The CIR Is On It: Telling the Story of Solitary Confinement for Teens Over, and Over, and Over Again

CIR the boxThis week, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a print story, a short animation, and a photo essay about solitary confinement for adolescents in the U.S. prison system. That’s in addition to a NewsHour and a public radio piece released last month and to a yet unreleased half hour documentary and graphic novel. By the end of the month, there will be around 10 pieces of the adolescent solitary confinement story circling you on one form of media or another.

It’s enough to make you rethink what you’ve been reporting on all year. CIR reporters Daffodil Altan and Trey Bundy started over a year ago trying to gain access into prisons and report on conditions for teens. Altan says that the access issues surrounding the story seemed “almost insurmountable” at a certain point. Instead of being deterred, they pressed on and worked on thinking of different ways to handle the content. Says Altan:

We started of thinking of ways to tell the story even though we were dealing with essentially invisible sights. That’s  where the idea for the animation came up. We had met this very compelling young man in New York who told us about his experience at Rikers very powerfully and we had all this tape of him…we decided to try to take 3 hours of interview and see if we could carve that into something smaller and with a narrative arc.

And so the reporting team of two or three turned into a team of somewhere around 15-20, according to Bundy. Bundy says that as they are reporting they’re “always having conversations about what else we can do besides what we’ve already settled on.” In this case, there was a written story in mind, with photos to boot. But a colleague who acts as a liaison between the CIR and KQED “heard radio all over this,” says Bundy. When New York State started talking about banning the practice of solitary confinement for teenagers, NewsHour suddenly wanted the story sooner. “That wasn’t always supposed to be the first piece that was released on this,” Bundy adds. Having the story told across platforms means you reach more people. Says Bundy, “There’s some overlap between people who listen to public radio or watch NewsHour, or read Medium, but it’s not total overlap. The benefit of having multiple platforms is that you are going to catch multiple, different types of audiences, hopefully.”

Not only was the story large and had enough components that lent themselves to being told in various mediums — it’s sort of what the CIR does. Senior video producer Michael Schiller, who was also partly responsible in getting Mos Def to provide music for the piece, notes that it’s “pretty amazing” what they were able to pull off:

It’s been a really incredible process — it took months and months to do, cultivating a real visual style for it and taking an approach on [the topic] that hadn’t been taken before. I think the animation is sort of unique.What’s really amazing is how the Center for Investigative Reporting can exist on so many platforms, simultaneously. To take one story, split out across all these different mediums and do it effectively. Even though in the grand scheme of things its a small organization, we still are able to broadcast it out in all of these different ways and that’s really an important part of the journalism process.

Packaging content in so many ways, across so many mediums is one feat. But for difficult and under-reported stories like this one, it’s important for news organizations to get creative in how they can tell them and how they can reach audiences that aren’t only interested in a topic, but are directly affected by it. Altan says that in researching before starting to report on this, she got the sense that people had tried to report on it, but seemed to have stopped short because of the challenges that come with “difficult” stories like this one. She says, “It’s important for reporters and producers to think of the various ways that you can connect to [the story]. Its important for reporters to push on those difficult stories…because otherwise they wont get told.”

And if a non-profit organization can pull off an investigative feat like this, what could for-profits do? It’s worth thinking beyond the feature story. You can see more multimedia elements of the story here on the CIR website and follow them @CIRonline.