American Journalism RevieW  |  January / February 2000 issue

Details, Details

Meticulous, exhaustive reporting is as essential to compelling narrative journalism as sparkling prose.

By Brad Reagan, Wall Street Journal staff writer

MORE THAN HALFWAY through his reporting for a series on a 1995 plane crash outside Atlanta, Gary M. Pomerantz drove 12 miles from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's downtown offices to Hartsfield International Airport, where he was met by airline personnel. Amid the roar of departing planes, Pomerantz found a mechanic servicing an Atlantic Southeast Brasilia turboprop, the same kind of plane that had crashed.

The reporter had the mechanic unscrew two caps on the engine so he could see the colors of the fluids inside, then asked him to identify them. Easy, the mechanic said: The red is hydraulic fluid, the brown is oil, and the clear liquid is jet fuel. Pomerantz asked if he could get inside the plane. For a few short minutes, he sat on its left side--the side where the propeller blew on the fatal flight--and took notes on what passengers could see of the engine from those seats.

Later, he inserted this sentence into the series: "Hydraulic fluid, oil and jet fuel poured into the airstream." They were 10 words out of the 24,000 that became a six-day series--but in his mind, they were well worth the trip. "I knew this was a story of a million details," Pomerantz says. "The force of this story would rise and fall based on the power of those details."

And rise it did. The gripping narrative series "9 Minutes, 20 Seconds" won an Ernie Pyle Trophy for human interest writing in 1999 from the Scripps Howard Foundation. And Pomerantz, now a journalism teacher at Emory University, is expanding the stories into a book.

The airport trip, he says, was critical to verifying the recollections of some of the crash's survivors. They had told him about looking out the window and seeing fluids gushing from the left engine shortly after a propeller broke (federal investigators later found the propeller manufacturer to be at fault). But the survivors could only describe the colors of the fluids. Like most people, including Pomerantz, the passengers didn't know the names of the liquids that churn through the intestines of an airplane engine. That's why the reporter needed the mechanic.

Many journalists would have written around the problem. But Pomerantz is among a class of reporters who combine the tenacity of investigative reporting with the deft touch of feature writers. Their techniques, some documented in this story, are often imaginative and produce stories that fall into the broad category of literary journalism.

Most of these reporters, like Pomerantz, are feature-oriented. They incorporate enough investigative elements to ensure that their stories are technically accurate and thoroughly documented, but their focus is on the human drama, not broad societal problems.

But there is also evidence that more investigative reporters are beginning to make their stories more Tom Wolfe and less Joe Friday. At last June's Investigative Reporters & Editors national conference in Kansas City, one of the most talked-about presentations was by Katherine Boo of the Washington Post and Anne Hull of the St. Petersburg Times. It was on humanizing investigative stories. The two stressed that these pieces have a better chance of making a difference if they are more readable and less like, as Hull says, "lifting the lid off a box of documents."

The opening of Boo's March series on troubles within Washington's group homes for the mentally retarded is a good example of how she shuns the dry, investigative formula:
Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone. Past the broken chairs, the roach-dappled kitchen and the housemates whose neglect in this group home has been chronicled for a decade in the files of city agencies. Head upstairs to Elroy's single bed.

"You're in good hands," reads the Allstate Insurance poster tacked above his mattress--the mattress where the sexual predator would catch him sleeping. Catch him easily: The door between their rooms had fallen from its hinges. Catch him relentlessly--so relentlessly that Elroy tried to commit suicide by running blindly into a busy Southeast Washington street.

It's artfully written, but, as Boo points out, it was also carefully reported. "I try to treat the human side of the reporting as seriously as I do the documents-based reporting, meaning I go in hard," she says. "I fact-check my stories as hard as I can. 'Do you have a criminal record?' No? I go check the criminal record. 'You spent $2,000 on your baby's medical bill? Show me the bill.' "

Boo spent five to six months on her 8,000-word, two-part series. During that time, she fought--and won--a protracted battle with city officials to gain access to the retarded residents of the home. And, to add to her understanding, she climbed through broken windows at an abandoned asylum to get a firsthand look at Elroy's childhood home. There she found long-forgotten, bug-infested case files for Elroy and his peers.

