2016 Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom winner

Reliving Agent Orange

Charles Ornstein, Terry Parris Jr. and Mike Hixenbaugh

The Virginian-Pilot

Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom


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The reporters use of a variety of online tools to reach out to the public, thousands coming forward.

About the Project

There’s an entire movement of veterans who believe their exposure to Agent Orange has had a lasting impact on their children’s health – not just birth defects but conditions that manifest later in life. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, however, doesn’t recognize this connection, pointing to a lack of definitive research.

So last year, ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot began investigating the issue and launched the “Reliving Agent Orange” project. We did it a little differently: instead of launching the project with a traditional long-form story, we started with an online form, containing about 40 questions, asking veterans and their family members to share the story of Agent Orange exposure and how it had impacted their lives.

The investigation started and continues to be open and collaborative. Some details:

  • We had more than 5,400 responses to the questionnaire from vets and their families so far.
  • We’ve developed a community through a closed messaging system that allows us to regularly update respondents about new and upcoming stories and ask them to participate or contribute to our work. Because we have a regular feedback loop with them, they respond in full force when we ask for help. Nearly every veteran discussed or quoted in our series of stories came from the database of contributions, including all five vets in the latest piece.
  • Using the annotation system created by Rap Genius annotation, we created an interactive app for veterans to add their details to a list of the ships that served during the Vietnam war. We’ve had almost 500 such annotations so far. Vets are sharing stories of their service, linking to info on their ships and even ships’ deck logs. With this shared information, vets may be able to use it to get benefits from the VA.
  • In addition to the text stories, we launched a multimedia series that spotlights the voices of veterans from the questionnaire. The multimedia pieces showcase only the veterans’ voices, illustrating their exposure to Agent Orange and incorporating images — which they shared through the questionnaire — from their time in the service. Also on this page, we had a participation tracker to show the community at a very high level who was participating.
  • Vets told us their support communities lived on Facebook. So we joined (or tried to join) more than 100 veteran Facebook groups, started listening, participating and distributing the questionnaire and the work.

It’s not often that deeply investigated stories are as open and collaborative as “Reliving Agent Orange.” This project is truly crowd-powered and community first.