California Watch tells difficult story with video, tweets (and text)

Fewer and fewer news outlets can muster the resources to prepare stories like the long, painstakingly reported one about the abuse and rape of a mentally disabled patient published Thursday by the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. But as hard as it may be to muster such resources, it's even harder to get people to read such a difficult tale when you're through.

Readers "don't want to face those conditions," said Ryan Gabrielson, who reported and wrote the story about "Jennifer," a former patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center in California. "I think there's a lot of fear in it. They don’t know how to solve it."

Such stories, CIR senior multimedia producer Carrie Ching agreed, "can be very powerful for the viewer to absorb."

A previous Gabrielson story in California Watch's year-long "Broken Shield" story was likewise a "tough sell" for readers, Ching said, so she and Gabrielson produced a video to accompany the story of Van Ingraham, a severely autistic man whose suspicious death at a different California institution was sloppily investigated by police.

"Jennifer"'s story was different from Ingraham's -- she's still alive, and her family is raising the child who resulted from her rape. They're not identified in Gabrielson's story, so making a video that would serve as an alternate way in to the story would be tricky. "We decided early on against doing an animated version because the subject matter was so heavy," Ching said. They settled on a subtly animated graphic novel-like approach with illustrations by Marina Luz. "It just makes it a little more digestible for viewers," Ching said. "It doesn’t overwhelm them as much."

Gabrielson's text story opens with a hard news lede: "Patients at California’s board-and-care centers for the developmentally disabled have accused caretakers of molestation and rape 36 times during the past four years, but police assigned to protect them did not complete even the simplest tasks associated with investigating the alleged crimes, records and interviews show."

The video, on the other hand, opens by introducing you to "Jennifer": "I think Jenny was 6, 7, 8 months old; I could see something wasn't right, I knew it," says an actor reading a transcript of a Gabrielson interview with "Jennifer"'s mom. That feeling of something not being right pervades the creepy yet beautiful video.

Gabrielson -- who won a Pulitzer for local reporting in 2009 while at the (Mesa, Ariz.) East Valley Tribune -- said he and Ching worked on the script for the video over the five months he reported the story. "It wasn’t siloed at all," he said. He kept Ching up to date on his reporting, and every script she wrote went through Gabrielson and his editor. "I think she did a really beautiful job of working within the restrictions," he said.

The story ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, in the Fresno Bee, in The Daily Beast, and in the (Santa Rosa, Ca.) Press Democrat, said Meghann Farnsworth, CIR's senior manager for distribution and online engagement.

Farnsworth also rolled out the story Thursday afternoon in a series of tweets like this one:


"The goal isn’t necessarily for people to retweet but to follow along and talk with us," Farnsworth said, which is a "different goal" from the organization's usual approach to Twitter engagement.

A hashtag, #brokenshield, did get a little traction on Twitter Thursday.

CIR ran an explainer with links to organizations readers can contact if they want to learn more, plus an infographic. It also took an image from the video and made it the cover image on California Watch's Facebook page, Farnsworth said.

"We do work to make sure regardless of what platform you’re on we make sure that our story is there," Farnsworth said.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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