reporting

Journalist and New York Times’ best-selling author Kevin Maurer speaks on the thrill of war reporting

by Mariah Posey | March 15, 2017

kevin-maurerReporting on war is risky and rewarding, but not every journalist is able or willing to do it. But for Kevin Maurer, a freelance journalist and co-author of New York Times’ best-seller, “No Easy Day,” the opportunity to report on war felt like something he was meant to do.

After landing a job at the Fayetteville Observer in January 2003, a little over a year after the September 11 attacks, the chance to report overseas quickly fell into place. By early March the same year, he was reporting in Iraq.

“As a young reporter, the war was the story,” Maurer said. “It was the one story I felt like I had to cover somehow.”

He spent the next eight years between Iraq and Afghanistan working on numerous stories. He realized that he enjoyed being in the midst of all the chaos, always anxious to return after getting back to the states.

“It’s weird in that you go a couple times and there’s a romance to it,” he said. “There’s something to being over there in that situation. I only find that it gets stressful after the fact.”

Maurer found that living as an embed, he gradually became a part of the unit. But that connection made it nearly impossible for him to get the full story. So according to him, he never tried to.

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Graphic by Mariah Posey

Instead, he said his reporting “tries to put a human face” to the soldiers he was writing about.

“That’s the other dangerous side of being an embed,” he explained. “You’ve gotta continue to make sure you’re doing your job even though you’re starting to like these guys.”

Though that relationship can be easily blurred, Maurer stressed the importance of transparency between a reporter and his sources.

“Sources aren’t your friends,” he said. “They’re your eyes and ears. You do everything you can not to burn them, but they’re not your buddies and you can’t treat them as such.”

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Reporting on crime and court & balancing a watchful eye with authentic reporting to deliver the truth

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | March 6, 2017

Crime Top 10Before jumping into more substantive journalism, young reporters often begin their careers with a police beat, covering everything from fires to suicides. Though unfavorable at times, the beat can provide the opportunity for highly valuable reporting to reporters who can fully embrace the responsibility. When executed correctly — according to chapter four of America’s Best News Writing, “Crime and Courts,” — reporters “play a key role in creating a safe and just society.”

Below are some distinguished examples of civic journalism done by reporters who learned to successfully cover the dramatics of crime and courtrooms without falling into the trap of exaggeration of sensationalism.

 


Cathy Frye – “Caught in the Web: Evil at the Door” (2003)

85_8101238bWhen Frye chose to delve into uncovering the story of Kacie Woody’s abduction, she could have easily aligned with the “every parent’s nightmare” cliché that has become a staple for journalists. Rather, she scoped out an angle that stayed true to the horror of the events that unfolded while finding an in through a fresh angle. Her writing was selected by her editors as the year’s best non-deadline writing.

She let the events unfold in her writing from a variety of perspectives including Kacie’s, Kacie’s father, one of her online boyfriends, and even the stalker that would go on to kidnap her. Through chronology and a blend of narratives and a series of instant messages, Frye builds the suspense to what is ultimately an unanswerable question:

modelbehavio63: i am going to get off of here but i will leave it connected just in case . . . thanks so much for the help

Tazz2999: anytime but can answer sumthing 4 me

modelbehavior63: whats that?

Tazz2999: what happen to Kacie . . .

Linnet Myers – “Humanity on Trial” (1989)

linnet_5In order to soon win the ASNE award for government reporting, Myers had to adopt the eyes of the citizens and consider what they would most care about. While working for the Chicago Tribune, Myers wrote stories about Chicago’s Violence Court. Throughout the piece, she includes dialogue from the many parties involved, adding life into her writing. She even includes seemingly small commentary such as the judge saying, “You’re off aquarium duty. Do you understand?

Anne Hull – “Metal to Bone, Day 1: Click” (1993)

9_719152741bThe piece that would win Hull the 1994 ASNE award for non-deadline writing wasn’t short by any means. Rather, it was long, in-depth and full of details. Her reconstruction of the events that led up to a teenage boy’s decision to hold a gun to a police woman’s head and pull the trigger took the time to gain an understanding of both sides. She reported informatively and impartially.

