Credit: Alexander Roman for Reveal

We’re big fans of animated GIFs at Reveal and understand their potential value for news organizations. Beyond their excellence at demonstrating cats’ fear of cucumbers, visual loops can convey a wealth of information or explain complex scenarios in a succinct, compelling way. For a good breakdown on the explanatory power of the GIF – and why it’s so effective – read Lena Groeger’s excellent piece for ProPublica.

With new Reveal investigations, we look for opportunities to create visual loops that help articulate key facts and concepts. The goal is to make standalone GIFs that can travel on social media and help tell a story on their own. Take, for instance, our GIF showing Oklahoma’s explosion of earthquakes:


Or our map that demonstrates how early rains last December fueled California’s devastating fire season:

grass (2)

We even used visual loops from our animated Post Script series to explain some surprising facts about caffeine:


Christoph Steger, assistant professor of animation at the California College of the Arts, also shares a fondness for the GIF and for animated stories that matter. That’s why we’ve teamed up with him and ENGAGE at CCA on a new class called Animated Investigations, a course that pairs CCA students’ work with our investigative reporting.

Over the course of this semester, CCA students from a variety of disciplines are studying the relationship between journalism and the visual arts with guidance and assignments sourced from Reveal. Our goal is to explore innovative approaches to visual storytelling that can help journalism reach audiences in new ways.

For the class’s first assignment, students were instructed to pick any story on the Reveal website and create a series of visual loops that spoke to the themes in the piece. One of the key challenges was to convey a narrative through a sequence of images.

The results are delightful. From flying pigs to animated strawberry emojis, students produced a slew of experimental and story-based visuals that interpret our investigations in a new light.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Victor Chien animated scenes from our investigation of how a Chinese national made off with sensitive information from a U.S. counterterrorism site:


Alexander Roman illustrated colorful interpretations of surveillance from our look at how police are using facial recognition technology:


Jonathan Casanova animated key facts from our sobering look at groundwater use in California:


And Lindsay Lemoi illustrated the prehistoric depths to which Californians are going for groundwater:


You can see the full results of students’ work on the Animated Investigations Tumblr page, which will house more assignments from the class in the coming weeks.

For their final assignment, students are creating their own original animation based on a Reveal story or their own research. We’ll showcase their creations Dec. 10 at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland, along with a variety of local and international animated documentaries. Admission is free, so join us if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area. RSVP here and stay tuned for more updates from the classroom.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Cole Goins is the director of community engagement for Reveal, where he cultivates partnerships that blend in-depth journalism and creative public engagement. He has built and supported distribution networks, spearheaded arts-based initiatives such as the Off/Page Project, led social media and audience strategy, and facilitated statewide media collaborations. He was a senior fellow in the 2015 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowships, mentoring five journalists on approaches to community engagement. Previously, Goins was the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where he led audience development initiatives and multimedia features for award-winning investigative projects. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked as music director for WXYC, the student-run radio station. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.