Writing an opinion piece is harder than I could have ever imagined. When I was a teenager in high school, dreaming of becoming a journalist, I used to read the opinion section and think, “This is what I want to be – a columnist. I will have my own space, my ideas will be printed, and it’s as easy as writing a school essay.”
Poor me, I couldn’t be more mistaken about it. I found myself, 15 years later, struggling to write that someone should do something in one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. In my case, I wrote that the United States should pass legislation halting the import of commodities related to deforestation, following the legislation that should be approved in Europe this spring. That is the topic of my editorial piece for The Boston Globe, the very first opinion article I have ever written. You can check it out here (and I’d love to hear the thoughts of the blog readers on that).
I have spent the past decade reporting and writing about a wide range of subjects: female rights, arts and entertainment, politics, environmental issues, and a pandemic. I have always investigated things extensively without taking stances on any subject. To be honest, I don’t even like tweeting – I have always thought that I’m a reporter, and the best I can do is report.
Throughout all those years, I gave voice to so many people but never to myself. Allowing myself to make a point felt empowering, giving me a sense of an accomplished mission. I can’t say how grateful I feel for getting the chance to explore that kind of writing. It might have spoiled me forever, as I now feel that I do have a say in everything – just kidding!
But let me tell you all how it happened. First of all, I have to remark on two special people in this process: the Globe editors Jim Dao and Alan Wirzbicki. They were the most respectful of my work and thoughtfully guided me through this process. I’ll always be impressed by their ability to polish the most confusing ideas as if they could instinctively see a shining jewel through a pile of mud. That’s the beauty of talent and experience coming together.
Before coming to the US for the fellowship, I was working for The Washington Post in Brazil, with the bureau chief Terrence McCoy. We spent a whole year investigating the forces and businesses leading to deforestation and human rights violations in the Amazon rainforest for an investigative series. Needless to say, the Amazon is a crucial environment not only for those who live in the forest but also for the whole planet – and this is the topic I care about the most in my life.
I was already in the States, preparing to start the fellowship, when the independent news organization Sumaúma denounced the Yanomami genocide in the Roraima state: 570 children died in the indigenous land after a health collapse during the past four years. It’s a complex humanitarian crisis, but in short, it was caused by the presence of illegal miners in the territory and government neglect.
I have never felt so powerless in my whole life. What could I do so far away from my own country? I spent several minutes talking about the Yanomami genocide to Jim Dao in our first meeting and how the commodities sourced in the Amazon – like the gold mined in the indigenous territory – are connected to the American markets.
I don’t know if he could feel the sense of urgency in my words, but he came up with a better framing for all the ideas I presented to him. He advised me that editorial pieces look for solutions to problems, and they have to make a point for a change. For example, Jim said, I could write a piece in favor of one legislation.
After the meeting, I began researching and discovered a project in the Senate that addresses these issues: the FOREST Act Bill. I did further research, reached out to the sponsor’s office, and contacted several environmental advocacy groups and experts, in the US and Brazil. At this point, I got help from a fundamental person: Drew Story, managing director of MIT Policy Lab. Besides being a kind colleague, Drew has large experience in Washington and helped me connect with Sen. Brian Schatz’s office. Big thanks to Drew!
It turns out that writing an opinion also requires extensive reporting and careful editing. And, as with everything else in journalism, it’s only possible thanks to the contributions of many, many people.
Writing opinion has been a transformative process. Typically, when I’m reporting, I tend to only shed light on problems and not necessarily think about solutions to them. Writing an opinion is an experience that has been developing a solution-driven approach in my journalistic practice, which can be quite useful in these times when we need to regain the trust of our readers.
I often hear from non-journalist friends that they avoid reading the news because it’s always bad news. I don’t judge them, especially since the past few years have been difficult for us, with crises coming from all directions and a deadly pandemic. Devoting part of our reporting and writing process to evaluating solutions to a problem could be an antidote to that repelling feeling towards journalism.