“I wanted to bring a mugshot to life and let them learn about the life behind this photograph, and the path that swept this person to crime,” Hull said.

“Metal to Bone,” her three-part series includes exhaustive reporting conducted through shoe-leather and extensive interviewing. What results is reporting that reads similar to that of a novel, but includes authentic happenings and dialogue.


More Examples of Crime and Court Reporting

Sari Horwitz – “Justice in Indian Country” (2014)

Albert Samaha – “This is What They Did For Fun” (2015)

Daniel Engber – “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” (2015)

 

Vince Beiser delivers talk on how he worked against the grain and uncovered the global war on sand

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | Feb. 27, 2017

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Vince Beiser shows how much U.S. Sand and Gravel Production has increased over the years.

By chance, the story that would gain support from the Pulitzer Center and lead him to writing a book on the same topic was one that was only stumbled upon by the award-winning journalist. When Vince Beiser discovered his story on sand, he proved that great journalists are ones who read and follow through.

“I do a lot of international stuff so I just read a lot of off-beat publications and I just stumbled across this study about the sand mafias in India,” Beiser said. “Come to find out in India, it’s a huge story. Every single day there’s some story in the India Press about sand mafias.”

Luckily for him, the pitching process was a simple one due to his established rapport with Wired magazine and his editor.

“They know me and I know them, and it makes the whole process a lot easier,” he said. “Wired is so picky. They don’t assign many stories. I just crossed my fingers and they said yes.”

Since then, Beiser has been cracking away at his on-going project on the deadly war over sand while taking on a number of smaller freelancing jobs along the way. During his career, he has travelled to India, Dubai, China and all of the United States completing in-depth reporting and has written for esteemed publications such as Wired, The New York Times and The Atlantic.

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Photo by Vince Beiser | Sand dredgers in Poyang Lake by Hamashu village.

Sand is more than grains of rock

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Vince Beiser explains how sand is used in the construction of buildings and cities.

According to Beiser, sand is the most important solid substance in the world. It makes up our concrete, windows, computer chips, phone screens and more.

“It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization,” Beiser said.

It’s all “just sand,” but Beiser said the urban boom is depleting sand worldwide with constant growing city populations. Riverbeds are being destroyed to gather enough sand to support the infrastructure of numerous buildings. Lake Poyang for example, China’s biggest freshwater lake and the world’s biggest sand mine, has 30 times more the amount of sand being scooped out than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers.

Although there are some ways sand can be recycled, Beiser said there isn’t much to be done on a large scale to substitute its use.

“Just the sheer mass we’re talking about, there’s just nothing else on this planet we have that much of,” Beiser said.
beiser-pullBecause of the immense damage being done, governments all over the world are trying to control sand mining. But where there is law and order, there is crime. There has been a rise in illegal sand mining as well as the formation of sand mafias, leaving some unfortunate souls murdered over the valuable resource.

According to Beiser, this lifestyle is bound to be short-lived.

“This whole model of living we have in America is just not sustainable,” he said. “We’re running out of oil, we’re running out of water, we’re running out of fish. We’re just consuming too much.

“We’re just eating this whole planet.”

The American example has also rubbed off on other countries. According to Beiser, with an insanely large and increasing global population, there will never be enough to go around.

“The entire developing world is growing and becoming richer and they want to live like we do, and who can blame them?” he said. “There just isn’t enough stuff on the planet for everyone to live that way.”

The art of freelancing, writing in-depth and self-promotion

Beiser said freelancing “has never been an easy way to make a living,” especially when doing substantive journalism. But it’s still his source of income. Although he said it’s reporting the issues that concern him, he also has to look for different ways to sell it.

“Part of being a freelancer and part of being a journalist is you’ve got to self-promote,” he said. “I’ve got my own little list of radio hosts and TV bookers.”

