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Creative storytelling brings new life to spectacle of cicadas

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Seth Borenstein, Carolyn Kaster, Marshall Ritzel and Kathy Young teamed up, using creativity, tenacity and multiformat collaboration to bring a fresh perspective to a widely covered natural phenomenon happening every 17 years.

Borenstein, an AP science writer, had done cicada stories before and knew the timing would be tricky. The bugs emerge only when the temperature is right, usually in mid-May. He and Ritzell, an animator and video journalist on the Health and Science team, began hours of Zoom interviews with bug scientists in mid-March.

Meanwhile, Washington-based photographer Carolyn Kaster made it her mission to document the bugs she called “beautifully weird.” She had first encountered the Brood X cicadas 17 years ago in Pennsylvania and knew they would be a challenging subject — if she could find them.

Kaster joined Borenstein and video freelancer Alyssa Schukar on an interview in Columbia, Maryland, and then reached out to an EPA scientist and photographed University of Maryland students who were sticking thermometers 8 inches into the ground to record soil temperatures and find the places where cicadas would soon be emerging.

She even persuaded photo editor Jon Elswick to let her dig in his backyard. She found some nymphs and stored them in Tupperware, so she could photograph them as they matured. For a week, she went out every night looking for mature bugs and their telltale red eyes, and she made Borenstein promise to capture any mature bugs he found.

Adding a key element, Health & Science video journalist Kathy Young and Ritzel joined forces to produce an animated video explainer on the life cycle of cicadas. The animation, guest-narrated by Allen Breed, was built around the colorful soundbites of a University of Maryland entomologist describing the cicadas’ life cycle.

The team’s package was timed perfectly,just as the bugs were starting to emerge in some places. It included a newsroom-ready video by Young,Kaster’s striking photos and Borenstein’s lively story,with this summation of the spectacle: “It’s one of nature’s weirdest events,featuring sex,a race against death,evolution and what can sound like a bad science fiction movie soundtrack.“

He and Kaster followed up several days later with an illustrated FAQ explainer on cicadas.

The package created buzz on social media,getting tweeted out by Mia Farrow and Arianna Huffington and posted on Facebook — it was among the week’s most-viewed stories on AP News. The animation and the newsroom video were used globally, including South Korea and India among others.

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