January 25, 2021•791 words
"Facts come in the way of beautiful prose," a colleague at the Wall Street Journal told me during my 2018 fellowship at the newspaper.
It stayed with me. Every time I ponder over the limitations of journalistic methods to understand the world, I think about it. Especially in the last two years as I switched gears to work on more ambitious stories (relative to what I was doing earlier) with no easy answers. Even after tenaciously chasing all possible sources of information (data, documents, interviews, digital trails etc), piecing together a definitive story—say about a specific incident, a policy decision, an organisation—is hard. Very hard.
How do you know for sure?
In most cases, I operate on Bayesian probabilities. For an open-ended question, I start with a prior—my hypothesis on what I think is happening. Then I report. The new information moves the needle. It strengthens or weakens my prior. I try finding counter evidence for my hypothesis to stress test it. As reporting continues, some pieces start falling into place. The degree of belief for a few specific things starts increasing: most evidence points in the same direction and alternative explanations are proven wrong.
Yet, the uncertainty remains. What have I missed? What is it that I am not looking at? These conflicts will remain and it is okay. It is an integral component of any knowledge production process.
But things get tricky when you sit down to write. The most readable and enjoyable stories follow a clear narrative arc. Take fiction writing. The world being described exists inside the mind of the writer. They know everything: they are only bounded by their imagination.
True stories are different. Journalism is different. Which is why I sometimes feel conflicted about the promise of narrative non-fiction genre. Won't facts and uncertainty play spoilsport when one is writing novelistic narratives with cinematic scenes? How do you handle that?
This remains an open question for me and I was thinking about it last weekend. I wrote to my former WSJ colleague (referred above) to get his thoughts. His response was insightful and thought it's worth sharing. Here is our email exchange:
1. From me:
I have thought a lot about this over the years and it is a bit worrying. Almost all deeply reported stories have that defining paragraph (nutgraf) to signal why this story matters and why should readers spend their time on it. But many times, I see writers making those "larger points" that sound perfect in theory, but they may be stretching a bit beyond what the reporting material is revealing. There remains a subtle threat of overselling.
So I constantly remind myself that it is okay to not have that amazing paragraph (as much as I would love having it) where all words neatly add up to delight my readers. The nuances, the ifs and buts, matter. However, so many journalists feel they know-it-all and write with such great authority that it automatically lends itself to beautifully written prose.
Is this conflict widely acknowledged in the American press? I would love to read more on what editors think about it.
2. From my former WSJ colleague:
I'm not sure that there has been any great introspection on the part of American journalists when it comes to these issues. I think Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese helped lead journalists astray with their riveting, but dubiously sourced, "New Journalism." It was exciting and eminently readable, but couldn't possibly be totally true and correct.
I often hear journalists refer to themselves as storytellers, but I think that is a huge mistake and leads to the kind of overreach and crafting that you mention. We should see ourselves first as fact relayers, and we should be open and honest about what we do and don't know and why our "story" doesn't follow a perfect arc.
We should clearly source everything. We should clearly and generously credit those whose work informed ours.We should always understand that the "why" part of the five w's is the one that we can never be close to sure about. How do we presume to get inside an actor's head and understand his motivations, or that we can account for hundreds or thousands of random events and people that come together at a moment in time and lead to something happening?
I always have these thoughts when I read foreign correspondents who have parachuted into a foreign land and confidently assert the cause-and-effect of endlessly complicated situations. I would never have the self assuredness to do that.
I love the term sophomoric, because we all go through that phase of learning so much that we think we know it all. One nice thing about growing older is that you really have learned a lot, but you also have learned just how much you don't and might never know (if you're paying attention at all).