How Words, Images, and Malaria Came Together in National Geographic

“It begins with a bite, a painless bite.” So starts “Bedlam in the Blood,” the July 2007 National Geographic cover story about malaria that won the 120-year-old magazine a 2008 National Magazine Award for photojournalism. The online story includes illuminating field notes from photographer John Stanmeyer and writer Michael Finkel, but how does a feature like this come about and come together? We asked National Geographic editor-in-chief Chris Johns:

This story is one that I wanted to do quite badly. I’ve had malaria. Twice. The second time quite seriously. I’d run into Patty Stonesifer at the Gates Foundation [where she has served as chief executive officer since 1997], and a story like that requires a period of percolation. You’ve really got to think creatively: How are we going to tell this story and make it fascinating and interesting? So it’s not a lecture, it’s a real story about real people and a real problem, but a problem that does definitely have a solution.

….From the outset, the team starts to talk about how they can tell this story in a way that will be incredibly exciting to readers. Then they will work in concert on mapping, on information graphics, on photographic coverage, knowing that there are some parts of the story that will make extremely strong passages of text but may not make such strong pictures and vice-versa, some of the pictures may be incredibly powerful yet might not be as inclined to have that power with the written word.

For more on how it’s done at National Geographic, see our full interview with Johns on

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