By Frank, Russell
Nieman Reports , Vol. 56, No. 3
When reporters write stories at 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...."
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?
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. …