Learning from the greats: Reaction to Chapter 9 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 9: The Classics

APRIL 15, 2011

To be a reporter, to be a good reporter, one has to have a passion for the craft of writing. Reporters must have a passion for journalism.

Journalism is often a quest for social reform. Good reporters whose writing is powerful report on injustice, corruption, social issues and issues that need reform. It’s important for journalists to be the watchdogs of social reform, to alert the public to issues that require reform. They shouldn’t be afraid to write for social change, social reform. Reporters educate the public. And a public that is not aware of these issues, that is left in the dark is an uninformed and endangered public — it’s more possible for a public to be controlled and manipulated when they aren’t aware.

Reporters should “go beneath the actual events to explore their meaning,” Clark and Scanlan said.

There have been and still are untold stories in America and people whose voices are stifled. So reporters must report on these stories and offer a voice for these people. “The great writer struggles out of the cocoon of self-censorship and self-doubt to fly to a place where difficult truths can be examined, expressed and exposed to the light of day,” the editors said.

Good reporters must be aware of the political and cultural effects of new media, the Internet and other forms of media. This helps them know the impact and influence they’ll have on others, on the public. Reporters should also be aware of the capability of organizations, politicians and others to control the media and influence and manipulate the public. Being aware of this potential power will help guide media professionals in their work, life and ethical decisions.

Journalists have a role to be a social and media critic, according to Clark and Scanlan. They must be critical of the media, their own work and others. This ties into the watchdog role of journalists, to watch out for government and business corruption and other social issues. Journalists need to educate citizens and influence a culture of media literacy and critical thinking.

This questioning and critical thinking keeps people free, empowered and protected from tyranny and corruption, Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters have a powerful role, they should embrace it and acquire a powerful voice. The reporters included in this chapter on classic reporting, stories that were classic, had powerful writing voices.

Voice and powerful writing comes from determined, strong reporting. Reporters should observe, gather details, direct experiences and reactions of people and include those in their stories. Reporters should describe scenes and events and people’s emotions so readers can connect to the story. Clark and Scanlan said reporting should include honest emotion.

Get out of the office and on the street. You’ll find an interesting story. So go tell it.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Writers practice writing and revising for years, working to improve. Reporters must work to improve their reporting, interviewing, inclusion of details, writing and voice. Start by imitating other great writers and their writing style. Read a lot of great writing. As one of the writing greats listed in the chapter, Red Smith, said: “Your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.”

Top 5 list of classic journalism stories:

1. Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility, The Washington Post

Dana Priest and Anne Hull

These reporters write several articles about the failings of the army hospital, Walter Reed. They focus on specific people who are affected by the bureaucracy, neglect and lack of doctors at the hospital — the returning soldiers.

The average stay in the hospital is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years, they write. Their word choice, description and depiction of the hospital work to show the damning evidence against it, as Clark and Scanlan described in the chapter.

Priest and Hull include specific details about the hospital, rooms, people, even bathrooms in their articles.

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

They include sensory details,  to ensure readers can smell, hear, see, taste and touch the hospital, its age and neglect.

The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out.

Duncan and other soldiers recover in Building 18 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The reporters said it was “not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss.”

Priest and Hull report to show the need for reform in the hospital, to show a social issue. They find soldiers who want to speak out about the issue, people who are upset, tired, in need of help and angry.

Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, an amputee, lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. “We don’t know what to do,” he said. “The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

2. Two Worlds Paired by War, The New York Times

C.J. Chivers

Chivers writes with a strong voice. When reading, you feel as if you start to know him. He often inserts himself into the writing, into the article, but remains objective. He is showing the human side of war and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He is writing to connect people across seas, from different cultures (American and Afghanistan, both engaged in war).

Just when you thought you had figured something out, you were proved wrong. You always risked missing the most important moments, because you were looking for something else.

He writes very descriptively, describing the Afghan landscape and people around him.

When a porter asks him where he’s from, and Chivers answers New York, an interesting moment happens and Chivers describes it with incredible detail.

When he spoke again it was in the slow diction of a man on an excursion into an unfamiliar language, but who wanted to be heard. He nodded, deep enough to be a bow, before raising both hands to eye level and letting them flutter to his waist.

The meaning was obvious, even high in mountains in a distant corner of the earth. Towers falling down.

“New York,” the Afghan porter said. “Very sorry us.”

He uses powerful structure to get across the theme of war happening in both countries, affecting many people in different ways.

New York and Afghanistan, paired worlds of rubble, work and grief.

Chivers uses a unique way to structure his writing, quotes and descriptions — he writes specifically about newspaper, radio and television stories about the war. This gives the article a strange feeling and context. He often writes about a notebook (a reporter’s notebook) with notes, but how no single scene can capture the devastation in New York and Afghanistan.

