Bernardo Motta – Submitted photo

Can you please give us some of your background. We understand you are a native of Brazil and were an environmental lawyer before becoming a journalist. So what led you to leave the practice of law and become a journalist – and journalism professor at Roger Williams University

Yes. That’s about 30 years of my life of an answer, but I will try to be succinct. I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. I first went to law school, which is a bachelor degree program in Brazil. I knew I didn’t want to be a practicing attorney and that I liked researching and writing. During law school, I started taking many electives (maybe too many) in topics related to the environment, such as environmental geography, engineering, economics, sociology, etc. At that time, the internet had just started in Brazil in 1994 and by 1996, I was already producing an email newsletter and something that didn’t have a name but it would likely be considered a blog nowadays. I shared those with a few politicians who were working on environmental issues in Rio and nationally. For some reason, they started engaging with it and discussing those issues with me and my very tiny audience. 

As I was near graduation and working on law internships, I decided that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer. I saw too much corruption and couldn’t see the law as a way to make things better, just worse. After graduation I started to rethink everything and finding a way forward. A judge told me then that I wrote like a journalist (as a compliment) and that the bureaucracy would be much better if every lawyer learned how to do that. I started learning photography and thinking about writing books. Eventually, in a conversation with my mother, she said “why don’t you try journalism?” It hit me like truck. Everything I was already doing was a perfect match, so I went back to school to learn how to do things properly. From there, I followed the jobs and studies I needed to be better in what I do all the way to a Ph.D. program in Communication and Information at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

I was looking for jobs at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, right during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hit the U.S. I eventually got a job at a lovely tiny college in Virginia, stayed there for six years, and moved to Florida to be the director of the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. After five years there, when I was supposed to apply for tenure, the higher ups at USF decided to reunite the three USF campuses and change the rules for tenure while also making my community-oriented campus a research-intensive university. I started looking for a job and my now colleagues at RWU were looking to revamp the journalism program by adding new approaches and even more hands-on experiences. I proposed a better and more well-rounded version of the NNB, which is now called Communities of Hope Civic Media. That’s about it, 30 years in three paragraphs.

On the Roger Williams website, you list several areas of interest and expertise. Let’s get into some of them, starting with environmental justice journalism. Tell us about that.

For a very long time, I have watched people in Indigenous, small, poor, migrant and communities out of the mainstream (people of color in the most of the west, but in many other countries they can be a different ethnicities or cultures) carry all the burden of environmental damage, while also watching that, almost every time, the same communities being the best at taking care of the environment. The worst part has been watching mainstream media propagate environmental “solutions” that result in genocide or, at a bare minimum, displacement of those communities. In my view, those stories are the true environmental and climate stories. We cannot report on environmental issues without reporting on those who pay the price for bad political, economic and social decisions. Solutions that result in the end of a local community and culture is not a solution but the very cause of the problem. Journalists, especially those reporting on the environment and climate, need to understand that complexity. The same social structures that destroy the environment also make people poorer, disenfranchised, erased, and forgotten. Reporting on any economic, political, or social issue related to environmental and climate issues and not reporting on those who are most affected by it is just bad journalism. In that way, I don’t believe there is environmental journalism, only environmental justice journalism. Some people may write about having fun in the outdoors, but that’s nature writing, not environmental reporting. I have been doing this for 30 years and have never seen an actual environmental story that does not include an injustice issue against a group of people.  We just need to do our work and find them.

What about social justice journalism? Community-driven humanistic journalism

Community-driven journalism and social justice journalism are part of the humanistic approach to journalism. It’s a journalism focused on the human being and the processes that affect them. Community-driven, community-powered, community-centered approaches include the community, however the outlet defines it, as the primary beneficiary of the reporting we do. In that way, instead of presumptuously making assumptions about what matters to the community, we conduct community needs assessments, information ecology analyses, and many listening sessions to learn directly from the community members’ what their priorities, needs and concerns are. Then, we use our journalism skills to go get that information and bring back to the community. Social justice is, for me, the anchor and direction, the beginning and end. I work with my colleagues and students to serve the communities that have been harmed, misled, mischaracterized, erased or forgotten by the mainstream media and try to provide them with the best journalism we can produce. I like to say that we fold the margins on top of the center, making them not only central to the reporting, but the leaders of the conversation about their own needs and priorities and not just subjects on other people’s mouths.

And freedom of the press? And community-right-to-know laws? 

Freedom of the press is an essential condition of democracy. An uninformed public cannot be in charge of a country’s government and it is easily misled and manipulated. My interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution based on the historic letters of the framers of the Constitution is that the press works as a substitute to the public’s presence in governmental affairs, allowing the public to have both access to the decision-making process but also in translating that legalese and political gibberish into clear and accessible language. That’s why freedom of the press is separated from freedom of speech (or freedom of expression). It’s not only a right to print anything without prior restraint, it is a right to access all governmental dealings and discussions, so the boss (the public) knows what their representatives are doing with their mandates. An elected politician, even the president, has no power of their own. All the powers in a democracy derive from the will of the people. 

