Their stories were heartbreaking, and all over the press last year. Millions of refugees fleeing violent countries were making desperate journeys across sea and land. While the public debate raged, and some American politicians called for building walls on the border, The Baltimore Sun’s education reporter Liz Bowie and multimedia journalist Amy Davis were already farther down the road, covering the next part of the story.
The year before, in 2014, Bowie had spotted an intriguing clue in the classrooms on her beat: lots of immigrant students. She started asking questions. She realized that hundreds of immigrants were landing in schools in Baltimore and across the country.
For more than two months, Bowie doggedly pursued permission to get inside one of the schools with a high percentage of foreign students. Because of her persistence and her stellar reputation in 18 years of covering education, the superintendent eventually relented and granted her something extraordinary: full access to the school for her and a photographer. Bowie and Davis planned to document how these immigrant students were changing the life of Baltimore’s Patterson High School, where immigrants make up a third of the student body.
We are nominating their vivid, detailed and haunting three-part series, “Unsettled Journeys,” for the Online Journalism Awards’ Feature award, because of the way our journalists illuminated the hidden and often agonizing world of these new, young immigrants.
A team of editors, designers and developers joined this project at the outset, and worked closely with Bowie and Davis to create a compelling and unique online package for the series, which focuses on the transitions of three students to America.
The presentation of the first story, Torn Between Two Worlds, creatively incorporates multimedia to take users inside the school and the immigrant students’ lives. Looped video is used in the header to show scenes from the story and draw the audience in. The team created a video mosaic, which featured 20 students speaking in their native languages, so viewers could hear directly from “Patterson’s many voices.” Designers wanted to evoke the feeling of Americana, as this new wave of refugees is often referred to as “New Americans,” so the color palette was kept to dark shades of traditional red and blue, and to pay homage to the “stars and stripes,” graphic elements were incorporated in subtitles, sidebars and pull quotes.
Sun visual journalists also produced interactive and animated maps that allow users to click through each phase of the students’ journeys, with annotations about each chapter of their lives. The responsive design presentation of Torn Between Two Worlds is optimized for viewing and reading across devices and breakpoints. The elegant presentation includes numerous other elements that enrich the narrative – embedded photos, an in-depth video package, graphics and pull quotes, which flow onto the page as the reader works their way through the text.
The digital presentation of Torn Between Two Worlds and the entire series was shaped of course by the excellent reporting of Bowie and Davis. Soon after the pair started going to Patterson High School last February, they realized there was a bigger story than the one they’d originally planned. Instead of covering how the students were changing the school, they needed to report on a more complex story, with much higher stakes: the foreign students themselves, on their new journey here. This new generation of immigrants was arriving with little education and lots of trauma.
Trying to understand this, and to explain it, was a dizzying journey. Toggling between translators, Facebook posts written in Arabic, and overwhelmed teachers, Bowie and Davis followed the turbulent lives of these teens as they attempted to make a new home. It was a frustrating struggle. The students’ families had come from countries with corrupt governments, and they didn’t comprehend the role of the press in the United States. Bowie and Davis needed to negotiate cultural differences and sat with parents for hours in their homes, explaining what they were doing and earning their permission.
The immigrant teens were in culture shock. Some could barely speak English. One student was having seizures around the school; others were afraid. The teens wouldn’t show up for scheduled meetings with Bowie and Davis, or they would sit near them, managing only single-word answers to their questions – unable or unwilling to communicate what they were going through.
But Bowie and Davis would not give up. They flung themselves into the story, spending hours observing the students in school and at their homes. The richness of the series’ multimedia stemmed from the efforts of Davis, who encouraged and filmed the students speaking in their native languages, showcasing languages from Arabic to Urdu. Since one of the stories featured an undocumented teenager from Guatemala, The Sun got the story translated into Spanish and worked with a local Hispanic newspaper, Mundo Latino, to get the story to Baltimore’s growing Latino population. The Sun also coordinated with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Spanish publication, El Sentinel, which published the translated version in print and online.
After publication of the series, state legislators declared that the difficulties of educating this new wave of immigrants had to be addressed. CNN followed up with its own piece on Patterson High School. One city school instructed all their teachers to read the series, so they could better understand their immigrant students. Readers reacted with dozens of checks, big and small, adding up to more than $10,000, which will help the students with uniforms and sorely needed curriculum materials.
But perhaps the biggest impact was to take readers beyond the abstract numbers and the rhetoric of a complex issue, and with heartbreaking detail, make these immigrants and their journeys real. More than 100 readers emailed The Sun after publication, demanding follow-up stories and exclaiming that the stories had opened their eyes to a whole world.
Liz Bowie, Amy Davis and our team did it with tenacity, and with tremendous heart. We believe their work exemplifies the highest standards of journalism.