April 2, 2003

Every reporter knows the value of public records—police reports, courthouse files and the myriad other documents generated by government agencies. Public records provide detail, authority, libel protection and the occasional smoking gun that often makes for powerful journalism.

But there’s another, less obvious record type that smart reporters use to add unforgettable ingredients to their stories.

You won’t find them in a government filing cabinet or database or discover them with a Freedom of Information request.

These are private records, the documentation that people create and keep about their own lives or others, the kind buried in a box in the attic, hanging on the refrigerator door or inside a photo album or yearbook.

This class of documentary evidence can strengthen your reporting and bring a new level of intimacy and depth to your stories, shedding light on a person’s character or a time in history.

I’d never really thought about the distinction between public and private records until last spring when I heard Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, talk about their value at the National Writers Workshop in St. Louis. I learned more last summer when Kiernan spent a day with Poynter’s News Reporting and Writing Fellows.

“Whenever you’re working on a story, you ought to be thinking about what documents can help you,” she advised these young reporters. To take advantage of public records, she says, “everyone should know how to search a court record and file a FOIA request.” The websites of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are two of the best places to learn about these skills.

Louise Kiernan: “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you.”At the same time, Kiernan preached the importance of private records: “what people make and keep for themselves.”  Among them: baby books, high school and college yearbooks, playbills for student productions, teacher evaluations, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and videos. She described how a Tribune colleague used teacher evaluations to profile a dying professor, the students’ comments opening windows into their teacher’s character.

Kiernan continues to rely on private records, she told me today. “In a long-term project about postpartum depression that ran back in February I was able to use excerpts from the journal of a woman who had committed suicide,” she said in an email. (You can read the series here.)

“And, now I’m working on a series of short-term stories about a woman who opposes the war in Iraq and her son, who is a Marine fighting there. Because our access to him has been limited, I’ve been able to use his emails, both to me and to his mother, as a way to reflect his thoughts and experiences in the stories. There’s this one great example where Rob, the son, who signs every email to his mother “Your Son and Marine” writes his final message to her before he goes into combat. He signs it “Your Nervous Son and Marine.”  

Kiernan’s lyrical description of the folder, which contains the son’s emails and other items kept by his mother, suggests the symbolic power of such mementoes:

The folder is a scrapbook of sorts, but it is more than that. It is a charm, a talisman. Because if you gather these items for your son and you tuck them into a folder and you label this folder “Rob-2003-Iraq” as if it contained nothing more than paperwork, then surely your son will see it. Then, surely, he will make it home from war.

(You can read “Loving a Soldier, hating a war,” by Louise Kiernan and a colleague in Kuwait, Evan Osnos, here.)

I’ve seen other examples of private records as a reporting and writing tool.

How The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct experience

In 2001, reporters for The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct the last hours of five victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. In an unusual step, they appended a note about the sources at the end of the story.

“How Five Lives Became One Horror When Terror Struck the Twin Towers” began with the reconstruction of one victim’s last day:

Oct. 11, 2001

By Helene Cooper, Ianthe Jeanne Dugan, Bryan Gruley, Phil Kuntz and Joshua Harris Prager
Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK — The alarm on Moises Rivas’s nightstand went off at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11.

He had been up until 2 a.m., playing slow salsa on his guitar. He shut off the alarm, snuggled up to his wife, and fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until 6:30 that the 29-year-old cook raced out of the two-bedroom apartment, already late, and headed for work on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.

It would be a busy day. A big corporate breakfast meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rivas wore baggy black bell-bottoms that morning, but he could change into his crisp white chef’s uniform when he arrived at the Windows on the World restaurant.

His instructions for the day awaited him, taped to a stainless-steel pillar in the restaurant. “Moises,” said the handwritten note posted by the banquet chef the night before. “The menu for Tuesday: B.B.Q. short ribs, roast chicken legs, pasta with tomato sauce. NOTE: Please have the butcher to cut the pork chops. Cut the fish. Cut, Dice Carrot Onion Celery. Cubes of Potato for the Stew. Cook one box pasta. See you later and have a nice day.”

How could they know what that handwritten note said since the Windows on the World restaurant vanished when the north tower collapsed? According to the sources note, the reporters based it on a “handwritten note to Mr. Rivas: reconstructed by Windows on the World banquet chef Ali Hizam from notes written to himself in his notebook.”

