Gabriela does this with incredible competence.


You wrote a chapter in the latest Data Journalism Handbook and also led on the Portuguese translation. When is it coming out?

Liliana Bounegru and Jonathan Gray have done a fantastic job with this second handbook: The Data Journalism Handbook: Towards A Critical Data Practice. We are launching the Portuguese version of the handbook at the Coda.Br conference, the Brazilian data journalism conference happening this week. On Thursday, November 11, we will be talking about the handbook in a session with Jonathan, Liliana, and Cédric Lombion, the School of Data programme director. The Portuguese PDF version of the Data Journalism Handbook is available from today on DataJournalism.com.

What advice do you have for aspiring data journalists keen to break into the field?

This is a question that I received a lot. The first thing you should do is join a community of data journalists. My second piece of advice is to work on a project and pick a topic that you like. The project will allow you to apply your skills and learn by doing. The third one is to keep a steady routine with reviewing free resources. My final tip is to see if this is a real passion for you. Explore if this is something that you really want to do and go for it. Choose your community, develop a project and keep a steady learning routine and you will move in this ecosystem.


Latest from DataJournalism.com

Data journalism isn't just for hard news. From fashion to culture, travel and food, journalists can power lifestyle coverage with data too. Journalist Sabrina Faramarzi explains how she found fertile ground for data storytelling in her passion lifestyle. She also points to some practical techniques and formats to get you started. Read the full long read here.


Breaking into the data journalism field can often be challenging. In Duncan Anderson's blog post, learn from those who did it. Explore experiences from academia and the newsroom with interviews from Prof Bahareh Heravi, Michelle McGee, Florian Stalph, Roberto Rocha and Natalie Sablowski. Read the full blog here.


Join our next Discord chat

What are the challenges in vaccinating the undocumented in Europe, and how does data play a role? Tune in live to our upcoming Discord chat with Eva Constantaras and Htet Aung as they go deep into Lighthouse Reports' cross-border data journalism investigation. Eva Constantaras is a data journalist specialising in building data journalism teams in the Global South. Htet Aung is a data scientist with a specialism in machine learning and AI. Join us on Discord on Wednesday, November 17, at 3 pm CET. Add it to your calendar.


As always, don't forget to let us know who you would like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here or subscribe to the newsletter here.


Tara from the EJC data team,

bringing you DataJournalism.com, supported by Google News Initiative.

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