ProPublica’s Year in (Mostly) Visual Journalism

At ProPublica, the stories we report are told not just with words, but also with data, design, photography, illustration, audio, video and more. 2018 marked ProPublica’s 10th year pairing fearless investigative journalism with engaging and inventive presentations. As we head into our second decade, here’s a quick look back at some remarkable work from the year that was.

Following the Trail of a Private Garbage Truck in New York City

Waste removal is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and every night in New York private trucks zigzag across the city making hundreds of stops each. Facing far more dangerous conditions than city sanitation workers, these drivers often work longer hours for less money on routes that can take them across the city in a single shift.

We charted one driver’s journey with this interactive map.

Finding Out What Happened to All the Jobs Trump Promised

Since the election, President Donald Trump has made numerous claims about companies adding or saving American jobs thanks to his intervention. We went back to see what’s become of them.

Design Process and Free Tools

In January, we asked readers to help us re-conceive and redesign an interactive database that tracks Congress. Then we reported back on how the process worked.

We also open-sourced our tool for building website and story layouts for desktop and mobile devices, so more newsrooms can benefit from what we learned along the way.

“Trump, Inc.” Season 2

ProPublica and WNYC’s podcast returned for another season. Our reporters picked up where the first one left off, digging into Trump’s businesses with episodes that included:

An examination of a dozen deals showing deep Trump family involvement on projects that often included deceptive business practices.

A look at how the Trump administration advanced political mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s ideological and financial interests — including an assist in Adelson’s quest to build a casino in Japan.

Reporting on how the president’s eldest son became the most prominent shareholder in an indoor-lettuce farm while the company’s co-chairman — a friend and presidential fundraiser — sought federal support for his other business interests.

Theater-Journalism Workshops

Collaborations take many shapes and sizes. This year, ProPublica Illinois teamed up with Free Street Theater for a six-month initiative to engage with communities around the state through theater-journalism workshops.

Tracking White House Staff, Cabinet Members and Political Appointees

We launched “Trump Town,” a database of executive branch staffers. Since then, we’ve added over 200 entries, all searchable by name, former employer and agency — and downloadable on ProPublica’s Data Store.

Meeting the Real Faces of MS-13

Henry, a former teenage member of MS-13, told the police all about his gang. In return, he was slated for deportation by officials and marked for death by the gang. This story and an accompanying mini-documentary from our video team provide a revealing view into law enforcement’s war on MS-13, the Central American gang held out by Trump as a national public safety priority and the embodiment of the consequences of illegal immigration.

Reporter Hannah Dreier also took this story to the airwaves for “The Runaways,” an absorbing episode of “This American Life” examining how law enforcement repeatedly ignored warning signs as kids went missing.

And in December, we returned with a special photo essay, featuring the work of photographer Natalie Keyssar, that took readers through a firsthand account from one teen who fell victim to the gang, in “The Hunted.”

Playing the Waiting Game

The U.S. is supposed to be a haven for people fleeing persecution. But asylum-seekers face years of uncertainty when they arrive. This unique interactive game puts readers in the shoes of those navigating the system.

Audio Documentary

ProPublica and Audible turned the gripping saga of a Mexican massacre touched off by U.S. drug agents into a five part audio documentary, based on the original reporting of Ginger Thompson.

Electionland 2018: The Midterms

Our multi-newsroom coalition returned to report on access to the ballot during the 2018 midterm elections. In addition to ongoing coverage leading up to and on the day of the election, our teams created a host of supporting apps and tools to help citizens track the election, including:

An overview of how voting laws changed since the last election.

This interactive map that let voters see how well elections were run in their home counties.

A browser plugin that collected political advertising on Facebook, letting us shine a light on how the social network’s users are targeted.

And the Election DataBot, created in partnership with Google News Lab, that helped journalists and researchers quickly find newsworthy information about the election campaigns in their states.

Witnessing a Death in Slow Motion

James “Lee” Lewis waited years for a new heart, and the call from the hospital finally came on the first day of 2018. But by the time Lee left the operating room, the 52-year-old pipefitter was in worse shape than when he entered.

As part of our ongoing investigation into how a once-storied heart transplant program has had some of the worst outcomes in the country, we told the story of Lewis’ final days by combining original reporting with family Facebook posts and audio interviews.

A Tale Told by Blood?

Joe Bryan has spent the past three decades in prison for the murder of his wife, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. His conviction rested largely on “bloodstain-pattern analysis” — a technique still in use throughout the criminal-justice system, despite concerns about its reliability.

In part 1, senior reporter Pamela Colloff told the riveting tale of Mickey Bryan’s murder, and how local law enforcement quickly zeroed in on Joe, her husband, as their prime suspect.

In part 2, we examined the questionable forensic science the prosecution used to build its case against Bryan.

Then in December, we returned to explain how the very same kind of bloodstain-pattern analysis techniques used to convict Bryan have spread like a virus through the the criminal justice system — starting largely from one self-trained expert’s basement in upstate New York.

Meeting the People Affected by Our Reporting

In June, we co-hosted an event with 90.7 WMFE and the Orlando Public Library to discuss the impact of PTSD on first responders, and we built a gallery to showcase the firsthand experiences of emergency workers.

June was also ProPublica’s 10th anniversary. To celebrate the start of our second decade, we profiled subjects who have been positively impacted by our reporting over our first 10 years.

