The Power of Oral History as Journalism: First-Person Reports about Bill Cosby and Chernobyl Bring New Attention to an Old Form of Storytelling

By O'Brien, Keith | Nieman Reports, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Power of Oral History as Journalism: First-Person Reports about Bill Cosby and Chernobyl Bring New Attention to an Old Form of Storytelling


O'Brien, Keith, Nieman Reports


"I THINK I STARTED EVERY INTERVIEW WITH: TELL ME HOW you met Bill Cosby." Noreen Malone, a senior editor at New York magazine, didn't plan the question ahead of time. As she set out to interview the 35 women accusing Cosby of sexual assault for New York's July 2015 cover story, Malone had other questions on her mind, like would the alleged victims speak to her at all? Could she get them to open up? But once she began interviewing the women, one by one, Malone realized that this question--neutral yet probing, simple yet cutting straight to the core of the narrative--was the perfect place to begin a painful discussion. "I let them choose the starting point for the story," she says. "It just put it on their terms. And it just went from there."

Malone is a magazine writer, not an oral historian. But her working method for the Cosby story could have been pulled straight from the oral historian's handbook. Ask open-ended questions. Get people talking, and keep them talking. The women, to Malone's surprise, did just that. And the more they talked, filling 232 pages in transcripts, the more Malone realized her voice, the writer's voice, would only get in the way. "The flow of a feature didn't feel quite right for it," she says. "To me, what was so effective was hearing from the women themselves and having that be as undiluted as possible."

Her editors agreed. So Malone edited the transcripts down by theme: how the women met Cosby, what happened, and why they came forward. And the story that resulted was something of a hybrid. Malone wrote an opening essay, followed by first-person "testimony" from the alleged victims--an oral history, of sorts, like writing, only completely different. "It's the opposite of writing," Malone says. "You're not taking a blank page and creating something new from it. You're sculpting away; you're chipping away; and cutting to make it so much better."

Oral history is undergoing something of a revival. In recent months, magazines like Rolling Stone (oral history of the Allman Brothers), Vanity Fair (oral history of the Comedy Cellar), and Outside (oral history of "Hot Dog... The Movie") have published panoramic tales using first-person interviews. In 2015, Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work, including "Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster," a compilation of interviews, written as monologues, stretching at times for pages and detailing the horrors of the 1986 nuclear accident.

StoryCorps, perhaps more than any other organization, has helped make oral history mainstream. The project, which has recorded some 65,000 conversations since 2003, archiving them at the Library of Congress, specializes in recording first-person voices. In 2015, the organization made it even easier for people to preserve their stories, launching a free mobile app that has since notched up nearly 80,000 interviews. And, in general, more people are listening, according to Robin Sparkman, the organization's CEO: StoryCorps podcast listenership has doubled in the past year. "Human beings all over the planet, we're really trying to connect to other people," Sparkman says of the growing interest in oral history. "There really is a human need--a biological, emotional need--to connect with another person. And I think this is a way of doing that. It's a form of intimacy, and it's cathartic. It's being heard and being listened to."

Even archival material--recorded long ago and stored away, often forgotten, in academic libraries--is in greater demand, observes Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky and president of the Oral History Association. "We used to brag about 500 people using our collection a year. We're getting about 8,000 to 10,000 a month now," he says. "We get requests, every day, from all over the world." And he's getting new material, too--new interviews--five times what he used to collect in a year. …

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