News organizations experiment with ‘illustrated storytelling’ — a new way to tell serious stories

When telling stories about sensitive topics, it’s easy to stick with storytelling forms that are familiar. But some news organizations, such as California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have begun experimenting with a new way to tell serious stories — one that involves illustrations, narration and in-depth reporting. Individually, these storytelling forms aren’t new. But combined, they represent what I believe is a new and innovative type of journalism.

A powerful example of this story form

Ryan Gabrielson

One of the most poignant examples of this story form is California Watch’s “In Jennifer’s Room,” which got some attention when it was published last fall.

Investigative reporter Ryan Gabrielson spent a year and a half exposing how California’s developmental centers for the disabled have failed to protect patients from abuse and neglect. In a project called “Broken Shield,” Gabrielson found that “36 documented rapes had occurred at these state facilities in recent years, but the Office of Protective Services didn’t order a single ‘rape kit’ examination.” California Watch discovered the state “failed to conduct even the most basic investigations even when patients die under mysterious circumstances.”

In addition to the large-scale stories about a failed system, Gabrielson wanted to zero in on a single case of a mentally disabled girl named Jennifer who was raped and became pregnant while a patient at one of California’s developmental centers. The case was  settled in civil court, and nobody was criminally charged. The girl’s family didn’t want to be named, and Gabrielson says he didn’t want to name the rape victim. It could have quietly become just another one of the dozens of such cases the public never knew about.

Carrie Ching

CIR Senior Multimedia Producer Carrie Ching recalled the day that Gabrielson sat down with her trying to find a way to tell the story beyond the text-heavy stories that CIR would offer to its newspaper partners around California.

“Ryan explained to me that we had no photos, we had no audio interviews, we had no compelling visuals that we could use,” Ching said in a phone interview. “But we did have an amazing human story to tell and we had to tell it within these limitations.”

“At first I thought we could just do it as an audio story,” Ching said. “We had Ryan’s voice, [and] we could use the things the girl’s mother told us.” Even though the mother didn’t want her own voice to be used, she did share Jennifer’s story, which illustrated how the state was failing its most vulnerable citizens.

“Then we started talking about turning this into an e-book,” Ching said. “So I thought we will need illustrations for the e-book.” That’s when a new idea arose — an idea that has no name yet. “We have called it illustrated storytelling.”

Gabrielson, Ching and illustrator Marina Luz used court documents to piece together Jennifer’s story. (My colleague Sara Quinn interviewed Luz about the project here.) All of the visual elements of the more than 11:45 minute story are told using Luz’s drawings, Gabrielson’s voice and the voice of a female actress portraying what Jennifer’s mother told Gabrielson in interviews.

Even though the story is told through artist’s drawings, “there was very little artistic license,” Ching said. The story includes sketches of injuries Jennifer suffered, and it included drawings of the bedroom where the attack happened. The court records described the bruises on Jennifer’s chest and bite marks on her arm, and the illustrator stuck to the facts in the court records. They had diagrams of the room where Jennifer lived, and tried to replicate the setting.

The sketches used the records to describe the alarms on Jennifer’s door and the configuration of the bedroom. Ching said where the team did not have exact details, the drawings were vague. “We didn’t know what the attacker looked like, so the drawing uses a shadow with no face.” This way, the story doesn’t imply details that could not be proven.

Gabrielson and Ching used more traditional storytelling tools to tell other stories of abuse and even a death in one of the state facilities. That story looked similar to investigative reports for television; it used on-camera interviews, documents and still photos. It included a willing interview subject and plenty of photographs and sketches from official state files. Jennifer’s story was different. Without a new story form, it might well have been relegated to a print-only story.

Mark Katches, editorial director for the Center for Investigative Reporting, said the “illustrated storytelling” style enriched the public’s understanding of the problems at state-run facilities.

“You could watch ‘In Jennifer’s Room’ and learn a lot about the story of what is happening at the Office of Protective Services that is not even in the print story,” Katches said by phone. “Our goal was not just to do a video version of the print story but to go beyond it. Too often you look at the multimedia pieces or accompanying video of big projects and they are redundant.”

Creating the narration

Gabrielson describes himself as a “print guy” who had no formal voice training before Ching started helping him.

“The first thing she did was just told me to tell the story to her,” he said. “I used no script, I just told the story in my own words.”

Then, they scripted some sections of the story and Gabrielson read those parts to fill in sections of the story that were still missing. The technique added a conversational style that you rarely experience when traditional print journalists attempt multimedia storytelling.

Music’s role in the story

“In Jennifer’s Room” uses a lot of background music. It is a style that television reporters, especially investigative reporters, have backed away from in recent years because the music sets an editorial tone. But the California Watch team doesn’t see it that way.

“It is a haunting story,” Ching said.  And the music reflected that.

Listen to a few of the music tracks the team selected for their stories. This one, called “Dangerous Chemistry” was the closing music to the story on the patient’s death. The composer says it is “Great for crime investigation, horror, dark drama, documentary and more. ” The main theme for “In Jennifer’s Room” is this track called “Haunted” from an open source site. “In Jennifer’s Room” also uses a piano interlude called “Winter Sunshine.”

