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Last week, I watched an interview with the SEAL Team Six officer who shot and killed Osama bin Laden. For eighteen minutes, I was glued to my computer screen as the soldier explained his mission and contemplated what it had done to him.

“Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done?” he asked.

When the video ended, I didn’t know the soldier’s name. I hadn’t heard his voice or seen his face. Instead, I’d spent eighteen minutes looking at monochromatic sketches of soldiers as an actor read from a transcript of the interview.

This highly stylized interpretation of events is the furthest thing from the kind of journalism we’re used to seeing on the nightly newscast. But maybe that’s a good thing.

“The Shooter” is what the Center for Investigative Reporting calls “graphic nonfiction.” They launched the video last year to accompany a feature article that was published in Esquire. The video got a quarter of a million hits.

The soldier in the piece couldn’t be identified, and there were few visuals. As a reporter who has often been on the receiving end of an editor’s skepticism, I’ve had to abandon stories I knew were good, but that didn’t fit the trusted journalistic mould.

Now, instead of ditching stories, journalists are simply finding new ways to tell them.

Illustrated storytelling—like the Tyee’s “Fostering Truth” or the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “In Jennifer’s Room“—allows journalists to protect their sources, while still producing deeply researched investigative pieces. These are stories that might be overlooked because they’re too sensitive or difficult to pull off.

“We had no photos, we had no audio interviews, we had no compelling visuals that we could use,” “In Jennifer’s Room” producer Carrie Ching told Poynter last year. “But we did have an amazing human story to tell, and we had to tell it within these limitations.”

Instead of allowing those limitations to dictate the story, Ching and reporter Ryan Gabrielson worked with an artist to create a world that was true, even if it wasn’t an exact replica. What the audience gets is a sense of how it feels to be abused as a disabled person with no agency.

New technologies and techniques aren’t reinventing journalism. They’re not making journalists more dedicated or the reporting more in-depth. But the use of animation (like the use of data visualization and multimedia) is extending the boundaries and letting more great stories in.

Although the use of animation in journalism is getting more notice these days, graphic storytelling has been around since the early 1800s. One of the first people to use graphics to depict news was political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who wrote for Harper’s. (For a full history of graphic journalism, check out this cool comic.)

Now, NPR and the New York Times are trying it.

“It’s like sugar-coating a vitamin,” wrote Ching in Poynter. “Bringing to light serious, important issues is still the goal. But we can borrow from comedy, mystery novels, art—yes, even entertainment—to make it more appealing.”

But making stories more appealing can also trivialize serious issues, because it substitutes ease for accuracy. Without video or photographic evidence, journalists have more space to interpret and philosophize, rather than truly report.

Not every story should be told through animation. But to have the option and the ability to get an audience to care about someone they haven’t seen or heard is a powerful thing. Journalists no longer need to let the tools they have dictate what kind of stories they tell. Now, they’re creating the tools to serve the story.

Image via the Center for Investigative Reporting

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