When reporters write stories that read like good fiction they inevitably arouse suspicions. Reality is messy. Speech is messy. If a story is tidy—if the plot is too seamless or the quotes are too eloquent—the reporter probably juiced it a little.

Reconstructed scenes are particularly suspect. Instead of relying on tape recordings or notes of their own observations, reporters rely on the memories of the people who were there. If there is dialogue, they ask us either to believe that interviewees recall exactly what was said, or to relax our definition of a quote: It’s not (and never has been) a transcript, but an approximation that is true to the spirit, if not the letter, of what was said. If there are minute details of setting or behavior, the writers ask us to believe that interviewees remember that the jam was apricot, not strawberry, or that they rolled their sleeves up, not down, on the morning of the pivotal events upon which hang the tale. Try to remember your own breakfast table behavior and conversations from a memorable day six months or six years ago.

Suspicions surrounding narrative journalism are nothing new. “This can’t be right,” Tom Wolfe wrote in a parody of his detractors in 1973. “These people must be piping it, winging it, making up the dialogue…. Christ maybe they’re making up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geeks….”

“Examples of ‘About This Story’ Boxes”
Reporters who have spent hundreds of hours asking questions and perusing documents don’t like being called unscrupulous geeks. So editors are appending “About This Story” notes or boxes to narrative stories to tell readers that the reporter spent hundreds of hours doing just this. In some cases, the notes specify who was interviewed and which documents were consulted. If you want to know how the reporter knew all this stuff, the notes are effectively saying, here’s how.

Two questions: Are such notes necessary? Are they sufficient?

Trust Us

Reporters have long felt a responsibility to enable readers—and editors—to gauge the reliability of their work by including information about where they got their material. The system couldn’t be simpler. Information obtained from documents or via word of mouth—interviews, speeches, statements, press conferences, and so on—will be attributed to the source. The absence of attribution signals that the reporter was a witness. When we read an unattributed description of the twisted metal of a child’s bicycle and the film of ash on the dishes in the front yard of a house destroyed by fire, we are to understand that the reporter was at the scene and is telling us what he or she saw.

Of course, readers are also expected to bridge the gaps between attributions. When a story begins, “America’s interstate highways are a mess,” and the next paragraph refers to a report of the Federal Highway Administration, we are to understand that the unattributed assertion in the lead is a fair summary of the report. Similarly, when a direct quote is followed by attribution, an indirect quote and an unattributed direct quote, we are to understand that we are hearing from the same speaker until a new attribution tells us otherwise.

Reporters who pipe quotes or enliven observed scenes with imagined detail risk being challenged by their sources (though sources who wish they hadn’t said what they said are likelier to complain about an accurate quote than sources who thinks the reporter made them “sound good”), or by witnesses, including rival news accounts. Ultimately, however, it is an honor system to which nearly every journalist adheres. Savvy reporters usually know when they can get away with a little poetic license while “hitchhiking,” as author John McPhee once put it, “on the credibility of their more scrupulous peers.” But not always: consider The New York Times Magazine’s recent embarrassment when it turned out that writer Michael Finkel had passed off a composite character as a real boy in a November 2001 story about slave labor on West African cocoa plantations.

When reporters move from observing events to reconstructing what took place before they came on the scene, they operate outside the rules of journalism. Strictly speaking, every last detail of a reconstructed scene requires attribution. But narrative journalists don’t want to quote for us what people remember or deduce. They want to tell us what happened as it unfolded in time. The illusion the narrative journalist is striving for is the cinematic flashback in which a character’s recollection of events dissolves to the playing out of the events themselves. Attribution would shatter the illusion.

In a story that barrels along like a freight train, Wall Street Journal editor Mike Miller told the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan, attributions are like speed bumps, destroying narrative momentum. So they get left out. Do readers notice? When the writing crackles with you-are-there immediacy most readers are probably more interested in what happens next than in how the reporter knows what he knows: When you’re “hitchhiking,” it helps to be a good raconteur.

But not everyone is so trusting. For at least some readers there must come a hey-wait-a-minute moment when they realize that the reporter could not have been present when the killer pulled the trigger. Somehow, reporters don’t just know approximately what happened: they know exactly. That’s the irony of narrative journalism. Instead of lending verisimilitude, the exhaustive detail casts doubt: How could they know all this (the unscrupulous geeks)? The “About This Story” or “About This Series” box aims to set those inquiring minds at rest.

Due Diligence

The Narrative Newspaper (www.inkstain.net/narrative), home to about 30 narrative stories from newspapers that have become known for their hospitality to the genre—The Oregonian, the St. Petersburg Times, the Providence Journal, and The Philadelphia Inquirer—is a convenient repository for these boxes. A composite “About This Story” box would look something like this:

The reporter spent

a. more than 10 months
b. four years
c. two months
d. almost two years
a. nearly 200
b. hundreds of hours of
c. dozens of
…interviews and poring over
a. more than 4,000 pages of police reports, court documents, and other records.
b. diaries, letters, scientific literature, photographs, news accounts, and medical and legal records.
c. transcripts of military radio transmissions.
d. virtually every investigative record produced in the nine-year-long case and thousands of pages of trial transcript.
e. court transcripts, detectives’ notes, and other documents introduced into evidence during the trials.
f. medical records [and]…family journals.

