Anatomy of a death threat

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Reuters Graphics

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 30/12/2021

Credit: Peter Eisler, Jason Szep, Linda So, Sam Hart, Jon McClure and Brian Thevenot

Biography: The Reuters graphics team publishes visual stories and data. We typically cover all areas of the news, with content ranging from climate to financial markets. The team conceptualises, researches, reports, and executes many of the visual stories published.

Project description:

Reuters obtained more than 850 threatening messages sent to election workers related to the 2020 election. This visceral piece looks at the language and legality of these threats across a variety of forms: audio, charts and maps as well as an interactive quiz component to enforce the nuances in determining what is prosecutable and what is considered protected speech. Evocative and disturbing, this story is an unparalleled look at a targeted campaign of fear against election workers.

Impact reached:

Readers were shocked to see the grim realities faced by election workers since the election of 2020. A Washington Post column shared the piece as “ a horrifying examination” of what election workers dealt with. Rachel Maddow’s blog highlighted that we only found four people formally charged for their threats, despite identifying over 100 examples of direct threats to a person’s life or safety.

Techniques/technologies used:

The page was built in HTML and styled with CSS. Javascript was used to make the charts, control the fade of text and enable the quiz functionality. The native javascript audio api was used and styled for the visualization and functionality of the audio. The page also uses the javascript libraries svelte and d3 throughout.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Early on, we knew the challenge would be to show the spirit of these messages without disturbing readers to such a degree that they would not continue on through the piece. While many would be familiar with the existence of these threats, the explicit content may be more than they were prepared for. We decided to lead in with audio, which allowed readers to choose to experience the full brunt of the content or pause at will, thus preparing readers for what was to come.

Personally, the project required spending time with hundreds of messages of horrifying imagery. That was a struggle throughout for the writers and editors of the piece, who needed to ensure they managed their own mental health throughout.

What can others learn from this project?

This piece shows visual journalists how they can cover disturbing language in a way that serves the public good. The quiz element shows how you can still bring a reactive interactive element into a serious story without sacrificing tone. It is also an excellent example of marrying audio, visuals and interactive elements into one cohesive page.

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