The use of animation to tell an investigative story is something that is relatively new here at the Center for Investigative Reporting. But it’s a form of nontraditional storytelling that fits into our strategy of telling stories on multiple platforms with the goal of reaching a wide and diverse audience – and delivering the story in the form readers enjoy and are most comfortable with.

We released a major investigative project on Wednesday in collaboration with NPR and PBS’ “NewsHour.” It had all the elements of our collaborative model: print, radio and broadcast reports; exclusive documents made available in DocumentCloud; a transparent description by CIR’s homeland security reporter, G.W. Schulz, of how we produced the story; interactive multimedia; stand-alone online video; and maps. But until about a month ago, we did not have animation.

That’s when CIR Senior Multimedia Producer Carrie Ching stepped up. Ching had produced a highly successful animation several months ago working with reporter Sarah Terry-Cobo and illustrator Arthur Jones called, “The Price of Gas.” The animation flew across the web and brought CIR’s brand and journalism to new audiences. It has since been nominated for an Online News Association award.

What captured my attention were three things: the large audience it attracted (more than 92,074 views), how many other websites wanted to use it (from Time magazine to Rolling Stone and Mother Jones) and the simple, yet complicated story it told. The animation told an investigative story with just the right touch of humor.

Ching’s challenge working with Jones, who is based in New York, on the “Suspect America” animation was to present a deep investigative story on which CIR reporters Schulz and Andrew Becker had spent a year, including five months with NPR. She was able to distill it into a four-minute video. Ching consolidated the endless documents, data and interviews down to a script that was more lighthearted than our main investigation but preserved the credibility and accuracy of the original report. The idea was that we wanted the animation to let a potentially different audience know that suspicious activity reports exist and that they might be relevant to their lives.

“With animation, we were able to break the reporting down and simplify the storytelling – we could use humor and wit, which journalists normally shy away from,” Ching said. “I think people are hungry for smart journalism that’s also compelling to watch and stylistically sharp. So far, it’s been a great success.”

Jones said: “Animation takes tough subject matter and makes it seem less daunting. It’s also an easy way of editorializing content to make the message of a story more immediately coherent to a wide audience.”

All of us at CIR also think it worked. We hope the animation will create enough curiosity for audiences that may not have read, heard or seen any of the other elements of our homeland security investigation with NPR to click through our video and find those pieces on our America’s War Within website. We hope you’ll take a look and let us know what you think. Leave a comment below or tweet us with the hashtag #undersuspicion.

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Robert J. Rosenthal

Robert J. Rosenthal is the chief executive officer at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Rosenthal was the executive director of CIR from January 2008 to spring 2017. When he joined CIR, it had a staff of seven and when he left, it had a staff of nearly 70 and was recognized as one of the leading nonprofit newsrooms in the country. He is an award-winning journalist and worked for some of the most respected newspapers in the country, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosenthal worked for 22 years at The Inquirer, starting as a reporter and eventually becoming its executive editor in 1998. He became managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2002 and left in 2007. During this time, he led the investigation into the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. That work became known as the award-winning Chauncey Bailey Project. Before joining The Inquirer in 1979, Rosenthal worked for six years as a reporter at The Boston Globe and three and a half years at The New York Times, where he was a news assistant on the foreign desk and an editorial assistant on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon Papers project. As a reporter, Rosenthal won numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club Award for magazine writing, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for distinguished foreign correspondence and the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Third World reporting. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting and was a Pulitzer judge four times. He has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rosenthal is also currently advising or on the board of multiple journalism nonprofits. In 2018, Rosenthal was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists for his “extraordinary contribution to the profession of journalism.”