However, not all reporters aspiring to literary heights recognize the amount of work involved. As Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter formerly with Baltimore's now-defunct Evening Sun and now with Raleigh's News & Observer, says, "People don't want to hear how you did it; they want to hear how they dream you must do it." That is, with little effort.

But the result of lackadaisical reporting can be a lengthy project that doesn't speak authoritatively or, worse yet, doesn't say anything. "So much now is an attempt to write without the meat, sort of flowery. To me, they are glaring examples of, 'Hey, look at me--I'm a writer!' " says Tom Hallman Jr. of Portland's Oregonian--a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. "We're borrowing a lot of fiction [writing] techniques, but really no one is talking about the reporting that goes into it."

The best literary journalists, say Hallman and others accomplished in the form, are as passionate about their reporting as they are about their writing. They go to extraordinary lengths to give their stories not only literary texture, but also unquestioned accuracy.
"You want to be very careful to get it right," says Bruce DeSilva, newsfeatures editor at the Associated Press. "These stories are so persuasive, they are very real to readers, that there is an extra obligation to be absolutely sure that it is all true."

Of course, some critics claim that even the best nonfiction strays occasionally from the literal truth. In fact, the comment that often accompanies literary journalism--that the story "reads like a novel"--hints at the possibility that the writer took artistic license with the material. Pomerantz says that's backhanded praise.

"The objective isn't to make it read like a novel," he says. "A novel isn't true. The idea is to bring it to a level of reality that is palpable."

LITERARY JOURNALISM IS not a new phenomenon, although every few years a new title for it comes along. Narrative journalism, intimate journalism and new journalism have all been used interchangeably to describe it.

In his classic 1974 essay, "The New Journalism," Wolfe complained that no one recognized the exhaustive reporting that went into his stories. He wrote that "the bastards are making it up!" was the knee-jerk complaint by those uncomfortable with the internal dialogue and other writing techniques being used by him and his contemporaries, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson. But, like the best literary journalists today, most took as much pride in their reporting as their writing.

Without a doubt, literary journalists use many of the same sources of information as other journalists--intensive interviews, government documents and personal observation. But they also rely on other techniques that give their stories additional depth and texture.

Attention to sensory detail is one. It provides the viscera that make stories live and breathe. Pomerantz went so far as to calibrate the first section of his plane crash series so that it would take readers nine minutes and 20 seconds to finish--the same amount of time it took for the plane to crash once the engine blew. The former Journal-Constitution reporter says details were crucial to his stories, because he needed readers to feel like they were on the plane. "I wanted [readers] to feel the claustrophobia of that 10-row airplane," he says. "I wanted them to know the people that were sitting next to them. I just kept saying, 'OK, the plane stopped. What did you see? What position were you in? What did you hear? What did you smell?' The five senses are critical. You want the experience it on the page the same way the passengers did in the field or the air."

Most reporters are trained to focus only on the cold, hard facts they read in documents or hear in interviews. It's not an easy habit to overcome.DeSilva, of the AP, says he knows a former editor who used to run his reporters through an obstacle course for the blind to make them more aware of all their senses. Others reference as an example National Public Radio's use of sound to create a sense of place with listeners.

For print journalists who have to re-create sensory details with words, it is critical to stay attuned to all the senses while on assignment.

"Most reporters' notebooks are filled with quotes and numbers," says Bill Luening, senior editor for writing at the Kansas City Star. "My notes have those, too, but also everything else I can possibly see, hear, smell or feel. Impressions, colors.... You want to come away from the scene with facts but also the facts that lead to emotion and especially understanding."

And, says reporter Miles Corwin of the Los Angeles Times, never assume that you will remember something later. "The cardinal rule is: Write down everything, or at least as much as you can," he says.

But DeSilva warns that too many reporters making the jump into narrative journalism fill their stories with minutiae about a person crossing his legs or parting her hair a certain way. Although such details occasionally are significant, most of the time they clutter the narrative.

