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  • When You Weren’t There:How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative
  • Andrea Lorenz (bio)

The setting was a funeral on a cool, windy day. The pallbearers took up four rows. Writer Tom French described clothes, pictures, flowers, and streets lined with news crews. The choir sang a song, which French named, and the pastor asked a question, which French put in quotes: "How could God have let this happen?" The sermon continued. "From outside," French wrote, "the people could hear a sparrow chirping." This scene appeared in French's narrative series, Angels and Demons, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

The question is do we care if Tom French was there at the funeral? French probably couldn't have been in that room because the reporters had to wait outside. And if French wasn't there at all, how could he have known it was a sparrow? Some might say, "French damn well better have been there."

The truth is that the funeral was years before French even started reporting. French had recreated the scene. He stood inside the church. He interviewed people who attended. Someone had an audiotape of the service. On the tape French heard weeping, and birds singing. He sent the tape to a bird specialist, who said the sounds came from sparrows.

Unable to rely on their own eyes and ears, reporters look to witnesses and documentation, both paper and electronic, to create a setting so real it's like fiction. Interviews with eleven journalists who recreated scenes elicited four common attributes that were present to ensure accuracy: access, source cooperation, trust between reporter and source, and a harmony of source accounts. Because of the small sample size of the analysis, the results cannot be generalized. However, among the eleven journalists, any variation of the four attributes resulted in an interrupted narrative, unless the writers found tools to smooth the story. [End Page 71]

Access to Information

Obtaining the cooperation of parties holding key information is helpful when reporting any story. But access is essential in narrative reporting, when reporters forgo the traditional news form in favor of literary tools. While reporting "Out of Nowhere: Inside the Pentagon on 9/11," Earl Swift of the Virginian-Pilot had a source who gave him a floor plan of the Pentagon. "I charted where everybody sat and where everybody was at the exact moment that the plane hit and what route they took to get to the door," Swift said. "Without that floor plan, it would have been way vague and a completely different story." The maps and diagrams Swift created in his reporting were extensive. But none appeared in the story, and the readers never knew about all that hard work.

Maura Lerner of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis had a similarly open experience with the military. She reconstructed an injured soldier's surgery and her return home in a coma. With the soldier's permission the military hospitals gave Lerner the soldier's medical records. The nurses' and doctors' notes contained the information necessary to reconstruct the chronology of events. "Good thing," Lerner said, "because the initial newspaper reports about the soldier were wrong." The records were the backbone of the narrative, which she supplemented with details from extensive interviews with doctors, nurses, and the soldier's family.

Another instance of access to records was Tom Farragher's experience reporting the murder of a priest in prison. Farragher of the Boston Globe obtained prison records of the incident and correspondence between the priest and his lawyers. But the priest's sister didn't want Farragher to see the letters between her and her brother. Farragher was still able to recreate the key scene of his murder, but the reconstruction of the priest's life in prison would have been enhanced by the correspondence with his sister. Access to information means more than obtaining a file. Like French and the funeral, Farragher visited the prison where the priest was killed to experience smells and sounds for himself.

Keith McKnight and Ed Meyer used complete records of a boating accident they recreated for the Akron Beacon Journal. They did not rely on newspaper reports because some details turned out...


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pp. 71-85
Launched on MUSE
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