It’s a continual struggle at investigative news outfits: How do you tell stories that are not only socially significant, but personally engaging? How do you ensure that your reporting is not only accurate, but impactful? Figuring that out often means looking beyond stories themselves, embedding articles in comprehensive packages that include explainers, maps, multimedia presentations, in-person events, and physical objects. (Coloring books, anyone?) As public-interest-focused organizations look for mediums that can marry accountability with humanity, ProPublica thinks it’s found one more: music videos.
The latest of the outfit’s news-you-can-use-style videos, “The Redistricting Song,” went live this week, as an accompaniment to its big investigation into the corporations, unions, and other interests that exert influence over the process of drawing congressional districts. The song is a little bit hop-hop, a little bit country, and a little bit campy. (CJR described it as “something like YoGabbaGabba! meets DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince meets, maybe, Eminem — with guitar solo by Slash.”) And it’s meant to be, essentially, a “civics lesson gone wrong,” says Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications, who oversaw the video’s production. “The Redistricting Song” takes the current state of redistricting, Klein told me, and “explains the process in a twisted, Schoolhouse Rock! way.”
The video is noteworthy as an intricate explainer about an important topic that’s gotten more complicated of late. It’s also noteworthy as a collaboration among different reporters, different institutions, different media, and different fields of journalism. It was created by David Holmes and Andrew Bean, who had worked with ProPublica previously to produce another journalism music video, “My Water’s on Fire Tonight,” which accompaned ProPublica’s series on hydrofracking. (And which, last I checked, had garnered over 175,000 hits on YouTube — pretty nice for a song that counts “We’re talking benzene!” as a lyric.)
“Redistricting” was a co-production from the beginning. ProPublica’s reporters — the leads on the redistricting story were Olga Pierce, Jeff Larson, and Lois Beckett — gave Holmes and Bean peeks into the reporting they were doing as they went along, Klein says — and “always with a mind toward talking about the redistricting jargon.” Making the obscure understandable was the primary goal of the video, Klein notes (and of the redistricting package’s accompanying “Devil’s Dictionary“). The point was to engender engagement expressly through engendering understanding. “It’s sort of like a prerequisite to reading some of the longform journalism we do on that subject,” Klein says of the song — a content primer in video form.
As Holmes puts it: “The song itself isn’t going to tell you everything you need to know about redistricting. But it is a gateway. It’s catchy; it has the potential to go viral. Because of all that, it has the potential to draw people in.”
And once people have the framework — once they’re armed with the knowledge that makes a complicated topic like redistricting seem less intimidating — they can explore ProPublica’s more traditional treatments of the topic.
Cheeky as it is, the video is first and foremost a work of journalism. In the draft versions that flew back and forth between Holmes and Bean and the ProPublica reporters, accuracy, Klein said, was always a primary goal. (The maps at the end of the video, for example, are not only geographically accurate, but also true to the depicted regions’ current districting situations.) And the video was meant, as some of the best investigative reporting is, to inspire outrage. Or, more specifically, in this case, to re-inspire it — to battle what Klein calls “outrage fatigue.”
“I think people are already outraged by redistricting,” Klein says. “If they know about it at all, they know that it’s a shady process that needs to be fixed.” The video, he hopes, will “pull people back into the story and and say, ‘You think you know this, but you don’t. There’s a lot more to this. The system has become much more sophisticated. The methodologies used are becoming more sophisticated. The players are bigger and more varied than you think they are…. Come and listen again to this thing you thought you knew.’”