Anthony Shadid talks about journalism: ‘A narrative can play out over two paragraphs or 10′

New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died Thursday of an apparent asthma attack in Syria, dedicated much of his life to reporting from dangerous, war-torn countries.

In 2007, Shadid shared journalism lessons learned in an essay for Poynter’s 2007-’08 “Best Newspaper Writing” book. He drew those lessons from his ASNE award-winning story about suffering civilians in Tibnin, Lebanon, which was also a Pulitzer finalist that year. Shadid won Pulitzer Prizes in 2004 and 2010 for international reporting.

Here’s what he said.

On logistical challenges:

“Most journalists would probably agree that logistics often prove the most difficult challenge to reporting in times of conflict. There are variously questions of access, time and actual risks in getting to the story.”

On notetaking:

I usually try to divide each page of my notebook. On the top, I write details that strike me, quotes that I overhear, bits of scene, ambient sounds and possible themes to develop. The bottom of the page is reserved for direct quotes. Time and again during that conflict, I found myself drawing most heavily on the top portion of my notes. There were women who had wrapped “swollen, bloodied and bruised feet in gauze.” There was a Koran resting on a sterilizer, “black prayer beads laying atop a page.” Those kinds of details often served as the connective tissue between narratives, the hints of a broader drama.

On writing outlines:

Even in the busiest days of the war, I took time to sketch an outline. This practice is not for everyone. But I’ve found it almost impossible to bring narrative to a spot story without it. A good outline often lets you focus on the writing, since the structure is already there.

On gathering background, information:

Even in a spot story, particularly from a place readers know hardly anything about, a few sentences of background help — the town’s population, its history, the scene there, its reputation. One simple question I like to ask is what the town is famous for. It sounds a little banal, but it’s remarkable how often the answer adds a compelling detail. Another, perhaps obvious lesson: Names and ages are always essential. In their own way, they restore a bit of humanity to victims who often go nameless in times of conflict.

On narratives:

A narrative can play out over two paragraphs or 10, so space is rarely a legitimate excuse. Stories can be brief, yet still driven by detail, or they can stretch for an entire article. But in the end, those kinds of stories are what really matter.

Shadid also shared thoughts in the 2004 edition of “Best Newspaper Writing” after winning an ASNE award for his reporting in Baghdad.

On looking for the story of the day:

There were plenty of news conferences to keep you busy, plenty of these tours that would take you out to place, or you could try to break away from that. You’re taking a great risk as a daily journalist in breaking away from that because you may miss something. I was rooming with the Associated Press reporter and that was a great crutch in the sense that he would share stuff and he would keep me in formed and posted, and he did it as a friend rather than as a colleague. But in driving around, the idea was to just keep looking, looking, looking. In a story in which information is such a commodity, almost everything you see becomes a detail for the story. It becomes a paragraph of color.

On conveying humanity:

… I had to be very aggressive in the reporting. It was AP training in a lot of ways — I worked for the AP for 10 years — and I had to get names and ages and I was insistent on that. To me, it’s the very basic element of turning this person into a real person in that story. And ages are not something the people necessarily know in Iraq. When you ask them their age, they’ll sit there and think for a few seconds and then they’ll say, the year they were born, and you’ll ask the day and they don’t know. So even that becomes a little bit of a hassle. I would always ask people what they ate. When a certain thing happened, I want to know what they were eating or what they were doing at the moment that something happened. … I think they found it difficult to be honest because the questions were in some ways very bizarre. Why would somebody want this kind of detail? Why would somebody want to know such facts that seem so inconsequential at a moment of such tragedy? It was difficult. You feel awkward but you do understand that if you don’t ask these questions, then you’ll never be able to convey the humanity of the moment.

On comforting his own family:

It hasn’t been easy. I think it’s created a lot of stress for them, and I think the worst part of the job is that you know you can take care of yourself, but you can’t really take care of how other people are worrying about you. My conversation daily with my father is, “When are you leaving?” That’s all he can talk about. To the point that during the war, I had to say, “I’m going to quit calling if you don’t quit asking about when I’m leaving.” That’s been definitely the most difficult part of the experience.

Shadid also talked about his family and the craft of journalism in profiles by the Columbia Journalism Review (2011) and the American Journalism Review (2006). In a 2010 visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Shadid said, “I think the best journalism is sometimes about footnotes — when we write small to say something big.” || Related: Anthony Shadid was our Ernie Pyle | Shadid tributes: ‘His success was the result of grueling work’ | | Shadid honored on front pages of college paper, former papers, New York Times | Storify of reaction to Shadid’s death | The brilliance of Anthony Shadid’s writing

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Nate Bowman

    I am struck by how Ms. Tenore’s “appreciation” of Mr. Shadid glosses over his stated objectives as a journalist and reinforces the shallow reporting that passes for journalism these days. Especially since Poynter purports to be a bastion of jounrnalistic principles and ethics.

    By covering the “human aspect” without detailing the way Mr. Shadid used it to illuminate the truth of what is happening in a story, Ms. Tenore promotes today’s lack of journalism which treats the human story as an end in itself without making any attempt to have it reflect what is actually going on. In other words, rather than finding out what is actually going on and using the human stories to explain it, today’s journalist uses a human story as an excuse for NOT finding out what is actually going on (or worse, reflect their pre-conceived notions). 

    A good synopsis of what journalism should be is by Roy Gutman (former?) Newsday foreign editor in the American Journalism Review article linked to in the last paragraph:
    “His strength, Gutman says, was building a solid knowledge base and becoming intimately acquainted with the territory he covered. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis like [the Middle East] is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,”

    Mr. Shadid’s purpose comes through clearly in the linked interviews with him. Ms. Tenore’s omission of it borders on the willful and serves to justify today’s “journalist” NOT doing their legwork and using the human story as a substitute. And, of course, since the actually know so little, these “journalists” devolve into “he said/she said” stories as well. And so we have to discuss in the opening paragraph the “logistical challenges” as if that is the most important determinant of what the story should be.

    Please honor Mr. Shadid’s memory and discuss how he practiced journalism the way it should be practiced. Not how some of the things he talked about seem to justify the way today’s “journalism” is not actually Journalism.

    Thank you.