Celebrating the Collaborative Spirit Behind an Award-Winning Story
No award can fully capture how our newsroom came together, taking a chance on a wild idea.
Earlier this year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting won a National Edward Murrow award for Excellence in Sound, for an episode it produced on Silicon Valley employment disparities using a live choir.
We’d written a piece for Source a while ago about the process behind using a choir to illustrate disparities in the data. In that post, we talked about how we got the data, and our decision-making process for presenting data on radio in an engaging and innovative way. In this post, we’ll talk about the human and socio-cultural elements of how an entire newsroom can come together to take a chance on a wild idea.
Influences and Inspiration
Reveal has had a long history of taking risks with ideas and bringing different parts of the newsroom together. In 2016, reporter Lance Williams and former data editor Michael Corey teamed up to find the biggest water guzzlers during the California drought. They identified the wealthy, superusers of water by using satellite imagery. A few years later, Emmanuel Martinez and Aaron Glantz held big banks accountable for disparities in mortgage lending. For this, data reporter Martinez combed through 31 million mortgage records and ran complex statistical analyses to identify systemic patterns in lending.
Sonifying data – using our findings to create music or tell a sonic story – is also not new to the newsroom. Former Reveal data editor Corey teamed up with lead sound designer, engineer and composer Jim Briggs to show the explosion of earthquakes in Oklahoma. At Reveal, Corey also developed a Python library called MIDITime, to help journalists and others transform data into musical note and performance information.
How A Wild Idea Gets Started
I started my career as a journalist in this newsroom seeing these wild ideas take form around me. When I was analyzing data on the workforce of technology companies in Silicon Valley, I noticed that the disparities were really stark. For example, 1.4 percent of all executives in Silicon Valley top technology companies were Black while 73 percent were white. I thought that such wide differences in disparity might translate best to audio if we can hear the loudness, instead of telling the loudness.
I sat with audio engineer Briggs and editor Corey in our newsroom kitchen and he couldn’t stop thinking about the phrase, “the loudest voice in the room drowning out others.” Briggs had worked on a Radiolab episode that used a choir to represent the different colors of the rainbow and came up with an ambitious idea. Can we use a church choir to sing the disparities?
It was a wild idea that had never been done before. We discussed different forms of it during many conversations and fixed on recording sound during a live church choir. Briggs and I presented to top editors in the newsroom. Jim booked the space at his church – the historic First Unitarian Church of Oakland. I started putting the numbers together. Briggs started thinking about notes and chords. Our radio producer Katharine Mieszkowski invited Reveal friends and family to the event, wrote the radio script and coached me for the evening.
We all had our roles to play for the evening. Since we’d get only one shot at recording the live choir, we had very little room for bungling up. Mieszkowski was going to oversee everything on the night of the event. I was going to divide people by groups using my data. Briggs was going to be the orchestra conductor and director. He was going to instruct what note and chord a group would sing corresponding to the data. This was becoming real. We all came together in our editor’s office to plan every minute of the evening – What will the singers sing first? Which note will correspond to which data point? What was our backup plan if something didn’t work out?
The Big Night
All the top editors including former editor-in-chief Amy Pyle, executive editor Kevin Sullivan and Reveal host Al Letson showed up. They didn’t show up to monitor us as bosses, but were there to participate, support and cheerlead our wild idea. Lots of Reveal staff members, fans and Briggs’ church members also came. Sometimes, the choir led the way by communicating and brainstorming with us, about performance and direction. The night didn’t feel like work. It felt like we were celebrating and creating with family.
Fernando Arruda recorded the sound for the evening. He had the annoying job of listening not just to the choir performance, but to the whole recording. This included telling people that a loud motorbike or car swooshed by the church and we’d have to sing again. And again. And again. But the perfectionist in him didn’t tire as we worked through several different ways of interpreting our data and ideas through voice. It couldn’t have been fun for the group to be singing the same phrase many times, but the energy and the spirit never dipped.
In a year where news institutions have been shutting down operations or laying staff pretty regularly, I feel grateful for having worked at a newsroom that was willing to take a chance on an unproven idea that may or may not have worked. I feel grateful for having had co-workers who were critics and cheerleaders. We prepared for every possibility, but we couldn’t predict how things would turn out.
Awards are an ephemeral high, but the memories of how it happened are everlasting.
If there’s one thing I’ll remember about the night, it’s the synergy of people from different parts of the newsroom coming together to make create a symphony—literally and metaphorically.
Sinduja Rangarajan is the senior data journalist at Mother Jones. She previously worked at Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where her series on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley led to many tech giants publicly releasing their data. Her work has won several awards, including the National Edward Murrow Award in 2019. She wrangles and analyzes datasets to tell stories and finds innovative ways to report on issues by collaborating with academics. She started her journalism career as a Google News Lab Fellow in 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Mumbai and a master’s from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Email her tips at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @cynduja.