Editor’s Note: Last weekend, Boston University hosted its annual conference on narrative journalism. In the first of two dispatches from the conference, Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard writes about a panel discussion featuring “Serial’s” Sarah Koenig, among other accomplished journalists, on gaining access to sources.
What do you do if the subject of your story is in jail, in hiding, or otherwise unwilling or unable to talk to you? You keep trying.
That was the message of five journalists who have written stories with seemingly impossible insight and access to their subjects: Fernanda Santos of The New York Times; Masha Gessen, who has written about Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot, and Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers; author and journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis; Beth Schwartzapfel with the Marshall Project; and Sarah Koenig of “Serial.” The five sat on a panel on access in journalism at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University.
When Gessen was looking for ways to write about the Tsarnaev brothers, she went to the region where their ancestors lived. She also spent time in Boston, at one point checking into an AirBnB on the street of a person she hoped to talk to. “There’s nothing like being there. Just be there physically,” she said.
Santos, the Phoenix bureau chief for the Times, also said her experience on the scene helped build contacts for her reporting on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting group who lost 19 members in a fire in 2013. Santos, who is writing a book on the group, had a relationship with some families of firefighters, and her presence helped her to meet more families and understand the culture of the team and why they would go into danger the way they did, she said.
But being present doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will talk to you. Santos said the firefighters’ families appreciated that she wasn’t busting down their doors, demanding to talk in a time of tragedy. A calmer approach, through letters and mutual contacts, worked better.
The others agreed. Gessen once offered to help a reluctant source shovel snow. (The source declined, but later talked.)
“The nice ask can get you really far,” said Schwartzapfel. Schwartzapfel writes frequently about people who are in prison, which means she often communicates with her subjects through letters. One letter recipient, a prisoner who was denied parole, called Schwartzapfel “an angel” for simply reaching out, she said.
And it has to be genuine. “They don’t give a shit about your scoop,” Schwartzapfel said, adding that compassion and empathy are key, and kindness shouldn’t be employed to use subjects as means to an end in reporting. She then asked if anyone had read Janet Malcolm’s treatise on ethics and honesty, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer,’ a few crowd members raised their hands, and so did Koenig.
“I’m a big proponent of a super nice, super respectful approach,” said Koenig. “I wasn’t an asshole,” she said of her approach while reporting “Serial.” Koenig added that aside from being kind, the technique had advantages. It made it easier for her to circle back to people who initially didn’t want to talk. Half the time, people would speak to her on the third or fourth approach, since no bridges had been burnt earlier. (Koenig’s technique in approaching subjects was on public display in a series of articles last year, in which The Intercept published excerpts of emails she sent one of Serial’s main characters, Jay.)
Koenig’s access to “Serial’s” central voice, Adnan Syed, came only through the phone. He called her from prison, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend. This was a workaround. Koenig wasn’t allowed to record Syed in person, so she visited in person, then worked to build a relationship that led to him calling her. (The prison put a stop to this in the last week of recording, she said).
Syed had limited time to talk to Koenig. Others weren’t willing to talk at all. But a number of sources had talked in court, and Koenig had access to recordings of Syed’s trial. But those recordings almost didn’t made it on the show. Koenig explained how Baltimore officials had warned her and the other producers that they weren’t allowed to broadcast the audio from the videotapes of court proceedings. But they pushed back, and realized the rule officials cited referred mainly to broadcasting the actual video, not just the audio, and that, according to the lawyers they consulted, legal action would be unlikely.
“If you push at this stuff, even a little bit, it works,” Koenig said.
Sometimes it helps to step back. Denizet-Lewis described how he got access for his story, “Double Lives on the Down Low,” about a sex subculture in which nonwhite men who identify as straight have sex with other men. Denizet-Lewis went online and found Down Low groups on AOL. There he found people who became what he called “ambassadors,” and helped him gather trust and contacts. But, he said, it’s important to not constantly be around asking questions. “Know when to go away,” he said. Subjects can get tired of being watched.
In addition to offering a reminder to follow the basic ethics of never deceiving someone into thinking you’re not a journalist or that you’re not on the record during conversations, the panelists pushed the importance of being honest about who you are as a person.
“Use the thing in your personality that people like,” said Koenig. Whether shyness, humor, or charm, these traits endear journalists to friends off duty, and they can work on duty, too. Denizet-Lewis said the nature of reporting a narrative piece involves spending a lot of time with people, and you share your personality with the subject. The fact that the sources’ words are the story must never be blurred or forgotten, he said, but openness is inevitable, to a degree.
This can also lead to a better outcome, said Schwartzapfel. She said sources feel that “you’ll do right by them” if you’re honest the whole time you’re dealing with them.