Combining Visuals and Technology into Powerful Journalism

By Sandy K. Johnson

Vivid visual storytelling is critical to today’s journalism, and technology helps journalists deliver it.

Washington Post graphics editors Samuel Granados and Kevin Schaul shared how their team created “The Waypoint,” a compelling project about European refugees that won the National Press Foundation’s Best Use of Technology in Journalism Award.

The story in a nutshell: With most land routes blocked, 1 million refugees fled to Europe in 2015 by sea, many crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, which serves as a gateway to the European mainland. Thousands drowned. The survivors were screened by the U.N. Refugee Agency and funneled to countries that would take them in.

What made this project distinctive is how the Post approached it. Granados and Schaul said they wanted to create an immersive experience as well as a narrative built on the refugees’ emotions. Their ambition was to allow readers to experience what it’s like to be a refugee.

They described the process of doing so in a webinar hosted by NPF (the full video and their how-to slides are and here and here.)

They were driven by a simple statistic: The wave of refugees was so immense that a new one arrived every seven seconds. Granados and other Post staff traveled to Lesbos to do the reporting. In addition to photos and video that they shot, they convinced refugees to share images from their phones, laptops and other devices. They lucked into two Iranian refugees who were photographers and had chronicled their journey. They used dramatic aerial footage taken by the U.N. using a drone.

In the end, the journalists had an overwhelming 40 hours of video to comb through. Schaul built a Google Docs tool that allowed them to rank each visual, which made it easier to focus on the best to tell the story. Then they used Google Docs to organize the visual material under simple text captions.

They also created “branches,” a type of sidebar that readers could choose to follow, or not.

The team also built prototypes and subjected them to user testing by employees across the Post complex, making sure the experience was intuitive.

The payoff? One-third of readers viewed the entire 30-minute project to the end. And Schaul and Granados said the Waypoint template has been used to build several more projects and there is a steady stream of Post journalists clamoring to work with them.

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