“The Trials of Whiteboy Rick,” the Atavist Magazine story, by Evan Hughes, of a baby-faced young white man who rose to the top of Detroit’s mostly black cocaine world. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” about journalist Michelle McNamara’s obsessive search for Golden State Killer. “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes,” the 2019 Netflix documentary on one of America’s most notorious serial killers, who still haunts the nation’s pscyche 30 years after his execution.
Nonfiction about evil and crime is thriving.
The theme of this year’s Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University was “telling true stories in turbulent times.” Whether intended or not, that “turbulence” included a strong of thread of presentations, resources and cautions about reporting and writing dark stories: criminals as main characters, gun violence as a recurring event, the rise of racism, slavery on the high seas.
But through that thread wove another: the incongruous idea of empathy for those we would disdain. Rather than being clear-cut stories of good and bad, such stories present an inherent conundrum for the journalist, one that conference keynoter speaker and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow wrestled with in his recent book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Saslow spent months exploring the case of Derek Black, who was raised as the heir apparent of America’s white supremacy movement. As Black journeys from certitude to confusion to transformation, Saslow also chronicles the moral conflict of those confounded by the proper response to Black. As Saslow notes in his book: “What was the appropriate response to the most intolerant kinds of free speech? Exclusion or inclusion? Was it better to shame and demonize…? Or was it more effective to somehow reach out…?”
“The struggle is the answer.” ~ Evan Ratliff
These same questions confront journalists who try to write about subjects with empathy and open-mindedness, while giving their hateful actions and views a platform. That dilemma was addressed directly at conference breakout sessions by three reporters who repeatedly reach out to society’s villains: Beth Schwartzapfel of The Marshall Project, whose reporting on injustices in the criminal justice system wins awards year after year; Evan Ratliff, co-founder of the Atavist, co-host of the Longform Podcast, and author of “The Mastermind” about the quest to take down drug lord Paul Le Roux; and Jeff Sharlet, the Dartmouth professor and National Magazine Award winner who has written about the influence of Christian fundamentalism in American politics. (Sharlet’s forthcoming book, “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers,” is an exploration of vulnerability and suffering, which he at first reported through Instagram snapshots that he took during a two year period of insomnia and late-night driving.)All of the reporters offered nuts-and-bolts tips (more on that below) for doing this kind of work. But they also weighed in on the sticky issues that come with “platforming bad guys.” They discussed how they navigate a line between portraying the authentic, non-stereotyped lives of pedophiles, hitmen and hate-mongers without “over-humanizing” them. That challenge starts from the moment the reporting begins.
For example, Schwartzapfel said she spends considerable reporting time just trying to find appropriate terminology to describe her subjects. She hunts for a middle ground between using charged terms such as “teen murderers” on one end of the spectrum and, on the other, being overly careful with phrases such as “persons experiencing a sex offender conviction.” In “Banished,” a Marshall Project story about paroled sex offenders who are left homeless by restrictive housing laws, Schwartzapfel worked with her editor to find a balance in writing about people who have “done the worst thing you can do to a person,” while simultaneously shedding light on the factors that force them to live as nomads.
“If a monster invites you to lunch, you should go. Carefully.” ~ Jeff Sharlet
The journalists also discussed the physical and psychological risks inherent in pursuing such stories and the precautions necessary to protect themselves and their families. Sharlet began his talk by acknowledging that he is being doxed by organizations critical of his work; his home address, pictures of his children’s school and more have been circulated on the internet as part of an intimidation campaign. He has had many standard links to his professional bios shut down, and asked conference attendees at his talk not to tweet about him. (He granted Storyboard permission to write about his talk here.) Ratliff also said he takes some precautions: He is careful not to write about criminals who live or work in his city, and puts no information about his children on the internet.
Another consistent theme the presenters touched on was the inherent danger in gaining enough proximity to struggle with emotional boundaries. Schwartzapfel found herself sympathizing with a convicted pedophile who was terrified of the world around him. Sharlet had his picture taken with a person who advocates executing homosexuals and their allies. (Sharlet, who has reported on intolerant views on four continents, said he has amassed a file of such photos on his computer.) An additional and chronic challenge in such reporting is deciding when and how to negotiate anonymity for story sources and subjects, especially when those sources are also criminals.
For those navigating the minefields to reporting on society’s darker corners, Ratliff had one piece of overarching realistic advice: “The struggle is the answer.” Sharlet echoed that: “If any of you have a really good 1,2,3 for how to do this work — I would love to hear it.”Meanwhile, here were some of the actionable tips offered in the workshops:
Beth Schwartzapfel: Data-driving stories at The Marshall Project need characters — human beings — to function in the same way as fans cheering from the sidelines of a marathon. Those characters make the data relatable, keep the reader reading, and remind us why a story matters. To find characters that illuminate stories:
- Talk to public defenders to help understand the criminals and accused, and prosecutors to provide perspective about victims. Ask them to tell you their most outrageous stories.
- Search public records data-bases and scour court documents. Try using PACER, the public access site to court records.
- Communicate with people in jail. JPay and CorrLinks can provide and pay for email access; she suggests pre-paying the cost of an inmate’s replies. Remember that all communication is monitored, so know the rules.
- Talk to the relatives and friends of the incarcerated.
- Work through advocacy groups to gain access and cooperation.
- Show up where your story subjects live their lives. Do shoe-leather reporting.
Evan Ratliff: He finds crime reporting inherently interesting because it has a strong clear beginning, middle and end. But he offered these cautions:
- Be careful of The Fascinating: don’t forget that these are people who may have done terrible things and, possibly, to whom something terrible has happened.
- Report your way to empathy. Try to put yourself in the place of the person you are writing about.
- Make sure you are doing your work for a good reason.
- As a reporter who’s had his work optioned for Hollywood (a goal built into the business model of the Atavist) he advises against buying the life rights to someone’s story. Going into business with your subjects can encourage you to tell a crazier story and to overlook deception.
- Be comfortable with criticism and be ready with answers about why you did what you did in your reporting.
Jeff Sharlet: His journalism often centers on people who elicit fear, anger, hatred, contempt and revulsion. Or, as he said, “Pedophiles. Genociders. Killers.” The most revolting are those he most wants to understand. His counsel:
- We don’t know enough about monsters.
- There are risks to approaching the deplorable. Be wary of amplifying and platforming evil.
- “If a monster invites you to lunch, you should go. Carefully.”