DeSilva uses AP writer Todd Lewan's award-winning serial narrative about a sea rescue as an example of details used wisely. During the effort, Coast Guard workers Fred Kalt and Michael Fish try to lift a rescue basket into their helicopter. They initially don't realize one of the fishermen, barely alive after more than seven hours in 38-degree water, is dangling from the bottom:
"Fred!" Fish shouts. "Fred, someone's hanging on the basket!"

"Where?" Kalt screams into the wind. "I can't see him!"

The man is inches below Kalt's boots, barely clinging to the bottom of the basket. He looks into the cabin and locks eyes with Fish.

For a second. Just one second.

Time enough for everything to pause in Fish's mind, for the whining sleet and the groaning turbines to hush.

Time enough for one man's eyes to scream for mercy, for another's to scream in horror.
And then he's gone .

"He doesn't tell you what color the helicopter is painted. Who cares?" DeSilva says. "That's not all that important. But the look in the eyes of the man clinging to the bottom of the basket before he fell--now there's a detail that matters in the telling of a story."

ANOTHER KEY GUIDELINE for most literary journalists is this: Scenes drive the action. "That does a couple of things," says Hull of the St. Petersburg Times. "It allows the reader [to be] right there with you, and it also gives a nice pace to a long story." Hull says she often records powerful scenes on index cards soon after she observes them. When she starts to write, she refers back to them. "By the end of four to five months of reporting, you've got a stack of cards. You've got a small movie on your hands basically," Hull says. "You've got real scenes that can percolate through your story."

Hallman, of the Oregonian, once left a tape recorder in the middle of a conference table to record conversations among a prosecutor, police and a grieving family who had just lost a relative in a drunk-driving accident. For the same story, he watched a police videotape of the driver's arrest to allow him to describe the scene the night of the accident. "I took dialogue right out of it and put the reader right there. It was completely accurate," he says.

One extension of this--reconstructing scenes--can be problematic. Boo, of the Washington Post, refuses to reconstruct scenes she did not witness. And she is not alone. Critics say the practice lends itself to mistakes and results in stories that are based on faulty memories and slanted perspectives.

But Thomas French, a colleague of Hull's at the St. Petersburg Times, used the technique to great effect for his Pulitzer Prize-winning series "Angels & Demons," published in 1997. In it, he reconstructed the investigation into the murder of an Ohio family vacationing in Florida. He defends the practice.

"I went through a big crisis of confidence a while ago--years ago--where I was really aware of the fact that people's memories are faulty. But then I realized: What choice do we have?" the narrative projects reporter says. "Memory is all we've got. It's what historians rely on. It's what we use in courts. What you do to counter that imperfection is, you be very careful."

French and others say intense interviews and thorough fact-checking can help weed out inconsistencies of recollections. If a source has described the weather on a certain day, for example, the reporter might go back and check it with the National Climatic Data Center. Quotations can be checked with others who may have heard them. If a source is wrong on several small details, it may be necessary to question other recollections as well.

For direct quotations, many reporters insist that two people remember the dialogue the same way. And, DeSilva says, reporters should avoid instances in which two people claim to remember lengthy conversations word for word. "Usually pretty startling words, like 'Oh, my God!'--they probably remember saying that," DeSilva says. But "if it's a 200-word quote and [two people who were there] agree, I'm going to say bullshit. Nobody can really remember that."
When there is a factual discrepancy, French says, it helps to go ahead and say so. As an example, he recalls a scene from a series in which he wanted to describe a murder victim's unique footwear during her graduation ceremony. The problem was that some members of the victim's family remembered her wearing combat boots, and some said they were hiking boots.

"That may seem like a little detail, but I just went ahead and put it in," French says. In his story, he wrote:
Years later, when this moment was recalled, there would be some disagreement about whether these were combat boots or hiking boots.