With enterprise stories such as the ones Beiser takes on, there can sometimes be a competitive nature present. While following his story in India, he bumped into a guy from The New York Times who happened to also be working on a sand story. He knew he had to beiser-tipspick up the pace somehow if he wanted get his out first. Within about three week’s time, he was able to write the story based on the information he had compiled so far and post the story on the web two months before it was meant to be published.

“That one I actually did in a big hurry,” he said.

As a freelance journalist, Beiser explained the challenges faced when trying to determine where to start with finding sources.

“Because I kind of jump from topic to topic, I don’t really build a network of sources like a beat reporter does,” he said.

He suggested reading other stories that have been done involving a particular topic and finding the activists related to them.

“Once you poke your head into that thing, whatever it is, they know the other people to talk to,” Beiser said.

While scoping out the right people to talk to can be difficult, Beiser said that actually sitting down to write everything is typically less stressful. Though he used to overwhelm himself by going over everything before starting to write, he learned that making a bare bones draft and building from there was the best way to begin.

“By the time I’m done all my reporting, I’ve got a pretty good idea in my head of how the story’s going to go,” he said. “I literally go through all my notes and plug stuff in.”

Profile & feature story writing: the importance of good listening and scoping out the human interest

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 15, 2017
Once a ploy to increase circulation, stories that focused on the “human interest” were deemed as yellow journalism. But in modern times, good journalists have learned that even hard news benefits from elements of a feature—scenes, anecdotes, and voices of the people involved. More importantly, they’ve learned that journalistic integrity does not have to be compromised to evoke a good story. In fact, the best stories are those that are honest, fair, and thorough. They can even “reflect powerfully upon the issues of the day,” according to chapter seven of America’s Best News Writing: “The Profile and Feature Story.”

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Graphic by Mariah Posey

Below are distinguished examples of journalists who remembered how to be good listeners and found the human interest in their stories.


Cynthia Gorney – “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids” (1979)20434

When Gorney profiled the acclaimed children’s book writer, Theodor Seuss Geisel, she captured the storybook essence of his character. The precise details she was able to pick up are due to nothing less than pristine attention paid on-the-scene, and it won her the ASNE award for feature writing in 1980. Even more impressive is her ability to jump in and out of the story, finding a neat balance between telling us what we should know and then letting her writing show us for itself. For example, telling us that Geisel had struggled over his Lorax character for a full year, and then showing us through Geisel’s own reflections:

“’I hadn’t thought of the Lorax for three weeks,’ Geisel said. ‘And a herd of elephants came across the hill … And I picked up a laundry pad and wrote the whole book that afternoon on a laundry pad.’” (p. 172)

Saul Pett – “Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It” (1980)

saul_pettPett takes pride in taking the unconventional route and doing more than what’s called for, and it shows in his 1980 piece on popular New York City mayor, Edward Koch. His 65-word lead takes the times describe the many quirks of Koch’s being: “irrepressible,” “impolitic,” “unsexy.” His summary of it all? “Clearly, an original.”

Instead of focusing on mundane facts, he brings Koch’s character to life weaving history and current-day happenings into stream of narrative. It was this skill that led him to win both the 1981 ASNE award for non-deadline writing and a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Mirta Ojito – “A Sentimental Journey to la Casa of Childhood” (1998)

mirta_ojito-e1407185554203In Ojito’s account of life in Cuba, she reminds reporters of the importance of living in the moment. She even said that she could not take much credit for what manifested in “A Sentimental Journey” because she “just sat there and it happened.”

Though untraditional, Ojito chose to write the story in first-person, illustrating the discontinuity between the memory and reality of her childhood home. And though specific to Cuba, she wrote in a way that could relate to readers across the board in reveling the call of an old childhood nickname and the comfort of family household items. Through her point of view, she establishes that Cuba remains undivided despite propaganda campaigns.

Ojito’s ability to let the scope of her experience guide her writing not only earned her the front page of The New York Times, but also the 1999 ASNE award for covering the world. 

David Finkel – “For Lerro, Skyway Nightmare Never Ends” (1985) 

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In his 1985 piece, Finkel places his focus on John Lerro, the man who drove a huge tanker into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge the day a big storm hit. He chronicles the day it happened, Lerro’s history and the after.