New York. A tremendous platinum-and-gold flash where the jet disappeared into the tower, and then the explosion’s roar and screams from a crowd breaking into a run. Mothers on a stairwell in the smoky Trinity Church day care center, cradling children and getting ready to step outside, unaware that the remaining tower was about to go. An old woman in a wheelchair being pushed down Greenwich Street, visible one moment and lost the next as another stampede began and the second wave of stinging dust swooshed through. A fire chief limping as he escorted out the bagged remains of one of his battalion’s dead. A National Guard captain walking by flashlight through the lightless World Trade Center basement, his beam briefly illuminating the face of the Bugs Bunny doll at the ruined Warner Brothers store.

Afghanistan. A teenager tossing a grenade into a brown river — ga-loomph, a geyser of spray — and then wading in to look for stunned fish. A haze of dust at sunset as the Northern Alliance infantry moved from Bangi to Khanabad, the restless soldiers hoping to claim the city in time to break the Ramadan fast. Two Taliban soldiers on their backs in the Kunduz bazaar, the dime-sized bullet holes in their foreheads showing the manner of execution hours before. A 10-year-old boy whose home was destroyed by American bombs describing pain in two limbs he no longer had.

3. A People of the Sea

Katrina took away Coast Vietnamese’s life, work, Sun Herald

Joshua Norman

Norman uses a literary technique from creative writers in the beginning and end of his article on Hurricane Katrina. He tells a mythical story that he was apparently told by a Viatnamese person.

A Vietnamese folk legend says in ancient times, the sea dragon Lac Long Quan married the mountain fairy Au Co and she gave birth to 100 children. Half of the children went with their mother back to the mountains, and half stayed to live off the sea.

From these 100 children came the Vietnamese people.

The 50 children who stayed with their father became fishermen. Thus those who make their living off the sea have an honored status in Vietnamese society.

But he then goes dramatically into the article. “The sea rose and took away much from the Vietnamese community along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina,” he wrote. The folk legend now becomes grim and sinister. But it remains a strong motif in the piece.

Norman brings the folk legend back, and a sense of hope and not only desperation, to end the story.

South Mississippi’s pleasant climate and ties to the sea are what keep many Vietnamese here. While the sea took so much away, many said there is much that it can give back and that is their hope for the future.

4. GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair, The Washington Post

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This is one of the first in a series of articles by the famous duo of reporters — Woodward and Bernstein. They reported on the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Woodward and Bernstein reported for hours, calling countless people for information and to track down names and money, going to people’s houses to interview and researching in the library.

They stuck with the clear, simple and direct news writing style. It is extremely effective and necessary for a story like this.

Their lead exemplifies the direct style. But it also shows that news writing’s clarity quickly shows fault and the facts to readers.

One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee.

The suspect, former CIA employee James W. McCord Jr., 53, also holds a separate contract to provide security services to the Republican National Committee, GOP national chairman Bob Dole said yesterday.

The reporters included numerous sources, quotes and information. They were sifting out the meaning behind the events, as Clark and Scanlan said, and what had actually occurred.

It is evident in their writing that they contacted several sources, or at least tried to. When people refused to comment, they wrote that, adding credibility and accountability of journalists to track down leads and ask questions.

Police sources said last night that they were seeking a sixth man in connection with the attempted bugging. The sources would give no other details.

“We’re baffled at this point . . . the mystery deepens,” a high Democratic party source said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien said the “bugging incident . . . raised the ugliest questions about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century.

“No mere statement of innocence by Mr. Nixon’s campaign manager will dispel these questions.”

The Democratic presidential candidates were not available for comment yesterday.

5. Ten Days in a Madhouse, The New York World

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly’s investigation into the mental institutions of New York were a breakthrough in the social reform of the institution. She investigated and wrote about Blackwell Island Insane Asylum.

Her articles prompted a critical look at the mental institutions and how mentally ill people were treated.

She writes in a first-hand account, which brings the harsh and unjust treatment of the patients out more. She allowed herself to be admitted to one of the asylums for the insane in order to witness for herself and be able to write about her own real, disturbing experiences in the institution.

Bly writes with conviction and an authority in her voice. Her writing holds a reader’s attention.

ON the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a “chiel amang ’em takin’ notes?” I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.

Bly includes details that only she could uncover, since she was going undercover in the asylum. She also includes several scenes with doctors, nurses, police officers and quotes from them as well as other women in the asylum.

I was to chronicle faithfully the experiences I underwent, and when once within the walls of the asylum to find out and describe its inside workings, which are always, so effectually hidden by white-capped nurses, as well as by bolts and bars, from the knowledge of the public.

Bly was writing for social reform of the mental institutions. They were often mismanaged, kept people for long amounts of time and mistreated patients. She writes with clarity and great descriptions. And she inserts her thoughts of the system and life of the mentally insane in these institutions.

I shuddered to think how completely the insane were in the power of their keepers.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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