The 2020 Winter CSIS Journalism Bootcamp

By Nikia Burdick

Ten UMass students produced an in-depth multimedia story over the winter break as part of the International Journalism Bootcamp, a week-long intensive reporting program co-organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the UMass Journalism Department. The story, titled “Deforestation Hits Home: Indigenous Communities Fight for the Future of Their Amazon,” focuses on how deforestation in the Amazon has directly impacted its Indigenous populations and explores how different local and regional stakeholders are trying to better the situation.

CSIS is a highly regarded, non-partisan think tank based in Washington D.C. Each year, they bring ten students from a handful of partner universities to work with CSIS’ iDeas Lab team. UMass first worked on the Bootcamp with CSIS in 2019, when students from the Journalism Department, along with Associate Professor Rodrigo Zamith, were flown down to Washington D.C. to work on a story examining the humanitarian and migration crises in Venezuela.

“The Bootcamp was incredibly successful,” said Zamith. “We were just the second university to be invited back to the program.”

This time around, ten students from across the UMass campus were selected through a competitive process to produce a story oriented around the broad issue of deforestation in the Amazon. The group included Journalism students Ella Adams ‘22, Ryan D'Alleva ‘22, Maria Elena Little Endara ‘22, Talia Heisey ‘23, Will Katcher ’21, Cassandra McGrath ‘21, Rebeca Pereira ’23, McKenna Premus ’22 and Political Science students Claire Healy ’21 and Ryaan Moss ‘21. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bootcamp could not be held in Washington D.C. and instead was via Zoom.

The students were split up into four teams: Story/Web Team, Audio Team, Video Team and Data Visualization Team. Each team had Zamith as the faculty lead and an iDeas Lab mentor from CSIS, who worked with the students to develop and execute their story ideas. The program required the students to put in long shifts during each of the five production days in the Bootcamp, which began at 8 a.m. and often ran until 8 p.m. – and even later for some students. The teams were guided during the week and provided with the general story idea, access to relevant interviewees and background information. It was then up to the students to find additional news sources, conduct the interviews and produce the content. 

Each day typically included a mix of learning about the issue from a researcher, receiving professional guidance and mentorship from a prominent journalist, engaging in skill-building activities, production time and ‘check-in’ editorial time to ensure students were on the same page. All teams worked together to create a cohesive package that substantially tackled the issue, but each focused on a different story angle.

“The students would collaboratively pull together the materials, writing out the script, operating the video editing software, and making all of the edits in response to the feedback they received,” said Zamith. “For example, the Audio Team may examine how non-profits are working with Indigenous communities to help them advocate for themselves while the Video Team may focus on getting first-hand accounts from Indigenous people about how they’ve personally been affected by deforestation in the Amazon. It was a great mix of independence and collaboration.”

Claire Healy, who was on the Story/Web Team, found an Indigenous photographer in Brazil named Genilson Guajajara, who had first-hand experience documenting deforestation. However, Healy did not speak Portuguese, but a student on the Audio Team, Rebeca Pereira, did. The two students then teamed up for the interview, with Healy posing the questions and Pereira doing the real-time translation.

"The experience of interviewing without being able to communicate directly with the person I had to interview was a new one and a challenge,” Healy said. “Rebeca and I made a WhatsApp group with Genilson to help her translate my messages to him, and I sent her my questions beforehand for her to prepare. Then, during the interview, she translated my questions and helped clarify anything about the project, us, or our questions. Credit goes to Rebeca for her on-the-spot interpretation, as it is not easy to translate immediately, let alone in a way that does justice to the nuances and sensitive personal subjects that came up in our interview.” 

Pereira was born in Brazil and grew up in a Brazilian-American household where her parents were acutely aware of the delicate distinction between assimilation and cultural attrition.

“English is and has always been my primary language, but they invested significant time and energy into helping me retain my native-language fluency and encouraged me to pursue a minor in Portuguese once I got to UMass,” said Pereira. “Classes like Professor Cristiano Mazzei's Portuguese Translation and Interpretation course helped prime me for the uncharted situations I would encounter during the Bootcamp program. I would never have foreseen that this Bootcamp would focus on deforestation or that our cohort would need help with consecutive interpretation. However, the ethical discernment and practical skills that Professor Mazzei's course helped its students refine came in handy during the week we spent communicating virtually with Genilson.”

The interview challenged both Healy and Pereira, and it forced them to put the different skills they’ve learned while at UMass to work.

“On my end, one of the most challenging parts of that interview was not being able to connect directly with Genilson as he was answering my questions,” Healy said. “He shared with us the impact Covid-19 personally had on him through the loss of a family member. I wanted my genuine, conversational reactions to come through in the interview, where he was trusting us with his story and experience. However, the conversational flow was different because I could not express my normal reactions as easily since my follow up questions were done through Rebeca’s interpreting. It was harder to deliver follow-up questions immediately, but Rebeca helped with any clarifications. The extra layer of it being over Zoom already makes it more challenging to make sure the person you are interviewing feels heard by the interviewer. Overall though, it worked out well thanks to Rebeca and Genilson, who were very patient with the process.”

The interview proved pivotal for the story the students wanted to write. While CSIS’ expert interviews added scientific insight and personal experience working within official processes, Guajajara’s interview added a whole new layer.

“Genilson’s interview was incredibly raw and vulnerable,” Pereira said. “He laid bare the reckless soil and water contamination that assails his community and the government persecution that follows indigenous activists who dare speak out. Holding back tears, he also narrated the last moments he spent with his grandmother in intensive care, watching as her lungs and the rest of her physical body degenerated and eroded from their fight against the coronavirus. Listening to his story was by far the most difficult part of the translation undertaking, but my efforts were needed for our story to be told.”

In the end, the students found that they were not only learning from their mentors at the Bootcamp. They were learning from one another.

“I would encourage anyone who wants to interview someone when there is a language barrier to find an interpreter that will take the same consideration that Rebeca did to make sure the story gets told,” said Healy.

According to Zamith, the interview with Guajajara was emblematic not only of what students gained through their participation in the Bootcamp but also how prepared they are to succeed in the profession.

“The students showed that they can be professional journalists,” Zamith said. “They demonstrated their collaboration skills, production skills, and a strong sense of ethics, especially when dealing with something as sensitive as the challenges faced by the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon.”

At the end of the rigorous week, students presented an advanced draft of their multimedia piece (a 2,500-word story with a 5-minute video, a 3-minute podcast, and two data visualizations) to the CEO of CSIS and some of their scientific experts. It was a detailed presentation, where students received critiques of their work from the people who knew the material best.

“Unsurprisingly, they received unanimous praise for their outstanding work,” said Zamith. “One of the folks at CSIS even began to tear up at one point.”

The multimedia story can be experienced here. The written story examines the rates of deforestation, the impacts it is having on communities, how Indigenous communities are taking matters into their own hands and how different groups are coordinating action to protect the Amazon (Adams ’22, D’Alleva ’22, Healy ’21). The audio story examines the isolation of some Indigenous communities, how that impacts their ability to participate in regional and national governance structures, and how non-profits are working with local communities to promote self-advocacy (Katcher ’21, Periera ’23). The video story examines the impact that COVID-19 has had on Indigenous communities and the development of nearby lands (Endara ’22, McGrath ’21, Premus ’22). The data visualizations illustrate the proportion of the Amazon in different South American countries, the rate of deforestation in a region of Brazil, and highlights some of the Indigenous communities in the Amazon (Heisey ’23, Moss ’21).

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