"Another writer here at the paper who is really good at narrative told me that he thought I should have just chosen one," French adds. "He thinks you've got to make some choices for the reader to streamline the narrative as much as you can. I just disagree. I think when you say that to the reader, when you say, 'Some of them remember it this way, and some of them remember it this way,' you're saying to the reader, 'Look, I'm not winging it here, and I'm going to tell you if there is an even minor disagreement about how things unfolded .' "

OF COURSE, THE INTENSIVE INTERVIEWS INVOLVED in re-creating scenes also provide more depth about the sources who, in many cases, are also major characters in the story. Pomerantz started his interviews with the plane crash survivors by asking where they were born and what their parents did for a living--not the first questions most reporters would ask them. He often would follow that by asking who the subject's heroes were as a child. "You get some remarkable answers to that question, and it gives you a framework for their formative years," Pomerantz says.

Similarly, French says he asks his subjects if he can look through their photo albums, a resource he says is often a treasure trove of information about the way people really live. Boo says she asks sources if she can look through their drawers and refrigerators and read their journals.

Over time, sources should begin to relax and speak more freely. They may remember additional details and dialogue, or come to better understand the type of information the reporter is seeking. "I don't think there has been one story, except perhaps a real breaking news story, in which I have only had one interview with a subject," says Hallman. "You've got to be able to pull back the layers on somebody, especially on the kinds of stories I do. They don't often know the stories themselves, and they don't often give up details until the second or third interview."

Note the power of those details in Hallman's 1996 story "Diana's Choice," about a mother grappling with her son's illness:
Truth is, she took root in people, not places. Her family followed the crop farm harvests across the Pacific Northwest, until Diana's senior year in high school, when her father found steady work in Albany.

Even now, at 26, she honors the small-town ways. Strangers get a howdy. Waitresses get respect. She knows how many children the grocery clerk has and likes it when a man holds the door.

The past rides in her blood. When her parents pulled together the money for a winter coat, they let Diana pick the color; she knew she had better choose wisely because she would wear that coat for years.

Hallman gathered the details for the vivid characterization in lengthy interviews with Diana and her family and by spending time with Diana, observing how she treated people. The hours of interviews and observations inform these three paragraphs.

Luening and French even go so far as to show stories to sources ahead of time. While conventional newsroom wisdom holds that doing so is dangerous, because it allows sources the opportunity to back out or protest, they say the practice can also be an important reporting tool by jarring memories and correcting minor inaccuracies. It is one last fact-checking mechanism.

While it is true that most of these reporters have the luxury of more time than most daily reporters, almost all reporters can take tips from the lengths the best literary journalists will go to be comprehensive and accurate. In his book "Intimate Journalism," Walt Harrington, a former Washington Post Magazine writer, observed how the smallest details make it into good stories:
To say in passing that the farmhouse sits below a 900-foot bluff, you will swing by the county soil conservation office and get a copy of the farm's geologic survey map. To say in passing that someone has a vase of Vivaldi roses in his apartment, you will spend an hour on the phone interviewing rose experts. You will go back to the scene of the crime the next day and walk off distances and check heights and angles. You will check maps to determine north, south, east and west. You will check decades-old weather reports to be sure it actually rained on the day someone says it rained .

For a reconstruction of a drive-by shooting, Luening consulted an agricultural extension agent in order to describe the way winter wheat would have looked at the time of year of the shooting. And he accompanied a botanist to the park where the shooting occurred so the botanist could identify the vegetation in the area. That led to this simple paragraph toward the end of the story, co-written with colleague Joe Lambe:
The basketball court is gone, moved to the north end of the park after the shooting. In its place is fescue and clover.

The description provides a nice visual image, as well as a touch of symbolism indicating both regeneration and loss.

Boo says that even if the extra reporting doesn't show up on the page, it often infuses the writing with authority. "I do a lot of public records work, even in doing narrative stories," she says. "Real estate records, corporate records. It's not so much that you want to show your reader how much work you've done. It's that you want to have confidence in your own perceptions.

"I think that's one thing that reporting does. You write with a stronger voice when you have a deeper conviction that what you are writing about is true and important," Boo says.

Of course, it is also true that reporting can be more than a means to an end. Hallman says it has to be. "There are a lot of times I like reporting better than writing," he says. "It can be fun. A lot of people say, 'I want to be a writer.' Well, if they don't like reporting, they can't do it--unless they want to write personal essays."