ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public’s interest, is known for its “news apps” – interactive databases that function as public resources. Sisi Wei, Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, leads the news apps team in their efforts to use programming, data, and technology to tell engaging, public interest stories.
Sisi joined us at our most recent Data + the Greater Good Meetup to discuss The Waiting Game, a nontraditional piece of journalism that ProPublica published along with Lylla Younes, data reporter at WNYC; Nick Fortugno, Chief Creative Officer at Playmatics, a game company; and Dr. Kim Baranowski, a psychologist and Associate Director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program, who helps run a free clinic that provides physical and psychological evaluations for asylum seekers. The Waiting Game “is an experimental news game that lets you walk in the shoes of an asylum seeker, from the moment they choose to come to the United States to the final decision in the cases before an immigration judge.” By adopting the perspective of the asylum seeker, players gain a perspective that is rarely portrayed in the news cycle: the immigrant’s.
The game allows a player to choose one of five stories to experience. Each story explores one of the five reasons the United States considers valid to seek asylum: persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The stories are anonymized versions of stories from clients of Dr. Baranowski’s clinic at Mount Sinai.
The player lives out every single day of a person’s life from when they decide to seek asylum to when the asylum decision is made. Each day is represented by a page with brief text explaining the day’s events, background music, and sound effects; the days include time inside detention centers, meetings with lawyers, court dates, and other major events. The player has the opportunity to either ‘Keep Going’ to the next day or ‘Give Up’ and end the game. The gameplay highlights both the monotony and the uncertainty of the asylum process – the game effectively encourages a player to give up because of the tedium. Once a player gives up, they are shown how many ‘days’ they lasted, how many days players on average last, and how many days the actual asylum seeker spent in the process. They’re then given the opportunity to replay the game on a “Fast Forward” mode to see how the story ends.
Sisi discussed how her team created and managed the elements of the story, and the truth of those elements. Her team took qualitative data and stories from Mount Sinai’s clinic, as well as on-the-ground research, and fact checked each element to ensure accuracy. For example, asylum judges don’t use gavels, and therefore no gavel sounds could be used as a sound effect in court scenes. Sisi and her team took this data and wrote scripts for each story. In every story, the major events that happened (staying in a detention center, a meeting with a lawyer, etc.) actually happened in the person’s story. A system was set up to manage all the elements of the script: when the major scenes would happen, and when additional environmental details (such as rain) would occur.
All in all, roughly 3,500 phrases were written across the five stories. That equals out to about 50,000 words, which is astonishing when considering that ProPublica’s typical longform investigative articles—which are already longer than other news organizations articles—are between 5,000 and 15,000 words. Each word, or element of data, was intensively fact checked, researched, and edited before being put in the game, and then managed for its placement within the game.
Although The Waiting Game didn’t follow ProPublica’s typical news app format of data-heavy databases, the game still included an incredible amount of qualitative data that needed management. Sisi explained that her team actively made the decision to not include quantitative data or statistics in order to create a more powerful, emotional story. The Waiting Game is evidence that, sometimes, hard numbers aren’t the answer to telling a compelling, engaging, and effective story.