Investigative Journalism: Using Animation

Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting

Animation can be used by investigative journalists to reach a wider public, according to Robert Rosenthal. Rosenthal, the Executive Director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR), was speaking in Sydney at the Back to the Source Conference, organised by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. For a media innovator, Rosenthal has spent most of his working life as a newspaper journalist; at the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  One of his first jobs in journalism was at the New York Times, where he worked in a locked backroom, photo copying the Pentagon Papers.

“At the core of everything is the story,” Rosenthal said.

Think about the story  being at the centre of the spokes of a wheel, with every spoke as a [media] platform. You have a team working on that story who can push it out on every platform simultaneously. In that way, you can reach the largest audience possible.

CIR had in house capability to create;

  • broadcast video
  • animation
  • print stores
  • interactive multi-media

CIR last month released the animation, Suspect America, which was a product of an extensive investigative journalism project which examined how police powers had been increased in response the the September 11 attack a decade ago. Its investigative journalists had learned of “suspicious activity” reports prepared by the US Homeland Security Department.  It made Freedom of information requests to police agencies across the United States. One responded by “inadvertently” sending   back 125 police activity reports on the Mall of America. The inquiry found that in one instance, security guards in a shopping mall reported the loss of a mobile phone as a supiscious incident, resulting in a police file being created and an FBI investigation being launched against an elderly Pakistani man and his family.

The story was released with a twenty minute report on National Public Radio, it was picked up by newspapers across the United States, it was pushed out on social media  and the animation placed on Youtube. “Conservatively it reached an audience of five or six million people,” he said.

Animation can simplify a very complex story and get it to an audience that doesn’t want it in long form, that doesn’t listen to public radio or may not watch public television. It gets its information from a completely different place. …We hope it [the animation] might make some of them curious enough to go to other elements of the story.

Credibility remained at the very centre of any investigative journalism. Accuracy was critical. Details of the reports were thoroughly checked on all platforms.

We have all these platforms with different needs. A  radio person might say we need more sound. I need to more sound for a documentary. You need a team approach with trust. Investigative journalists might not want to tell anyone what they are doing, not even their editor. So this is really a different way of doing things.

32  people worked at the CIR, a non profit organisation which was seeking continuing funding from philanthropic organisations. “We are not in any way, loaded with cash”, he said. The animation was created by a freelancer for a fee of US$4000.