Calyn Shaw, a second-year student in the journalism program at the University of British Columbia, traveled with his classmates to Brazil in February to study the Guarani, an indigenous tribe in conflict with ranchers who now own their ancestral land. He and two of his classmates, Sam Eifling and Aleksandra Sagan, produced a video for The New York Times to accompany an article about the murder of Nísio Gomes, a Guarani tribal leader. Following the article's publication, the police in Brazil arrested 18 men in connection with the murder. Mr. Shaw spoke recently with The Chronicle. His remarks have been edited for publication.
Q. When did you first hear about Nísio Gomes, and why did you decide to pitch the Guarani as an idea for your class?
A. Our first consideration was to go to the Amazon and to do stories about indigenous rights and land conflict, damming projects, and environmental issues. While we were learning about those things, we started to hear about violent clashes. In a lot of cases around the Amazon, environmental activists trying to protect the rain forest are being assassinated. Then, in November, when we're looking at all of us going to the Amazon, I see the BBC story and The New York Times, just small little pieces about Nísio Gomes being killed. They have a bit of conflicting information, which piques my interest: I wonder what really happened. So I start digging around, and I come across stories from Survival International, one of the NGO's working down there. And as I start to pull on threads of this a little bit, start to unearth the bigger story, it becomes very clear to me that this killing is part of a pattern, part of a string of attacks and violence, ... I think at the time (and obviously have come to learn) that this looks like indigenous people fighting for their rights in a part of Brazil totally different than the Amazon, with different issues, but equally disconcerting.
Q. Why did you think it would be a promising story?
A. As we started to speak to these people, we found that it's far worse than we had expected. These violent clashes are constant, the threats of violence against indigenous people, different groups and the Guarani, are ongoing and targeted. You have a marginalized group, you have violence, you have big money interests, you have an underreported story. And there are the conflicting reports as well. You're intrigued about finding out what actually happened. So it seems promising because you're like, Wow, we have a chance to really get at the truth of the matter.
Q. Were you happy with the article that was published in The New York Times and the way that it presented your video?
A. Yes. As a journalist, for Sam and I especially, we would have liked to have had the opportunity to write the piece, but that's just not how the Times works. I'm not sure it's that different than what we would have written. We worked so closely together, it was much more of a partnership than us doing video and him doing the print piece. We were in constant contact, had a ton of input into what went into the written piece, just like he had a ton of input about what went into the video. They were always meant to be complementary. I was really happy with both elements.
Q. Eliciting such an immediate, real-world response is a goal for many journalists. How do you think journalism programs can learn from your experience?
A. The biggest thing I've learned is that it's really easy to have these things blown out of proportion, to be honest. The first thing that I hope people learn, and the first thing I learned, is that people really, really want to credit you for things when something like this breaks. I was always uncomfortable with the idea that there was a direct line or that we were responsible for the arrests. I hope people look at this and say, Wow, a group of students was on top of this? This is a story that shouldn't have waited this long to be told. I hope that people look at this as a bit of inspiration for doing more of their own reporting like this.