Behind the scenes of a murder investigation that mobilised 230 journalists all over Brazil
We talked to Thiago Reis, data journalist at G1 — the digital news component of the biggest Brazilian media group Globo — and coordinator of Monitor da Violência, about their project investigating murders in Brazil. Monitor da Violência won the public choice award at the Data Journalism Awards 2018.
Almost 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil last year. To put this number into perspective, around 25,000 were murdered in Mexico and 18,000 in the US. The motives behind the huge amount of killings in Brazil are often unknown and the many victims forgotten all too quickly.
To see what’s driving the violence, humanise the data, and appeal to the government for action, G1 journalists teamed up with a university and an NGO to embark on a huge, nationwide investigation into the deaths: Monitor da Violência.
One project within Monitor da Violência tracked all murders that occurred in Brazil over the course of one week. The massive investigation took place between 21–27 August 2017 and involved 230 journalists from 55 affiliated newsrooms all over the country. They discovered that that there was one murder every eight minutes. This amounts to a staggering total of 1,195 deaths in one week, painting a gloomy picture of a country where a man can be murdered for a debt of $20, domestic disputes can escalate into violent killings, and data surrounding police killings is hard to find.
We talked to Thiago Reis, data journalist at G1, about how to successfully collaborate with 230 journalists, how to report on murder while respecting the privacy of victims, and we looked at the biggest surprises that sprung from the data.
The below are extracts from a conversation between Thiago Reis and the Global Editors Network. Edited for clarity and brevity.
Newsrooms, universities, and NGOs make a good team
In his research, Bruno Paes Manso, a journalist and researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of Sao Paolo, found that G1 was publishing masses of articles regarding violence in Brazil, but the texts often did not explore the significance of the events or draw connections between events happening locally. He approached G1 with a proposal to set up a collaboration between academics and journalists to shed more light on the violence unfolding in the country. The Brazilian Forum of Public Security, one of the most respected NGOs in the country, also jumped on board.
Communicating with 230 journalists
Reis told us that one of the biggest challenges of the project was to coordinate such a huge number of journalists. An essential early step was to contact each of the journalists individually in advance to help them understand the dynamics of the process and to get everybody on the same page. He stressed that journalists had to gather as much information as possible about every case and visit the locations of the crime whenever they could.
A taskforce in São Paulo
A taskforce was also set up in São Paulo with journalists from almost all areas of the newsroom: culture, economy, international, education. They served as a bridge between Reis and the 55 affiliated newsrooms, collected data from the 230 journalists involved in the local investigations, and filled in the spreadsheet. Throughout this period, Reis had to standardise the fields of the spreadsheet and constantly reorganise the data. He counted on the help of the G1 production coordinator, Athos Sampaio, who also assisted in the communication with the newsrooms. According to Reis, this dynamic was fundamental to the project’s success.
Reis told us that it was difficult to guarantee that there were no victims missing, so the journalists carried out double, sometimes triple, checks with various sources including morgues, police stations, prosecutors, legal medical institutes, associations, and NGOs.
Even after the end of the project week, the G1 teams all over the country continued to check the data, urging the government to confirm the numbers and asking whether they had registered all of the victims.
‘It was tireless work, which took almost a month to be completed’, said Reis.
It was particularly difficult to obtain data in certain states, such as Pará in the north of Brazil, due to its size and lack of transparency. Reis told us that after publication, about 85% of the cases in this region did not contain all the information required, including race, the exact address of the crime, or even the name of the victim. The work to fill those gaps is still being completed now, one year after the release date of the project.
Designing the project
The art team participated in all stages of the project, from conception, production, and data tabulation, to completion.
G1 published a story about each of the 1,195 deaths, which included an interactive map built using Carto to show where the crime took place, as well as a photo of the victim.
On top of this, the journalists shot a video featuring relatives of the victims and a Q&A was published with questions from readers. Most readers wanted to know if the large number of deaths was due to the size of the country. While Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, it has more homicides per year in total than the four larger countries, which include Russia, Canada, China, and the United States.
The project is still ongoing and updates are made whenever a new development relating to the 1,195 murders unfolds.
Help from the public and government
TV and web campaigns were launched, which encouraged the public to help the journalists identify some of the victims.
‘But the most impressive thing is that the governments themselves, when they saw the campaigns, decided to go after the information and give us the names and the age or further data as well.’ said Reis.
Nobody is immune to violence
- Some of the results were expected, such as young people being the main group vulnerable to violence, two thirds of the victims being brown or black, and most crimes happening at night.
- What was more surprising was that the victims ranged from a 2 month old baby to a 112 year-old man.
‘No one is immune to violence’, said Reis.
- The large number of premeditated and well-planned executions among the recorded deaths also caught the team’s attention.
- The state of Ceará recorded the highest number of deaths during the chosen week. At the end of 2017, the team found that there was a 50% increase in the number of homicides in this region compared to the previous year.
- The data also showed a worrying escalation in the number of women killed by their husbands or ex-boyfriends throughout the country.
Pushing for government action and accountability
One of the main objectives of the Monitor da Violência was to analyse the violence epidemic in Brazil, push for transparency and more action from the government. Besides the journalistic aspect of the work, the project seeks to push for social change and reduce the alarming number of homicides in Brazil.
Two and a half months after the 1,195 deaths, the 230 journalists did a follow up and mapped the progress of each of the murder inquiries. New filters were applied to the map and new analyses were published.
Six months after the investigation, the journalists focused on the 126 women murdered during the week, and found that only one of the cases went to trial.
Reis told us that a new stage of data will also be collected in August, one year after the beginning of the project, to show how many of the cases have been concluded, how many people have been arrested, and which cases have made it to court.
The project reached a total audience of almost 1 million views and it has become a reference for discussions about violence in Brazil. When it was first launched, it was the opening subject of Jornal Nacional, on TV Globo, the leading broadcast news programme in the country.
Respecting the victim’s right to privacy whilst shedding light on the crimes
From the beginning, the idea was for the project not to focus only on numbers. Reis told us that they wanted to move readers by showing faces, telling stories, and humanising statistics.
Concerning the privacy of the families, Reis said that reporting on suicide was the most difficult, as it is still a taboo. The families affected by this wanted to remain discrete, so the team had to take care not to expose any gratuitous information. It was then decided on a case by case basis whether it was necessary to include photos of the victims.
Managing the emotional load
‘It is very hard to carry out this kind of project’, said Reis. ‘Journalists usually become cold in circumstances like this. But the victims are not just numbers in a table with multiple fields. There is no way of not getting involved in their stories. I have two small children (a two year-old and a five year-old) and I remember being moved when separating the pictures to insert on the project webpage and seeing a boy with a pacifier among the victims of violence. This simple image made me realise the importance of talking about this subject and exposing this cruel reality’.