As impressive as all this accountancy is, its ultimate message (in stories in which no direct references to sources are made) is: trust us, our reporter has done the legwork, it all checks out. Just don’t ask us to tell you which bit of information came from which source, or which scenes were observed and which reconstructed.

Beyond the inventory of time spent, interviews conducted, and documents examined, some of the “about” boxes also address concerns about the authenticity of quotes and scenes as a way of helping the reader understand how the story was contructed. According to the box that accompanies Tom French’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels and Demons” series in the St. Petersburg Times, for example, “Some … were witnessed firsthand by the reporter or photographer or were taken from police reports or transcripts of official proceedings; others are by necessity based on people’s recollections.”

If it is indeed “necessary” to have quotes and scenes that the reporter did not hear or witness, then yes, they must be based on people’s recollections. But are the quotes and scenes necessary? And how do we know which were “witnessed firsthand” and which were based on recollections?

The Providence Journal and The Oregonian seem to do a better job of sorting these issues out. In reporting “Into the Heart: A Medical Odyssey,” the Journal tells us, G. Wayne Miller “uses direct quotations only when he heard or saw (as in a letter) the words; he paraphrased other words—omitting quotation marks—once he had confirmed that they had been spoken. There are no composite scenes or characters in this story. No names have been changed.”

The Oregonian employs the same distinctions. As a result of all the hanging around reporter Tom Hallman, Jr. did, “relatively few scenes in ‘The Boy Behind the Mask’ are reconstructed, and those are the result of careful interviews with all key participants. Every such scene contains attribution to the memories of the participants. No dialogue appears within quotation marks unless Hallman heard a conversation himself.” Here one could object to the vagueness of “relatively few” and wonder whether “careful interviews” are unusual at The Oregonian, while applauding the maintenance of strict standards for the use of quotation marks.

The most remarkable avowal on the Narrative Newspaper site comes from the South Bend Tribune’s “about” box for Gina Barton’s “Justice for Becky,” “a true crime mystery in 19 parts”: “Although it is written in the form of a novel, it is all true.” So it has come to this: newspapers assure readers that events it is chronicling really happened.

This brings us to what Chip Scanlan, writing for the Poynter Institute’s Web site, called the “historic” box tacked onto The Wall Street Journal’s October 11 reconstruction of the desperate scramble to escape the World Trade Center on September 11. Here, for the first time in the Journal, if not the first time in any newspaper, we get a breakdown of the provenance of about a dozen details that might cause a reader to wonder how the reporter knew them.

If you’re curious, for example, how the Journal reporters knew that Diane Murray paid $43 for a pair of black sneakers after walking down from the 92nd floor of the south tower in heels, the note says the price came from a credit card receipt. (Since Murray lived to tell the tale, it’s unclear why this detail needed to be substantiated.) Having provided all that detail, Journal editors still felt compelled to add in a second note on top of the story that “all dialogue was witnessed by reporters or confirmed by one or more people present when the words were spoken. All thoughts attributed to people in the article come from those people.”

Online responses to Scanlan’s piece about the Journal’s “about” box were mixed. One reader contrasted the exhaustive sourcing of the World Trade Center story with the paper’s routine use of (non-)attribution to anonymous sources. Another, Liz Carvlin, thought the Journal was protesting too much. “If you are a respected and generally accurate and careful newspaper,” she asked, “don’t you believe that your audience trusts that you have not written fiction?… The task of identifying some facts and not others seems only an attempt by editors to show off how responsible they have been. I would hope that they are as diligent with every story, not just one that uses the narrative style.”

Beyond the Appearance of Accountability

Oddly enough, the surge of interest in narrative journalism has coincided with a surge of skepticism among newspaper readers. Readers are being asked to believe that a story that reads like a work of fiction is entirely grounded in fact at the very moment when they are inclined to not trust the scrupulousness of reporters. Little wonder that editors are going the extra mile to assuage reader doubts.

The problem with “about” boxes is the problem with disclosure in general: If they don’t go far enough they create an appearance of accountability while falling short of the genuine article. Just as the words “Photo Illustration” under a digitally altered photo do not absolve editors of the intent to deceive if the type is too small for most readers to notice and the term is too vague for them to understand, editors cannot substitute general attestations of reportorial thoroughness for the specificity of in-story attribution.

In most stories, even most narrative stories, the traditional approach to attribution should remain the norm. In stories that rely to an unusual degree on reconstruction, The Wall Street Journal’s end-of-chapter style notes could serve as a prototype. Instead of telling readers that the reporter must know a lot because he spent this much time interviewing that many people, just tell them what attribution has always told them—where each piece of information came from.

Of course, no amount of disclosure gets a newspaper off the hook for a composite character like Michael Finkel’s Youssouf Male. A composite character is a fictional character. End of story.

Russell Frank is an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State University. He worked at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before making the switch from the newsroom to the classroom.

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