The story later focused on a World Trade Center employee.

Diane Murray and her co-workers jogged north a few blocks before she realized she was still holding the photo of the boy she had been admiring before the planes hit.

She found a phone in a restaurant and called her mother, Jean Murray, administrator of a small hospital in New Jersey. Mrs. Murray had watched the towers burn and collapse on TV while she marshaled her staff for an expected rush of patients.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she told Diane. Diane gave instructions for getting eight-year-old Diana home from school and hung up.

Ms. Murray limped into Baldini, a shoe store on Park Avenue South. Her feet were killing her. “I can’t believe I got down 92 floors in these heels,” she said. She and her co-workers allowed themselves a chuckle.

Ms. Murray tried on three pair of shoes before choosing black sneakers for $43.

Once again, the sources note revealed that a private record bolstered the narrative detail. “Source: Shoe shopping: $43 price from Baldini credit-card receipt.”

(Read the full story and a behind-the-scenes look at the WSJ’s “Sources Note,” along with interviews with Page One Editor Mike Miller and Bryan Gruley, the lead writer.)

Using Private Records to Illuminate People’s Lives

Inspired by Louise Kiernan’s example, Poynter’s summer reporting fellows began looking for private records to bolster their stories from the communities they covered.
In a friendly competition designed to share the lessons of good reporting and writing, the group recognizes their “favorite things” in that week’s stories, ranging from the lead and kicker to a public and private record.

To profile an aspiring opera singer, Cynthia Daniels viewed the girl’s home videos. The hands-down winner in the private record category was Joannie Sevilla’s story about the impact of a music therapy class on an 8-year-old cancer patient that reprinted the child’s song lyrics.

BAYBORO-Shannon Walden is 8 years old. When she smiles, she crinkles her nose–a punctuation mark for her infectious grin. Her music therapist, Julie Tatro, says she loves karaoke, but she’s too shy to sing in front of strangers. She even has songwriting under her belt and has written her own version of the song “Day-O.”

Day-O, Day-O

Discharge day will come and I will go home.

Day-O, Day-O

Discharge day will come and I will go home.

I feel scared when I have to get a shot.

I miss riding my bike a lot.

I don’t like being stuck in my room.

When I’m feeling yucky, it makes me blue.

Read the full story here.

The comments from Sevilla’s colleagues demonstrate the private record’s power:

“From reading this song, the reader can see what matters to this little girl and how this disease has affected her life. I also get a glimpse into how the treatment is helping her survive.”
–Kaitlin Manry

“The language Shannon used for the lyrics shows how long she’s been in the hospital (“discharge” isn’t a regular kid word), and it shows how she’s affected by being sick for so long.”
–Whitney Kvasager

Using Private Records to Investigate the Past

I’ve used private records to report and write a memoir about my father, who died when I was 10 years old, particularly the impact of his father’s involvement in a government corruption scandal in 1932.

Perhaps the most important was one of the documents included in a packet of materials his high school’s alumni office provided. I described my findings in “The Only Honest Man,” an essay published in River Teeth, a journal of nonfiction narrative:

There is another document that I have studied as carefully as my grandfather’s testimony. It is a single piece of paper, about the size of a 5 x 7-inch index card, divided into columns that are filled with typewritten figures. It is my father’s report card from the Canterbury School. It charts his academic career from his entrance in 1929 to his graduation on June 10, 1933.

(See the report card.)(See the report card.)

He was ranked 8th in a class of 17, far from the weakest student. Still, there seems little doubt that something happened to my father towards the end of high school. His freshman year, he earned middle and high Bs. By his junior year, his marks had nose-dived to a dispiriting collection of low Ds and just barely-Cs. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his father as a Tammany Hall grafter.

You can read the entire essay here.
• Begin by thinking about private records in your own life. If someone were to write a story about you, what might they learn from your yearbook, the letters or cards you’ve kept, your journal entries, photo albums, videotapes?

Here’s an example turned up by Robin Sloan’s mother who discovered a private record recently, a childhood memento that foreshadowed our Poynter Online intern’s adult interests.

• Ask sources for private records. Investigative reporters know to always ask for the paper. Ask for the private records: the yearbook, the photos, the letters that a source might have. Be alert to the possibility that private records might exist.

As Louise Kiernan observed, “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you.”

[ Go public with your experiences using private records. ]

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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