October 8, 2003

After her recent session at Poynter in the Reporting on Race Relations seminar, we e-mailed Anne Hull some questions about the process of reporting on another culture. The full text of her response is below.

Q: What should every journalist know before reporting on another culture or community?

Anne Hull: In the imperfect world of journalism, we are often uninformed paratroopers who have to drop into a community knowing very little, and expected to know it very quickly.

It’s hard to say what you should know before you arrive, but here are some things that should take place early on. The first thing is to admit ignorance — just get it out of the way by saying that you don’t know much yet but are eager to learn. This opens doors to getting guided tours of a community or culture. Do this with a variety of competing “stakeholders.” Identify the tribes and various factions, the outside forces and the world beyond the gates. Learn the layers. Maybe there’s a reason the cops are wary of a particular block. Maybe there’s a reason a person on that block mistrusts the cops. Try to understand what historical events have stoked the various emotions, and what day-to-day moments shape the rhythms of a place. Make a note of which people have the ear of the power structure (municipal movers and shakers) and find out who’s left outside this power sphere and why. Read up on the laws and ordinances that have divided a community.

Find any research available. Writing about a Cambodian apartment complex is interesting, but much more interesting when placed in context: what was the apartment complex 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago? Even looking at the names on property records provides a window into transformation. If you are writing about a Vietnamese community, research the waves of immigration that poured out of Vietnam: what socioeconomic class poured out when, and how.

Using your instincts, identify a couple people in the community whose insights you think you might trust. Make them your touchstones, not just tipsters. Talk about things you’ve seen or heard, and hash out what it all might mean. Don’t just assign them the duty of listening to your theories; keep learning from them.

Be prepared to make cultural mistakes. Be prepared to live life on their time clock, not yours.

Q: How could a daily writer get some of the context, quality, description, and truth of your macrocosmic New World into a microcosmic, fourteen-inch, deadline story?

For starters, be conscious of the distancing language that inhabits most newspaper stories. Set a goal for intimacy. As a reporter, be physically present to witness and absorb, if even for three hours. Have all your sensory pistons firing: seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. In trying to convey the nuances of a culture or neighborhood, the drama is in the small observed or spoken exchanges, and one needs to be there to see it unfold.

What’s difficult is making sense of all this on a tight deadline in a short story. So keep it simple. Limit the number of voices you introduce. Identify two or three points you want to make, and the scenes you will use to illustrate these points. Hang your scenery, evidence, and anecdotes on those points. As the newsroom clock is ticking, read over what you’ve written and ask yourself, Did I take readers somewhere or does this piece read like I never left the office? Go back and re-infuse it with sights, sounds, smells, bits of dialogue. Does the story have an ending, a real ending that leaves the reader with an echo of the themes you’ve established?

Q: You said it was almost too easy to gain trust, if you have the time and interest. What if you have the interest, but not the time? How do you establish trust then?

It’s hard to establish trust without putting in some time building it. On the other hand, a solid reputation and an envelope full of clips can help your cause. Provide references/phone numbers of others you’ve written about. Don’t suck up, people can sniff it out. Just be honest and direct, and try to convey why it’s important for a person to open up. Spend time thinking about this conversation; it’s key. In general, trust is built through actions, not promises.

Q: This story started as a story on Latino gang violence, and turned into something perhaps as tumultuous, as searing, but certainly not as dark. How do journalists confront that dark element head-on, but keep the human touch? Or should we be trying harder to look for the more humane story underneath it?

Embrace the darkness. Too often, journalists shy from disturbing qualities or disturbing events because these elements make the task of capturing someone far messier. “Gray” certainly complicates a narrative where the writer wants to portray good vs. evil. (Aren’t the best Clint Eastwood movies the latest ones, when the hero wears neither a white hat nor a black hat, but a gray hat?)

Violence, profanity, and amorality all have their place in a story if these qualities are observed or reported truths. But they should be carefully calibrated, because a little goes a long way. The suggestion of something is often as powerful as the thing itself, and certainly, redundancy of the same theme, word or action is often deadening. It’s like the volume is constantly at 10. In the (“Rim of the New World”) series, I argued with my editor David Maraniss about the inclusion of profane rap lyrics in the piece about the Dairy Queen. I believed that we should keep the crude cursing rants in the story, and repeat them, because that’s what the character did. David convinced me that one or two uses of the rap lyrics would do the trick; any more would deaden the story. Don’t we all know by now the flavor of such lyrics? They are now as engrained as religious or patriotic slogans; we’ve heard them before, we know their intent and language. Further, why not use that precious space to say something new.

If you are writing about a killer, for example, the story is likely going to be dark. But think of “The Executioner’s Song” and the ambiguity of the opening pages of the killer’s life: childhood, a sibling, an apple tree. In the expanse of life, many things happen. Some portend the darkness ahead while others are banal and innocent. I’m rambling, but what I’m trying to say is, report the heck out of something, from top to bottom, and balance the darkness with the light.

Q: You said in your session in the Reporting on Race Relations seminar, “What makes immigrant stories and race stories powerful — the only thing that gives them power — is the intersection.” What is the intersection?

The intersection with the majority culture that holds the reins. The moving in synchronicity with it, or the clashing against it, or the wanting a piece of it. The emergence or striving story is hugely interesting, but more so when posed against a powerful entity. Another movie reference: imagine watching “Eyes on the Prize” without white people. You would have a civil rights movement beautifully told, but against what forces?

Q: What is the journalist’s role in the formation of the New World that you describe?

I won’t take on the topic of what a journalist’s role is. I just try to capture and document. If there’s any shred of activism in that agenda, it’s to expose what is hidden or being kept hidden. For some reporters, this means exposing corruption in government. For me, it means writing about lives that are unseen, in order to make them seen by those who normally wouldn’t bother looking.

The writer Eudora Welty says it much better: “My wish, my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”

Q: Tom French mentioned that your subjects are too often invisible to the rest of the world. It seems to me that to report Rim of the New World the way you did, you had to become pretty invisible yourself. This strikes me as a tie between you and Palely, and the others. Do you agree? If so, from your experience, what does it mean to be invisible?

How does a journalist become invisible while reporting a story? Being quiet is the first step, and it’s nearly impossible for some journalists to gag themselves. It’s harder than it sounds, watching and listening, but it’s key to sort of blending in to the background. Another important ingredient is to just keep showing up. Be a witness. Refuse no invitation and then invite yourself some more. Drag everywhere they drag, and try not to show up in a bright red rental car.

As the process moves along, I think subjects gain respect for you if they sense that you’ve put some thought into your questions, or that your questions reflect what you’ve observed. The subject will feel like you are serious about your inquiry, and your care invites them to be more attentive to the questions. A sort of mutual respect builds.

Maybe there is a psychic link between a journalist who seeks invisibility with her subjects and the invisible subjects she’s writing about. And yet, the subjects often don’t feel invisible themselves; the journalist has simply observed that their lives are marginal by some measure. This is all a tricky balance. Be aware of your own personal biases and stereotyping. Invisible, but by whose standards? A question to think about.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
Matt Thompson

More News

Back to News