‘Creating An Investigative Narrative’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’m here at the Nieman narrative journalism conference in Boston, sitting in on this morning’s keynote speech, “Creating An Investigative Narrative,” with Washington Post writers Anne Hull and Dana Priest. They are explaining the story behind their award winning Walter Reed series. It’s my first time blogging live from a conference, so bear with me. Feedback is welcome.

Some notes from their talk:

Hull and Priest focused on the army’s neglect and the treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Neither of them was prepared for the reaction, they said. They received hundreds of e-mails in response to the series.
“For the first time in my life I realized the true power we have as journalists to create change.” –Anne

Right from the start, they knew that if what they were hearing were true, it would be a big story.

Two real sources, they said, seemed like a lot to work with at first. They started a process that’s classic journalism — you start somewhere and you get more and more, and eventually you create a network of sources. At first they couldn’t see “the whole elephant.” Saw small pieces of the story and learned more throughout the process.

Investigative journalist (Priest) meets narrative journalist (Hull). Good learning experience.

What kind of access could they get? One source said, “Just come on up.” Immediately confronted with how far they could go. Could never lie about who they were. Couldn’t be in a position where someone would ask, “Well, who are you?”

Were given a map of Walter Reed so they could memorize it and figure out the layout of Walter Reed. Nothing was like she memorized it, though, Priest said. She had to stop three times and ask people on the road where the hospital was. Eventually, she learned there were two entrances. She was going through the back entrance, so everything was turned around.

Scheduling: “We pretty much lived and breathed that story for four or five months,” Hull said.

Two different “rhythms” between the two reporters. Different approaches to reporting.

When writing an investigative piece like this, you start off with people on the phone, meet them off-post, then you start interviewing them.

Hull and Priest talked with wives who were frustrated beyond belief about the treatment their husbands were getting.

The reporters needed to see things to substantiate what they were hearing about the poor conditions at the hospital. There’s an area called “the petting zoo” where the media are usually taken. They needed to get beyond that.

Didn’t quote anyone or take notes during first main interview. Just wanted to listen. “You penetrate one ring closer to where you need to be,” Hull said.

There were concerns that if they introduced themselves to soldiers, soldiers would tell commanders. There were always smokers outside of the Malone House, so Hull and Priest arranged for friends who smoke to come with them so they wouldn’t seem so out of place. They found the main subject, Josh, for their piece while he was outside smoking in the rain. “You’re literally and figuratively coming in from the rain,” Hull said.

Have to have empathy and respect, Priest said, for whatever culture you’re walking into. In immersion journalism, you don’t want to stand out, you just want to be a fly on the wall.

“The first time I heard about building 18, I just could not believe such a place would exist,” Priest said. “Cockroaches, President Bush. Mold, Donald Rumsfled. Democracy, Chaos in Iraq.” So much tension there.

The question became how they would verify what was going on in building 18, and how they would get in there. Priest and Hull were first taken to a room that didn’t look so bad. Soldier said there’s a lot of depression here and people aren’t doing well.

“We’re in an era of journalism where a lot of journalists are doing the talking,” Priest said. “The art of listening is so fundamental to what we do. If you have a heightened ability to do that, you can pick up so much.”

Patience is also key. In terms of building sources, you have to be patient. How do you do that? Two tracks: One is feeding the beast and doing daily journalism, the other is having a long-term project. Starting with easy questions, easy subjects, and working to the harder things is important. Took months for Priest and Hull to cultivate their sources.

Priest and Hull got into building 18. They had to find a way to get into the building and into the individual rooms. Priest had a camera. She said she whipped it out and quickly took pictures. The photos didn’t come out well, though. The photo staff was not impressed, Priest said, laughing. The thought of having a photographer come back with them seemed out of the question, but it worked.

Have to put everything in context — talk about soldiers at Walter Reed, then relate that to the army, then to the war in Iraq.

When you contrast the photo of that moldy room with that shining promise given to the soldiers, it’s eye-opening. Hull and Priest had to describe as much as possible from what they’d seen, not just from what they’d heard. They ate at the Red Lobster with the soldiers (the soldiers loved this restaurant), and spent hours and hours with them in their rooms. For every soldier in the story, Hull said, there were about 10 soldiers who called to tell their story.

“Oh by the way, we heard someone died last night.” A soldier would say this during a phone conversation with Hull or Priest. That would be something, then, for them to check out. Soldiers gave them tips, created an intense relationship.

“The tricks that people employed to survive were incredible,” Hull said. “It’s stuff you can’t find in medical records.” Asked people for their medical records once they got to know them.

Reporters have to drive their relationship with editors, have to determine what a story is and what it’s like. You have to do it with diplomacy and respect, but you’re the ones out there, and you know what the story is.

The lesson to me is you have to be diplomatic, be disrespectful, you have to give editors something because they’re going to talk to other editors about how you’re using your time, Priest said. It’s really important that reporters stay in the drivers seat regarding what’s happening with a story.

They didn’t think so much about creating a beautiful piece of writing, Hull said, so much as exposing what was going on. Showdown interview: In our world of writing, we usually have questions for people at the end — fact checking, making sure things are right. But Priest and Hull had to check everything with the army, even though they didn’t know the reporters had been writing this story. Called on a Monday or Tuesday before Sunday publication. Called in the nicest way, said they had a story they’d been working on, told them what the story was. General approach is to be friendly, you get a lot more out of it. They weren’t angry, didn’t know the Walter Reed that Priest and Hull had come to know.

Reporters sent 30 questions via e-mail to the army. “How many case workers do you have per soldier?” that kind of question. Gave them four days and considered a fair way to do it. Didn’t tell them about building 18. Priest and Hull were driven by an escort to the hospital. A parking spot was shoveled out for them, even though the area hadn’t been plowed for soldiers in wheelchairs.

What the military hates more than bad news is not knowing the bad news is coming. Told them about building 18 the Saturday before the first Sunday piece was published. “We wanted the full burden of what was going on to be in the paper,” Priest said. “We didn’t want to give them the chance to clean it up.” Wrote like crazy for three or so months, then spent a month writing together. “If I went two hours without talking to [Priest], it was really strange,” Hull said, laughing. “And it’s still really strange.”

… More to come at the next workshop.