While interviewing for the story, Finkel mentioned how important it was for him that Lerro not tell him how everything happened, but show him through his movements and actions. The success of his approach is reflected in his writing and won him the 1986 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Tommy Tomlinson- “A Beautiful Find” (2003)

tommy_tomlinson1Tomlinson turns math into a thing of beauty in reconstructing the four-year quest of mathematician John Swallow to solve a problem that no one else had yet been able to. He uses an interesting question format to guide his narrative, and uses quotes sparingly in order to highlight the ones that offer “deep insight” into his subject.

With his piece, Tomlinson demonstrates his grasp on the story when he bring it full circle by writing that Swallow’s left eye brow rose up after finally solving the problem, a small detail he planted in the lead of his article. It won him multiple honors, including ASNE award for profile writing.

Blaine Harden – “Life, Death and Corruption on an African Mainstream” (1987)

0lgw1l4rUsing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as inspiration, Harden covered the African river trip as a way to educate readers on the country of Zaire and the effect of its leadership. But above all, he made sure his voice shone through countless revisions.

“I spent a tremendous amount of time writing the first 25 to 30 paragraphs of the story I rewrote it maybe 35 or 40 times … I wanted to have elegant language there … I wanted to have some echoes of Conrad there, but I also wanted to have my own writing.”

Throughout his article, Harden references Conrad and the imagery displayed in his novel while weaving in his own observations and discussing the changes. He relies heavily on two archetypes according to ABNW: “the river as a symbol of the flow of life, and the ship as a microcosm for the world.” Though literary in nature, Harden’s writing won him the 1988 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Ken Fuson – “Ah, What A Day!” (1995)

kenfuson_lr1Weather has proven to be one of the most symbolic tools in storytelling and Fuson uses it as a tool in his 1995 piece to reflect deeply on the human experience. Challenging himself to write a truly short story (as a reporter used to long, in-depth pieces), he succeeded in writing efficiently, yet impactful. As a reporter, he reminds us that all forms of short writing including headline, photo captions and news briefs when mastered can act as small gifts to readers. Even his lead is simple and to-the-point: “Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March.” However, how Fuson propels his challenge to the next level is by continuing to write the rest of the article in one seamless flow of narrative, compacting it all into a single sentence. His is the type of writing that reminds others of the daily surprises a day can bring, and gets them to enjoy it.


More Examples of Feature Writing

Sam Anderson – “The James Franco Project” (2010)

In Anderson’s06-samandersonphoto-articleinline piece, he draws from one of the first tips of feature and profile writing: find the human being behind the celebrity. In his in-depth following on James Franco, he does exactly that, using a series of quotes as the format to break his coverage up and move the story along. He also uses quotes sparingly choosing rather to depend on narrative, but makes use of meaningful dialogue when relevant.

Julia Keller – “Part 1: A Wicked Wind Takes Aim” (2004)

unknown7Keller also knows the value of a good weather piece as shown in her article covering the 2004 tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois for 10 seconds. Her telling is the opposite of Fuson’s in many ways: it’s long, it isn’t a bright retelling, and it makes use of several quotes and perspectives. But it works. She pays particular attention the logistics of the event, using it depict the horror that can happen in a simple 10 seconds: “It’s a long, deep breath. It’s no time at all.” Her reporting won the 2005 Pulitzers Prize for feature writing and serves as yet another reminder than nothing beats shoe-leather journalism.

Gene Weingarten – “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” (2007)

As weingarteng0-van experiment to test just how busy the people a part of D.C.’s rush hour are, The Washington Post got professional violinist Joshua Bell to play the violin posted up on a wall of the Metro. Though Bell is considered one of America’s great musicians, many passerby ignored the stellar performance or offered chump change before moving on with their day. Weingarten was able to capture the nerves of Bell as well as the general atmosphere felt in the Metro as many D.C. residents felt too preoccupied to stop and enjoy the classical tunes. His chronicling of the event won him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2008.