Experiencing the Impact of “Zero Tolerance”

One of our biggest multimedia stories of the year was actually a simple audio clip. Recorded inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, it captured the sound of Central American children separated from their parents by immigration authorities at the border. And we stayed on the story through the rest of the year, with work that included:

An interactive map and database identifying immigrant children’s shelters throughout the country.

A video with our partners at Vox that took a closer look at the impact of the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

Exploring the journey of 6-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, one the children heard in the original audio clip, including life after her eventual reunification with her mother.

Examining Inequality in Our Schools

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education investigates thousands of school districts and colleges around the country for civil rights violations. We made the status of all of the civil rights cases that have been resolved during the past three years, as well as pending investigations, publicly available for the first time.

We also built an interactive database to examine racial disparities in educational opportunities and school discipline, letting readers look up more than 96,000 individual public and charter schools and 17,000 districts to see how they compare with their counterparts.

Paying the President

Every president since Jimmy Carter has sold his companies or moved assets into blind trusts or broadly held investments — until now. Trump never did this, and he stands to gain personally when groups pay his companies. Our interactive graphic tracks the incoming money we’ve tallied so far.


Photographers Andrew Burton and Gioncarlo Valentine helped us tell two different stories about communities affected by fatal hate crimes: the Quinault Nation in Grays Harbor County, Washington, and the transgender women of Jacksonville, Florida.

Flood Thy Neighbor

Levees, massive earthen or concrete structures that keep rivers confined to their channels, tame the flow of rivers and make life possible for millions of people who live behind them. But they come with often-unexamined risks, like making floods worse for communities across the river or upstream from them. To show how that happens, we built a levee of our own.

Leaving the Most Vulnerable Unprotected

An acclaimed American charity said it was saving some of the world’s most vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation. But from the very beginning, girls were being raped. In addition to photography by Kathleen Flynn, working on location from Liberia, this story included a feature-length documentary from our video team that premiered at the Double Exposure Film Festival in October.

“We Will Keep on Fighting for Him.”

ProPublica Illinois reported that a University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatrist, who oversaw several federally funded studies, violated research rules, failed to alert parents of risks and falsified data to cover up misconduct.

Digging deeper, we worked with the family of one 10-year-old research subject to tell the story from a patient’s point of view, weaving personal journal entries together with original reporting and creating an intimate view of their journey.

Documenting Hate With Video

In partnership with Frontline, we reported on how the ranks of a notorious hate group include active-duty military.

“New American Nazis,” our new documentary with Frontline, aired in November.

Members of the Rise Above Movement, a violent white supremacist group, were identified in our videos and reporting, and later indicted on riot charges for engaging in violent assaults during the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in the summer of 2017.

Adding Fuel to an Environmental Fire

A decade ago, the U.S. mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels. Instead of helping save the planet, it’s lead to industrial-scale deforestation and a huge spike in carbon emissions.

ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten and photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson went to Indonesia to report on how a U.S. law intended to reduce dependence on fossil fuels has unleashed an environmental disaster.

In a separate photo essay, Gilbertson documented life in and around an Indonesian village, where small homes are in constant jeopardy of being burned to the ground or bulldozed out of existence.

“I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother”

In 2016, a black man was shot dead by a white officer in Weirton, West Virginia. The department fired an officer, but not the one you might think. Our unique interactive layout used 911 audio from the night of the shooting to help tell this shocking story of police and lethal force.

Inspecting the Inspectors

Is publicly subsidized housing decent, safe and sanitary? Working with Local Reporting Network partner The Southern Illinoisan, we spent the year reporting on the answer to that question.

We found that U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections often don’t match the reality of the living conditions. So we built an app to let readers look up housing complex scores near them.

Photographer William Widmer documented the conditions we found.

Living Apart and Coming Undone

Under a landmark settlement, an ambitious housing program promised a better life for mentally ill New Yorkers. But some of the most vulnerable slip through the cracks. Haunting photos by George Etheredge help capture the subjects of Joaquin Sapien’s reporting.

And stay tuned for our documentary, in partnership with Frontline, coming in 2019.


As part of our Local Reporting Network, illustrator Matt Rota helped re-create scenes from our story about how justice is carried out by police, prosecutors and judges in Elkhart, Indiana, and Corey Brickley breathed visual life into reporting about the risks one lab worker was exposed to at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Fracking, Up Close and Personal

Lee Martin loved her 104-acre farm in Wetzel County, West Virginia. Then she had to start sharing it with Stone Energy. This story combined detailed interactive maps with aerial video to let readers experience what it looks and sounds like when a gas driller overruns your land.

Setting a Ticket Trap

Parking, traffic camera and vehicle tickets generate millions of dollars in desperately needed cash each year for Chicago. But for the working poor, and particularly for African Americans, paying for tickets can be difficult — opening the door to more fines and fees, and spiraling debt. To go along with a yearlong reporting effort, we created an interactive database containing more than 54 million tickets to examine how Chicago’s reliance on ticketing for revenue affects motorists across the city.

Like what you saw (or heard or watched or interacted with)? Sign up for our Big Story newsletter below, or make a donation to help fund more original investigative journalism like this.

David Sleight is ProPublica’s design director. In 2016, Sleight was named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and was the recipient of a Communication Award from the National Academies for his work on ProPublica’s “Killing the Colorado” series. He has also directed editorial projects recognized by the Society for News Design, American Illustration, American Photography, and the Society of Illustrators.

Opening illustration by Christian Gralingen, special to ProPublica

Comments powered by Disqus