August 11, 2011

In his recent New Yorker piece, “Getting Bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle shares a powerful account of what happened the night that Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The details in the story, however, didn’t come from the SEALs themselves but from others who had debriefed them. Several readers have since criticized Schmidle for not being clearer about this in the story.

The criticism renews attention to the challenges narrative journalists face when they rely on second-hand accounts, and it raises questions about what they can do to let audiences know more about how they got their information.

Schmidle, a freelance writer who’s written a book about Pakistan, doesn’t think he led readers astray.

From the cover flap (‘Nicholas Schmidle talks to the people who planned the mission to find out exactly what happened that night in Abbottabad’) to the language inside, at no point did we mislead the reader into thinking that I had, in fact, interviewed SEALs directly,” Schmidle told me via email. “It would be unusual, in an article about a highly classified subject, for the reporter to list who he did NOT speak to.” (New Yorker Editor David Remnick has made a similar argument.)

But it’s not a matter of listing who Schmidle didn’t talk to; it’s a matter of describing in greater detail the people he did speak with. Readers want more information about who reporters interviewed so they can judge for themselves how credible a reporter’s sources are.

Attributing sources, verifying second-hand accounts

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, says that when it comes to sourcing, the same standards should apply for narratives and reports. (Reports typically answer the five W’s and are written in language that’s unloaded. Narratives, by contrast, are “a form of vicarious experience, a virtual reality that transports us from the here and now to some distant place.”)

Huang advises journalists who are relying on second-hand accounts to find other people who can help verify the information.

A Pakistani man walks past graffiti, “Osama Bin Town” which people woke up to early Friday May 6, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over a wall near the house, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed by a U.S. military force of SEALs. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

“I think you can try to find people who’ve had similar experiences and just ask them, ‘Does this ring true?’ In the SEAL story … you could ask former SEALs, ‘Do these recollections ring true? Do things like this seem to happen?’ ” Huang said by phone. “Any additional perspective you can get as a reporter to get a sense as to whether your source is reliable is a good thing.”

Schmidle indicated in a New Yorker live chat that while he didn’t talk to any of the SEALs involved with the raid, he talked to several other reliable sources to verify the information he was given.

“While I’ve said that I did not speak to any of the 23 SEALs who were on the ground in Abbottabad that evening, the notion that I didn’t talk to any SEALs — or other experienced JSOC operators — for this story is simply wrong,” Schmidle told me, noting that every detail in the story was vetted and cross-checked.

The White House, Schmidle said, had announced that SEALs’ names were off-limits to reporters, so he knew from the start that he couldn’t speak with them directly. This information would have been helpful to include in the story — especially for readers who aren’t aware that SEALS don’t typically talk to the media about their work.

To Schmidle’s credit, he did cite many of his sources, but he could have been clearer about where some of the information came from while still protecting the anonymity of the sources he chose not to identify.

Jacqui Banaszynski, who worked for 30 years as a reporter and editor before becoming Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, said Schmidle’s piece was “important and very impressive” but would have benefited from more attribution.

“It wouldn’t have to mess up the narrative,” Banaszynski said by phone. “It wouldn’t have to slow down the tension, the forward movement of this piece, or in any way undermined the power of the story he obviously deeply reported. I think it would have actually helped.”

Banaszynski pointed out that early versions of stories about bin Laden’s death changed as new information came in, making it even more critical for Schmidle to be transparent about who he interviewed. By being more transparent, he could have helped assure readers that he was reporting the definitive account of what happened.

It’s not too late for the New Yorker to add more sourcing information to the story, but Schmidle said there are no plans to do so.

Various options for sourcing information

There are workarounds for journalists who don’t want to bog down a narrative with attributions. Some news organizations include “source boxes” in stories to indicate who reporters talked to and how they got their information.

For instance, “The Girl in the Window” — a St. Petersburg Times Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a young girl named Danielle — includes a source box that says: “The opening scene and others were reconstructed from interviews with neighbors, the detective, Danielle’s care manager, psychologist, teacher, legal guardian and the judge on her case. Additional information came from hundreds of pages of police reports, medical records and court documents.”

Other news organizations use footnotes or annotations. In a story about an army medic, Atlanta Magazine’s Thomas Lake included a link to a separate page listing who he interviewed, the documents he used, and the events he witnessed.

Ideally, narrative writers would like to witness the scenes they write about instead of recreating them based on sources’ memories or second-hand accounts. Memories, as we know, aren’t always reliable.

“I think some narrative writers — and I can’t speak to Schmidle — try to write as if they’re in the heads of the people they’re writing about,” said Huang, who’s also an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. “I think they need to be very cautious about that. We can describe what people do, and we can have people talking about what their intentions and motivations and feelings are, and we can have other people judge the character of that, but it’s very hard to describe precisely what a person is thinking at any given moment.”

It can help to include words such as “recalled” and “remembered” because they remind readers that the information is based on sources’ memories.

Some of the words in Schmidle’s piece raised questions for readers. He wrote that the story was based on the SEALs’ “recollections” — an interesting way of putting it given that he didn’t hear the SEALs’ recollections first-hand.

When I asked Schmidle about this, he said recollections can be relayed in a variety of ways — through first-hand interviews, but also through transcripts, photographs, audio recordings, internal memos and debriefing sessions.

“There are multiple ways to access someone’s experience besides interviewing them,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge — and excitement — of reporting and writing narrative nonfiction.”

Still, Banaszynski said she thought Schmidle’s use of the word was misleading.

“A pull-back on that word, or an extra half sentence — ‘recollections given in debriefings to officials’ — would have helped me know where that reporting led him,” she said.

Being transparent, proving credibility

Journalists have talked for years about how to handle attributions in narratives. Ben Montgomery, a narrative writer at Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, said the Jayson Blair scandal forced journalists to reassess how much they should tell readers about the reporting process. Many narrative writers began to reveal more details about where they got their information — and they were recognized for doing so.

“Enrique’s Journey,” a heavily footnoted series, won the Pulitzer Prize the same year as the Blair scandal. The Pulitzer board said the story was “exhaustively reported.” Some stories that had been previously in the running for the prize but weren’t as well-sourced were criticized for not including enough attribution.

“The Pulitzer judges were saying: Prove it. Readers were saying: Prove it. And many feature writers responded by showing their cards more often, with footnotes or how-this-story-was-reported boxes or writing that revealed where the information was coming from,” Montgomery said via email. “You saw those efforts in the writing, right down to how journalists chose their words.”

Montgomery attended a narrative conference around the same time as the Blair scandal and recalls hearing The Washington Post’s David Finkel say that narrative journalists had lost some literary freedom and that they’d have to work hard to earn it back. Montgomery remembers Finkel saying that narrative journalists shouldn’t use more active verbs, but more truthful verbs.

Schmidle’s piece, Montgomery said, seems to signal “a movement away from those constrictive rules. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think, but it comes down to the relationship between readers and publications.”

Journalists like Schmidle, who go to great lengths to tell powerful stories, owe it to themselves and their audience to explain how they got the story.

“I like to peek behind the curtain to see how really gifted journalists do their work,” Banaszynski said. “But I think the public wants to peek behind the curtain, too, and we need to let them.”

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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