Brazilian reporters face challenges to cover largest environmental disaster in the country's history

Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.

Six months ago, 50 million tons of toxic waste was spilled into the Doce River from an iron ore mine in the city of Mariana in "the worst environmental disaster Brazil has ever seen," as qualified by President Dilma Rouseff, according to DW. The spill killed 19 people and destroyed the Bento Rodrigues district in the state of Minas Gerais.

Nearly six months later, the disaster still makes it to the Brazilian news pages every week while little apparently has been done to clean the river basin. Only last month, mining company Samarco, controlled by Vale and BHP Billiton, was fined with R$1.2 billion (approximately US$ 31.7 million).

After the dam broke, the waters of the Doce River, which supplies water to several cities and has a great economic importance to the region, turned a deep brown.

The volume of the mud that came from the dam administered by Samarco is almost two times bigger than the second largest dam disaster that occurred in 1992 in the Philippines, according to numbers from Bowker Associates Science & Research in the Public Interest reported by Agência Brasil. The toxic substances reached as far as 372 miles and restitution of losses is estimated by the consultant to be at $5.2 billion.

“The Regência sea is still closed for bathing, fishing remains prohibited, residents of some cities are afraid to drink the water that comes from there, even after treated. In other words, the people who lived on the river remain without means of support and with uncertainty about the recovery of the basin,” said reporter Flávia Mantovani, who helped with extensive coverage by Brazilian news site G1, to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Journalist Mantovani recalled that both media and society initially did not know how to deal with the tragedy.

“No one knew it would become the largest ecological disaster in the history of the country. In the early days, no one could tell where the mud would go, if it was or was not toxic, the damage it would cause,” Mantovani said. “There was a lot of misinformation, speculation, technical questions, disagreements among experts. Once this became clear, the coverage gained more breadth.”

With G1, Mantovani was able to use different tools to report facts. The main element, she recalls, was real-time coverage. On the page “Doce River: the mud path”, she posted photos, videos, short stories and quotes. Everything was done from her phone, via Twitter.

“This allowed us to take advantage of a lot of things, not necessarily giving it the treatment of a traditional story,” she said. “Much of our content has just been published [on the page dedicated to real-time coverage], with hooks for pictures and stories that we discovered on the spot. We also wrote some reports on site and a special feature which were published after returning, but the focus at the time was really on the real-time page”.

Another resource used by the reporter were 360º videos, a new technology explored in Mariana. For that, her team chose to film the city of Barra Longa, one of the most destroyed by the accident.

“We thought it made sense to use the tool and that it would add to the coverage,” she said.

Mantovani’s stories were focused on the human tragedy, loss of homes and lives. She recalled that one of the most emotional moments for her was when one of the former residents of Bento Rodrigues found a family picture in the mud. For her, the individual stories represented the tragedy, how an environmental disaster changed the lives of ordinary people.

“We interviewed many people who had their lives transformed after the dam break: a farmer who lost his island full of fruit trees, the fisherman who wept when he saw the dead fish, the surfer who could not take the child to the sea, the native-Brazilians who mourned the loss of their "sacred river", the family who struggled to care for the disabled child without water in a favela, the inhabitant of Bento Rodrigues who lost his mother and house...”

Mantovani's coverage received the Journalism and Sport Award 2015 from Globo.

Criticism for some coverage

Media coverage, in general, has received criticism from some academics. Karina Gomes, journalism professor at the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP) in the region where the disaster occurred, said the media played a role in the apparent impunity of those responsible. She said important names were not mentioned during coverage.

“For me, [the media] demanded very little. And still do. [The media] didn’t question enough the reason why no arrests were made, why the investigation is suspended, why the causal chain has not been established, yet,” Gomes told the Knight Center. “The Ministry of Mines and Energy barely appeared as an actor, as did the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM). The mining company Samarco was able to armor itself, and, as it didn’t answer questions, it seemed to be left alone by the press, which was a mistake.”

Frederico Tavares, also a journalism professor at UFOP, does not see consistency in the coverage five months after the disaster. He says that the lack of questioning reflects the spirit of the city where the tragedy occurred.

“The city lives with the feeling of economic uncertainty, much more than with the urge for justice. It is an inversion of the real meaning and consequences of what is behind the tragedy,” he said to the Knight Center. “In the end, the winners and losers are always the same. I hope it does not turn out this way again.”

The disaster took place on Nov. 5, 2015, but according to professor Gomes, the initial response was timid, mostly because there were no identified victims. One of the other main issues, she said, was the lack of official information that left space for rumors and incorrect stories. However, Tavares noted that once the massive reporting teams were sent to the region, the coverage changed.

“The city was completely taken over by journalists and media vehicles from various parts of Brazil and even from around the world. I believe they were ‘proportional’ in relation to the apparatus that was set up in the city for a few weeks (three at least), which does not mean they have managed to capture the tragedy in its particularities, as it can be said that the coverage, overall, was quite standard,” professor Tavares said.

For Tavares, the response was not only late, it also failed to rightfully provide a dimension of the environmental tragedy. Elements like the background of the spill were lacking, he said.

Gomes believes that the late response was not a result of caution from the press, but of the overall unpreparedness of the government.

“I do not advocate the idea of ​​caution since from the beginning it was clear that it was a major disaster. Alone, the disappearance of Bento Rodrigues and the razing of neighboring communities, carrying away ways of life, heritage, memories, it should have been a reason for higher initial engagement. It should be pointed out, too, that one of the difficulties determining the significance of the tragedy had to do with disorganization of local institutions,” she pointed out.

Another element that got in the way of coverage were the terrorist attacks in Paris that happened a week later and grabbed media attention, causing an uprising in social media. For Tavares, it was clear that foreign news was treated as more important.

Both Tavares and Gomes highlight as exemplary the coverage of regional news media, such as newspapers O Tempo and O Estado de Minas, as well as independent national outlets such as Agência PúblicaJornalistas Livres and Brasil de Fato.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.