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Behind ProPublica’s “Losing Ground”

ProPublica’s Losing Ground recently won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Gannett Award for Innovation and Watchdog Journalism. This post was originally published in August 2014.

Today, almost nine years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, ProPublica is launching “Losing Ground,” a mixed media piece that shows the erosion of the Louisiana coastline using maps, photographs, text, a timeline, and audio interviews of residents.

The piece relies heavily on satellite imagery and is the product of a unique collaboration between ProPublica, a New York based newsroom and The Lens, a public interest newsroom based in New Orleans. The project also represents a first for the Tow Center, which helped to train journalists at ProPublica in remote sensing techniques as part of its extensive Sensor Newsroom research program, which was a Tow-Knight research project.  It is the first time the Tow Center has collaborated directly with a newsroom as part of its field research.

Tow’s Sensor Newsroom research, led by Fergus Pitt, has been multi-fold. This past February, the Tow Center taught the ProPublica team the fundamental physics of remote sensing, key concepts of temporal and spatial resolution, and did some practical exercises to analyze ground moisture levels. This was followed by the release of the report “Sensors and Journalism,” which covers everything from the legal dimensions of using sensors to case studies of newsrooms across the country.  This summer, Columbia was the first J-School in the country to offer a course, the Sensor Newsroom, to teach students how to use sensor technology to enrich their reporting and storytelling abilities.

Accompanying “Drowning Louisiana” is a case study Propublica, Satellites, and the Shrinking Louisiana Coast,” by Pitt detailing the technical process behind the production of the piece.

 

Louisiana

Since Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans and the bayous of Louisiana have become part of the American cultural imagination. The HBO series Treme depicts the lives of characters in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The film the Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a young girl in a fictional bayou community (affectionately called “the bathtub”) that is almost wiped out by a storm and subsequent salt-water erosion.  The novel Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward chronicles one family’s struggle during the ten days preceding Hurricane Katrina.

There is one constant in the lives of these characters: the persistent fear of flooding, of erasure.

In the closing chapter of Salvage the Bones, the protagonist reflects, “She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Yet, nothing captures the reality of this fear as well as “Drowning Louisiana.” As you hover over maps showing the land loss between 1930 and 2010, the affect is chilling. This is no longer a potentiality, but rather inevitability. In audio clips, residents describe hometowns that have already been swallowed up by the Gulf of Mexico.

“ProPublica’s remote sensing work is a great example of how reporters have all these powerful new tools at their disposal. The Sensors + Journalism report we just released shows how they’re used by other top newsrooms and gives readers an overview of how to think about them,” says Pitt.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center says, “Through the Tow Knight research projects we have been building a type of research methodology into digital journalism which investigates emerging practices and technologies and encourages collaboration with newsrooms.  Ultimately we want to be a place where academics, practitioners and students can learn together through actual application of new techniques and and then share the findings with the broader journalism community.”

An upcoming research project by Tow will introduce virtual reality technology to newsrooms in New York in order to create vivid experiences of current affairs.

Read more about the editorial decisions and satellite imagery in “Losing Ground” in a Q&A with Scott Klein and Al Shaw of ProPublica. 


Interested in participating in or proposing research relating to emerging technology, newsrooms, or new media? Send an e-mail to TowCenter@Columbia.edu.