 Community-right-to-know laws is an invention of the United States of America that never caught up here, but are specific types of laws that require private organizations and companies to inform the government and local communities about issues that may affect them, such as the potential for toxic and hazardous materials being released into the environment, such as the Emergency Plan and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). That allows all three parties (public, corporation, and government) to work together on preventive measures and, what’s even better, finding better ways to produce materials using non-toxic or non-hazardous materials.

What do your students tell you about why they are studying journalism? 

 Although it can vary a lot, most students who come to me are looking into either investigative or community-driven and solutions-oriented journalism, most often including environmental issues. We also get students interested in sports and in broadcast journalism, and some in photojournalism. Many of them tell me they want to make a difference by informing the public of the things the public really needs to know and they really like the humanistic, community-driven and solutions-oriented approach we use. They are tired of the commercial media’s infotainment and want to be part of something that actually matters to make things better.

 What percent do you think will go into the field

 For the journalism students, almost all of them. I do teach in other areas, but journalism students tend to go into journalism or some variation of media production. I can’t speak for all journalism students elsewhere or for communication and public relations students. There are plenty of well-paying jobs in the field if you are not looking specifically for traditional commercial media. Those jobs are rare and don’t pay well. However, if you are looking for engaged journalism, civic media, native-digital investigative nonprofits, and other niche outlets, the field is as a good as ever. 

Where do they intend to work – newspapers, broadcast, websites, etc.? 

They are all prepared to be multimedia and multi-platform journalists, so most of them just want a job in which they can serve their communities and be paid fairly for their work. I don’t see any trends on which particular medium they want to work with. Students’ preferences vary, but I haven’t noticed any predominant trend. 

We live in an era of rampant disinformation. What can journalists – and non-journalists – do to combat that? On a related note, in this time when social media is so prevalent, what do you recommend to people who are seeking truthful, fact-driven reporting? 

First, take a step back from social media. They are not conducive to nuanced or productive conversations. People can still use them to see dogs and cats, but if they want to be informed they should first look for books, long-form podcasts and articles, and for documentaries produced by journalists or filmmakers working with researchers and journalists. Then, focus on local news outlets. Check your community media and see if there’s one that cares about representing you and your loved ones and serve you with useful and practical information about civics and daily life stuff. You can also check a specialized media outlet if you like a specific topic, such as environmental justice or finances. If you want to learn about national and global issues or politics, pick NOT the news source you agree with, but the one that gives you the better description of the issue. Then, compare that information with other respected news outlets (whether they cater to your political views or not). The point is to always use multiple news sources and compare how they explain their reporting.

It sounds a like a lot of work, but we live in a difficult and complex world, and we cannot force simple answers into complex issues. I also believe that the more you learn about different topics, the more you want to learn. Curiosity is a practice just like any other and wisdom is how you practice your curiosity over time.

We also live at a time when many legacy newspapers have disappeared or become “ghost papers,” leaving many municipalities and regions news deserts. What can be done about this? 

Civic media and digital community-centered outlets are becoming more and more common. Many of those are partnerships with universities, but many are put together by journalists and other people who realized someone needs to inform their communities about what is happening around them. The more people are present in public meetings and other governmental affairs, the less corruption happens.  

And do you see non-profit news outlets (such as ours), which are proliferating in Rhode Island and across the U.S., as at least part of the future? 

Yes, a meaningful part. I have been observing nonprofit newsrooms since the early 2000s and they bring a few great advantages in comparison to traditional commercial media as they can be mission-driven and they serve those who cannot afford to pay for access or don’t have access for other reasons. However, the main thing we need to fix for the future of news is funding. Expecting billionaires and charitable foundations to fund journalism is a bad plan altogether. For now, they are necessary and essential, but we need to invest more and more in the sustainability of the local news, not growth. We need more collaboratives, like they created in New Jersey, funded with a variety of sources, including government’s funds. Traditional U.S. journalists have been educated to think governmental funds are a devil’s deal, but when operated independently, such as the way cooperatives work, it is the opposite of that. Most people served by the best news outlets out there in the community and civic media world cannot afford news. There is no other funding system that will allow them to get essential information about services and public affairs that will not be compromised. For-profit news rarely, if ever, try to cater to those who can’t buy or subscribe to their products. When public funds are allocated to the service these outlets are already doing, it frees them from investing too much of their time into going after grants and donations and allow them to do their jobs much better, including more people in the mix of informed public we need to run a community and even a country.