2016 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom finalist

Fatal Extraction: Australian Mining in Africa

About the Project

“Fatal Extraction” combines traditional investigative reporting with innovative mobile and web-native presentation to reveal deaths, injuries and allegations of labor abuse involving Australian mining companies operating in Africa.

This truly original work is the first comprehensive account of how Australia — with a friendly reputation and largely ignored by the public — came to dominate African mining and what this means for hundreds of forgotten people who have died and thousands more who taken Australian companies and their subsidiaries to court.

An immersive, game-like experience in which bold and exclusive imagery, compelling graphics and individual stories shine, “Fatal Extraction” uses distinct yet related chapters, incorporating interviews and documents from seven languages. Audiences are guided through the story or explore at their own pace through click-and-swipe-friendly navigation.

A project by the Center for Public Integrity and its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, “Fatal Extraction” uses primary source material and original video and images collected from 12 countries to illustrate the full picture of mining’s deadly footprint in Africa. It explores the stories of people whose voices are rarely heard outside their communities.

The final, compelling narrative captures the struggles of corporate Australia’s victims — a traumatized septuagenarian in the Congo who hid under dead bodies in an execution pit, a union representative in South Africa who witnessed mutilated friends retrieved from a collapsed underground mine, the badly-burned survivor of a explosion in Malawi who has been offered just over $2,100 in compensation.

Reporter Will Fitzgibbon and multimedia journalist Eleanor Bell spent 18 months researching and traveling in remote corners of the world’s poorest continent to document an often-bloody trail. News developer Chris Zubak-Skees designed and developed the platform over 10 weeks in a continual process of refinement, using rapid prototyping to open up the process, responsive design and media to reformat the presentation to many screen sizes and thousands of lines of code to create the experience.

Together, the journalists interviewed hundreds of politicians, prosecutors, lawyers, employees, village chiefs and farmers, including covert interviews held in a convent to avoid government minders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where journalists were interrogated by intelligence agents.

To tell the story, we ask the audience to click, tap or swipe through 93 slides. The presentation takes approximately 25 minutes. Rather than a faceted media presentation with multiple entry points and discrete stories, “Fatal Extraction” produces a linear narrative with a documentary-style arc. We began by building on what NPR calls a “sequential visual story” to deliver this complex investigation to users through a simple interface. We developed an app prototype using the open source web-presentation framework Reveal.js. This provided the basics: slides, navigation, a layout and full-size photos.

Delivering video to audiences on Android and iPhone mobile and multiple browsers provided a challenge that deters many publishers. But because we needed to reach audiences within Africa, a continent with one of the highest growth rates of mobile phone users, we made it work.

The story platform was developed by Zubak-Skees, who built on open-source code to create new tools, including automatic video transcoding into different sizes and formats for multiple devices. This tool preloads video and files while viewers watch the preceding screen, creating a seamless experience. To make inline video work on iPhones, he integrated an experimental media player that decodes video and displays each frame in the browser.

The presentation turned structured data into animated graphics, translating data spreadsheets into animated maps, which responsively resized to different screens and devices. Each slide in the story has a unique URL and preview image, allowing shareable individual moments on social media.

Zubak-Skees wrote more than 5,000 lines of original code and added thousands more from open source libraries. Anyone can learn from or reuse the code.

To know what text and media to show, the “Fatal Extraction” app reads from a Google Doc. We deployed the app to a Heroku cloud server to track its progress. Editors wrote in ArchieML — a structured format created by The New York Times.

“Fatal Extraction” uses primary source material that, in most cases, has never been seen before outside its country of origin. This includes court filings from Malawi, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Niger and Ghana; internal incident and medical reports from Malawi, Namibia and Mali; interview transcripts and trial footage from the Congo. “Fatal Extraction” also used freedom of information request data from Australia and South Africa.

The story has had impact. Australian members of parliament called for a renewed federal investigation into the 2004 DRC massacre. The International Trade Union Confederation — the world’s largest labor body — told ICIJ it will showcase the work in international negotiations and in studies on supply chains. The ITUC also called on Australia to improve the conditions of workers in mines across Africa.

Legal faculties in Australian colleges will use “Fatal Extraction” as a teaching tool on legal corporate responsibility. In November 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights invited ICIJ to present “Fatal Extraction” during the annual business and human rights meeting.

The project has received thousands of page views, including tens of thousands alone in Kenya and South Africa. The project has been shared hundreds of time on social media with users commenting “Fatal Extraction is a MUST READ / CLICK / SEE” project.