The goal of the narrative journalist is to create a story-world so powerful and engaging that the reader is swept away, so captivated that the outside world vanishes.
We want readers to lose themselves in our story, to forget about the writer behind the story in the same way that a director wants the audience to focus on the screen and not think about the cameraman.
But can we do that and at the same time practice ethical journalism?
No. Something has to give.
The reality in this day and age – where journalists’ ethics are coming under increasing scrutiny and fire – is that the reporter must let the reader in on the process of how the story was reported. And that’s always going to take away some of the power of the story.
Although narrative writers use many fiction techniques, we need to remind readers that the story is true, accurate and real. If readers don’t believe us, if our credibility comes under question, then it doesn’t matter how well the story is written.
The relationship between the narrative writer and the reader is one built upon trust. When the readers lose trust, it’s over.
So if the best-written fiction is like a movie, then narrative in newspapers is like a TV movie of the week with commercial interruptions. But don’t let those limitations be an excuse. We can still tell good stories, great stories, and do them the right way.
Great writing is built on great reporting. The standards required for a good narrative story are the same as required for an investigative story. But where the investigative reporter refers to specific documents or uses quotes from interviews, the narrative writer must blend these in a subtle way.
The ground rules are changing because of scandals that have rocked the journalism world. Editors – with good reason – now demand that we be as transparent as possible, to let readers always know how and where we got the information that appears in our stories.
Here’s a section from a story I wrote in 1990. The story dealt with a woman who faced a terrible choice about what to do with her younger son, who was severely disabled. I opened the story with a scene I witnessed, but eventually reconstructed some powerful scenes. At one point, the main character, Diana, didn’t know what to do with her son. She emotionally crashed and locked herself in the bathroom. This is how I wrote that scene:
“Don’t give up. Christopher needs you.”
My God. She doesn’t want Christopher to need her.
“Diana, open the door.”
She slumps in the room, her mind blank. She can’t think. She hears voices — her mother, her sister, her aunt. They cry and call to her, begging her to come out, to let them help.
Beaten, she opens the door. They hand her a Diet Coke, hug her and promise that everything will work out, that she isn’t alone.
They lie. They will leave. They will go back to their lives.
Only Diana will be left.
I wouldn’t write that scene today. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, and my editor wouldn’t allow it in the paper in that form. That scene was accurately and truly reported. I interviewed Diana, her sister, mother and aunt. Notice the telling detail – a Diet Coke. Not just a drink, or a soft drink, but a specific drink. Nothing was made up.
But under new rules, I couldn’t put something in quote marks that I didn’t hear. I’d tell readers that Diana “recalled” certain events, reminding readers that the scene was reconstructed.
Even though I believe that reconstructions are accurate, I now try to find stories that don’t need to be heavily reconstructed. That changes how I pick stories to write, or where I decide to start the story. These days, I want to be there when events unfold.
This is a recent example, a story about a kid who wants to try out for the high school basketball team. This is how I opened the story:
Mike retreated from the cafeteria and returned to the main hall, where he sat on a bench with his back against a window. After a few seconds, he stood and walked across the hall. An 8-1/2-by-11 sheet of paper was taped to the wall.
Seeing it made his palms sweat. At home, his decision had been easy. At home, though, everything was easy. There, he moved with grace and confidence, sure of himself and his place in the world. But Mike didn’t live just at home. He slept there, ate meals with his parents and older sister. But his crucible, the other place where he lived — and died small deaths each day — was in this high school.
He touched the paper and read the words: “BOYS’ BASKETBALL TRY-OUTS.”
I was there, right next to him, at all times. I asked him what he was thinking. I noticed his palms were damp, that he wiped them on his pant leg. I asked why.
Two years ago I spent months in a neo-natal intensive care unit for a four-part series. My editor – Jack Hart – included this note with the series to let readers in on the reporting and writing process.
Tom Hallman spent nine months visiting Level 3, getting to know nurses, parents and babies, and learning about the medical technology involved.
He observed most of the scenes described in the story firsthand, and Bruce Ely was often there to record them with his camera. On the few occasions when Hallman found it necessary to reconstruct events, they are clearly attributed to the memory of a direct participant.
No comment appears in direct quotes in this story unless Hallman heard it with his own ears. When he describes what nurses and parents were feeling or thinking as they performed their duties, he based his account on what they said in response to questions he asked during or immediately after the events depicted.
Every nurse, doctor and parent who appears in this series gave permission to Tom Hallman or Bruce Ely to be present to record what they saw and heard.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.