America’s Best Newspaper Writing: Chapter 4, Crimes and Courts

I have to admit, I found this chapter very difficult to get through. All three of these stories bothered me too much.

What I mean by that is this: even if it’s a feature, it’s still news, it’s always news, and it needs to center around facts and the writing needs to reflect that. Articles simply cannot be written as if they’re novels. Narrative is huge — especially in scenarios like these where there is so much that happened — but it needs to integrate naturally. Let the facts do the storytelling. Write in a way that plays with the newswriting style, don’tblatantly reject it for something that would never run in a newspaper any other time. There are rules. This is clealy crossing many lines, in my book. You have to present things based around the facts and the reporting. I don’t care how many people said Kacie Woody was didn’t mind her father’s late hours at work, there was no way that Frye could have confirmed that in her reporting.

That may seem nit-picky. But I don’t care. It’s an extreme version of this that led to this story’s ultimate failure in my mind. It is not the job of the journalist to tell the story as if they’re writing a work of fiction. While all of this information presented may be completely true, it violates the general principles of journalism.

This is not to say that the reporting in these stories isn’t incredible. It’s enormously difficult to tackle stories like these — especially ones like Frye’s and Hull’s. These stories are meticulously researched and thought-out. The details and the facts are solid, and weave incredible, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I am in support of their awards for that reason.

But they go too far into that narrative thing. Only Hull’s story feels even somewhat like an article. Her’s dabbles in this creative writing feel, but it is grounded in journalism. I would probably feel odd about it as her editor, but I would run it. It’s powerful, effective and connects the reader to the story. But it still goes too far. The story focuses so much around this woman, as if it’s a profile of her on her last night mixed within an in-depth look at what happened, as if we’re literally reading this in a book. But what purpose does that serve? The facts, if presented with the same level of reporting, can be much more effective by themselves. Profile of her is great, even. Stories shouldn’t feel like they’re “narratives,” though.

In fact, though this word is used a lot in the journalism world, I’m going to go so far as to say that “narrative” should be forever struck from the vocabulary of journalists and consumers of journalism and those who teach journalism. Narrative is not just story. It is shaping and presenting and creating. Journalists do not create. Not unless their name is Stephen Glass, in which case, they are not a journalist.

In all seriousness, I actually really liked the Metal to Bone story, I just thought it went too far. The other two, I take serious issue with. How can you possibly start a story by telling the reader what they’re “doing?” Don’t literally place them in the scene; do it through your descriptions indirectly. Allow them to imagine the scenes as they play out, but don’t go overboard.

So, all in all, these stories are too much. They aren’t journalism — they’re essays.

Five stories about courts and crime:

New York Times Columbine High School shootings coverage:

Shattered Lives by Pam Belluck and Jodi Wilgoren | Terror in Littleton: The Overview Sam Howe Verhovek.

Both of these stories are different than the ones I’m talking about above. They aren’t set up like they’re Sherlock Holmes novels. They speak in just the facts — and they’re coverage from the actual high school, not in retrospect. These are two features that ran around the time the two students went into Columbine High School with bombs and guns and started to kill their classmates and teachers. The country watched, transfixed, and this is some of the most effective reporting there was. The facts speak for themselves in these articles, and that’s what’s most important.

Hash Browns, Then 4 Minutes of Chaos

by Ana Kampoy, Peter Sanders and Russell Gold.

Like the Columbine shootings, this article looks to really dig deep into what led up to the events of Fort Hood shootings by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. This, again, is simply an article made up of the facts, but it’s going beyond and digging deeper into the story, and using details that reveal the character of Hasan, but not opinion or explanation that blatantly talks about that source’s or subject’s character.

Public Drawn to Choice by Giffords’ Husband

by Dan Barry and John Schwartz

This is a situation in which the story falls flat again. It’s not as extreme as in the examples above, in a lot of ways, but it still misses the mark. Using sentences like “They have become the nation’s couple” and “Should he stay by his wife’s side?” the story delves into an area where it shouldn’t go.

Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon

by Serge Schmemman

Maybe this one’s a little cliche. But I think this is really what I’m talking about when I’m looking for effective reporting. It’s more fact here than anything else. The only thing is that, given the nature of the story, there’s no real human element here, it’s just about what happened. But this kind of reporting is incredibly difficult in its own right, and and deserves recognition.


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