Voices

5 Helpful Reporting Tips from The New Yorker Festival

By Erin Nelson October 20th, 2016

Every day, I religiously check my mailbox to look for the newest issue of The New Yorker. I know it only comes once a week, but each time I open the mailbox, I have this irrational hope that a fresh copy will be waiting for me. When it does arrive, I head upstairs, establish an impenetrable nook, and spend the next 45 minutes with a familiar friend.

The New Yorker is the gold standard for investigative and cultural reporters. But it also has a reputation for being somewhat guarded and unapproachable. So when I saw there would be a panel called “Reporting for Reform: When Words Change Lives” at The New Yorker Festival, I wanted to go to learn more about the magazine’s philosophy and process. Four New Yorker journalists, the magazine’s executive editor, and an advising attorney spoke at length about how they approach investigative reporting.

After 90 minutes of discussion and Q&A, I left with a revelation: These reporters deal with many of the same problems I face on a daily basis. They may have more resources and credibility, but their advice was not exclusive to those who navigate prison systems or decode confidential files about tyrants.

Here were the top takeaways from the session.

Present a nuanced point of view

Readers want the freedom to decide for themselves how they feel about a particular subject. To do so, they need a holistic understanding of the players involved—how different camps interpret and explain facts. This nuance gives a voice to those who may have been overshadowed, and has the potential to shift public discourse.

“Especially in a segregated society, nuance humanizes the ‘dark other’ and has the potential to influence policy,” said Anthony C. Thompson, a legal professor at New York University.

At The New Yorker, nuance drives every story from exposés on abuses in Syria to profiles of comedians. It serves as a principle of the publication and, in large part, is what makes it enjoyable to read.

Consider how each detail affects your source

Regardless of whether or not you cover sensitive topics with high stakes, reporter Sarah Stillman, insists that all writers have to consider how each point in an article can expose a source.

Instead of asking how the whole piece will affect the people she interviewed, Stillman examines how each quote or reference could put her source in a precarious situation.

Eyal Press, who exposed the torturing of mentally ill inmates by guards in a Florida prison, spoke about how he is grateful for the distinguished fact checkers at The New Yorker, but reminded the audience that it is ultimately the journalist’s job to accurately present information and protect informants.

Determine which sources corroborate your data

Sources humanize our research. They become the voice for a thesis or trend, and they color our narrative with subjectivity.

For New Yorker writer Ben Taub, choosing the right source means not only finding a compelling anecdote, but also identifying the person whose narrative will support your research.

“Whose story can link [to] documents?” Taub asked the audience. “And how reliable of a witness are they?”

When Taub was researching violence committed by the Syrian government, these questions were essential. So many people were willing to come forward and share relevant stories, but that didn’t mean they were all right for the story. Even if a source can offer controversial or fascinating insights, writers need to be able to distinguish the tweetable quotation from the one that corroborates hard evidence.

Be transparent but not conciliatory

Biased blogging has placed a healthy burden on writers to be more transparent with their audience. The New York Times, for example, dedicates an entire portion of its site to “the stories behind the stories”—a deep dive into what happened during the reporting process. The section acts as a measure of accountability as well as a resource for other reporters.

The panelists argued that while being transparent with your audience is critical, it is important to extend this transparency to your sources. Clearly communicating how you plan to use (or not use) an interview gives your subject a chance to prepare for any unwanted backlash.

But as Press cautioned the audience, “Getting it right means more than just what the source wants.”

Find the gap

When an audience member asked the panelists how they decide to pursue a topic, for journalist Jennifer Gonnerman the answer was simple. When reading a news clip about the unlawful detention of Kalief Browder at Rikers Island Correctional Center, she realized, “If I didn’t write the story, it wouldn’t be told.”

Stillman echoed the sentiment: “I ask myself, where is the clear public policy hole?”

The potential to alter policy, as Stillman did when President Obama took notice of her coverage of foreign labor on U.S. military bases, is the ideal result of this type of investigative reporting. But on a more basic level, these writers wanted to tap into an angle with a fresh perspective that impacts the public and maybe even takes off on social media.

“Social media is a way to keep the story alive longer and have the ability to follow up on it in the long haul,” Stillman explained.

“Most of the time, I’m just praying they’ll click on the story and make it to the end of ten thousand words,” Gonnerman said. “That’s a commitment.”

Image by Klaus-Dieter Thill / Getty
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