“I think that you set a tone with the music and it did set a tone.” Katches said. “It was chilling and powerful. That is what you want to convey.  It is a heavy subject.”

Other examples of this story form

This “illustrated storytelling” style of journalism has popped up in a handful of ways recently, but most often it includes some form of animation, not simple drawings. During the Olympics, The New York Times used narrated animated to show how fast sprinters have become.

The Center for Investigative Reporting recently produced an animated news feature that explains “Who Owns the Fish” in the oceans. It explains how countries have come up with new controversial rules that governments hope will stop over-fishing. CIR’s The “Hidden Cost of Hamburgers,” looks at the environmental effects of livestock farming.

And NPR’s StoryCorps has produced some moving radio stories with animation added to them. Some of the stories are heavy topics of life and death, war and of love. Some of my favorites are “John and Joe,” “Germans in the Woods” and “Danny and Annie.”

Will they watch?

One of the questions surrounding this type of story form is: Will people actually take the time to watch an illustrated video? The California Watch team grappled with this question while creating “In Jennifer’s Room.”

As it turns out, the video has consistently ranked among the most viewed videos on YouTube’s I-Files investigative reporting site.

“Of the top 20 videos on I-Files, eight of them were produced by our little team of two and a half people,” Ching said.

One California Watch “illustrated storytelling” piece that told the story of the soldier who shot Osama bin Laden, was viewed more than a quarter of a million times on the YouTube iFiles channel. “That video traffic has blown away other web video we have produced,” Ching said.

“If it is a good story, people will stick with it,” Gabrielson says. Even so, Ching said viewers who watched the bin Laden video often stopped watching at the point of the story when bin Laden is killed. “It is like they figure there will be nothing else new and they go away,” Ching said.

The keys to a successful project

Everyone I spoke with at The Center for Investigative Reporting agreed there are two key ingredients to an “illustrated storytelling” project.

Start the conversation early: The team that produced “In Jennifer’s Room” began conversations about the project months before it rolled out to the public. The conversations allowed a time-strapped staff to question every artistic detail and enabled all of the team members to offer ideas about how to tell the story.

Careful reporting is key: Beneath the California Watch Broken Shield project is a year and a half of shoe-leather reporting that exposes a broken system that should have protected vulnerable people. The illustrations help tell the story, but do not take the place of deep careful reporting.

Here’s a related News University Webinar on illustrated journalism.

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  • facebook-547522912

    How completely cut off from the world does the author have to be to not know that animations have been popular in Asia for a few years. We at NMA who do the funny video’s, also turn out more than 10 per day for Reuters, who sells them out overseas. Apple Daily in HKG has more than 13 million video views per day, most with animation. They also are undertaking projects with Medill at NW.

    I know, if it is not said in English it does not count, as the world waits breathlessly for Americans to put their seal of approval on things.

    Folks, I have a teen magazine in HKG that gets more views than CNN or BBC combined.

  • Darryl Holliday

    There are more examples than even I was aware of. My partner and I combine traditional reporting with sequential art over at Our latest interactive comic was for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR:

    Also big fans of Erin and Symbolia, our geographic (and spiritual) neighbor.

  • Ian Hill

    I was about to leave a post on Facebook that said… I recently heard a talk on comics journalism from the editor of Symbolia mag, which is a fascinating project worth checking out – Ha! (Hi Erin!) But we’ve also had comics journalists do explainers on the relationship between water and power in California, and one of Ryan’s former California Watch colleagues did a coloring book on earthquake safety for young students. Illustrated journalism can be engaging work that really has an impact.

  • Robert Knilands

    Not journalism. Too much assumption with little basis in fact.

    “Ching said where the team did not have exact details, the drawings were vague.” Not a surprise. Also, does anyone get exact details?

  • Tracy

    This is just me and my ADD, but honestly I don’t have the patience to watch an 11:45 video. I was bored to death before the first minute. The wirtten word let’s you skip over it easily and get to the heart of the story. I really don’t care how cleverly written, illustrated or narrated it is.. I just want the story. And this one is just badly done, the overly dramatic narration, the distracting music and the child-like drawings.. Sorry. I am not getting on board with this. EVER! I actually think I a video like this does a total disservice to such a serious story.. Maybe for a feature story about a rock band or something.

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  • Adam Bessie

    I was just going to mention your awesome mag, Erin! It’s good to see graphic journalism starting to get the attention it deserves here at Poytner. Great article.

    You can also check my investigative piece on comix/illustrated journalism from 2 years back, at Truthout, including interviews with some pioneers:

    Also, my interactive graphic report on education reform with the talented graphic journo Dan Archer, who has published work here (now in Nepal reporting):

  • John Broholm

    Precedent for “In Jennifer’s Room” goes way back. The Newark Star-Ledger did a comic strip based on the Lindbergh kidnap/murder case; it was less lurid than much of the news coverage. The purpose of course was a bit different from California Watch’s.

    I used to have the whole reproduced comic — now missing — but bless the Star-Ledger, it has posted some of the series.

  • Erin Polgreen

    Love this kind of creative storytelling. We’re merging comics, illustration and journalism on the iPad at

    I also produced a Poynter NewsU Webinar on editorial strategies for bringing illustrated storytelling into the newsroom last April: