It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts

Jules Verne Pocketwatch (compass)
Image by nullalux via Flickr

While we drown in a sea of information, smart, thoughtful new books like “Rapt” and “Distracted” carefully examine how little focused attention we have left. The pro’s have mastered the art of finding the good stuff, often by relying on their instincts, a skill developed over time. As this terrific New York Times story about soldiers reminds us, hunches save lives.

Three veterans, friends and colleagues of mine, share how and when they rely on their instincts:

Stephen Crowley, a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1993, (at the Washington Times, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post before that), is a member of the White House Press Corps. His focus is national politics, including covering John McCain’s presidential campaign.

Patti McCracken, a former obituary writer at the St. Petersburg Times, production editor at U.S . News and World Report and assistant editor, foreign/national at the Chicago Tribune, has taught journalism in Eastern Europe and Vietnam. She writes freelance from Austria for Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Guardian and others.

Maryn McKenna, a medical writer and author based in Minneapolis. Former reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Boston Herald and a medical writer for 11 years at the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. For the past three, she’s been a magazine and Web freelancer and has written two nonfiction books: “Beating Back the Devil”, about the Centers for Disease Control, in 2004, and “Superbug”, about the international epidemic of methicillin-resistant staph, which comes out in early 2010. She also blogs at

Q:  What were your toughest stories and why?

SC: Political campaigns are my Olympics. There’s no better way to see this wonderful country than in a motorcade where you coast, above the speed limit and above the law, through some of our most beautiful cities and countryside. Every candidate I’ve covered has been unique. Bob Dole was always warm, funny and friendly on Capitol Hill, a man who knew that to lead you must compromise. Candidate George W. Bush was very accessible in 2000, but President Bush buttoned up the White House within a few months. John Edwards — whose plane had a faux putting green embedded in its carpet — usually disappeared into his private cabin and avoided any direct interaction with the press. With John Kerry, access was non-existent and reporters struck an X on the campaign’s plane calendar to track a six-week run where he went without speaking to the reporters following him.

PM: One of the toughest and most compelling stories was a school shooting that I covered from the newsroom. We were desperately trying to get the layout for the interior of the school and I ended up talking to a secretary who was still in the school as things were still going on. Time felt like it stood still.

Another was interviewing Zeljko Kopanja, a Bosnian newspaper editor who had been looking into some mass killings by Bosnian Serbs, tracking down war criminals. He was also a Bosnian Serb and doing that kind of investigation is taboo if you’re of the same ethnic background. He had several death threats, which were ignored. On the morning of his 45th birthday, he turned the ignition in his car, which set off the bomb which had been placed beneath it. It blew off both his legs. The interview took place about a year after the attack and after I’d gotten to know him well and consider him a dear friend. He talked at length and went deeply into the personal repercussions…I kept my composure and then went back to my hotel and just wept.

MM: Currently I’m finishing a book for which I interviewed dozens of victims of MRSA, methicillin-resistant staph, or their families if the victims did not survive. Some of the stories are horrific: children dead in 12 hours; women noticing a small pimple and several weeks later losing all their leg muscles; men going into the hospital for minor surgery and struggling with infections — and bankruptcy — for years afterward. Because I believe in deep face-to-face reporting, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people (as many as five interviews). They’ve had a profound effect on me; it’s difficult to enter into people’s trauma without experiencing some trauma yourself. This is the dark side of my recommendation to get out and engage with people: You may witness some very dark things, and they may stay with you for a long time.

The victims are struggling to make some meaning out of their experience, so that they don’t feel only like victims. In a parallel way, I am struggling with how to best convey their stories in a way that honors their disclosure and makes their stories something more than disease porn. In the end, I decided I needed professional help, a kind of journalism equivalent of traumatic-incident debriefing. I applied for a fall fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s a project, now based at Columbia University, that teaches journalists how to report on and also to endure and make meaning out of trauma. Based on the description, I probably should have done it years ago.

Atlanta is the home of the CDC, and for most of the 11 years I was at that paper, that was what I covered. It was pretty much the epidemics and disasters beat; my colleagues called me “Scary Disease Girl.” I embedded in a CDC team during the investigation of the anthrax attacks in 2001, and in a World Health Organization polio-eradication team in India; I covered the arrival of West Nile virus and the Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Q: Where and how did you learn to trust your instincts?

SC: I have the patience of a trout fisherman. I’ve always been very curious and I genuinely find most people interesting. My strength, and my weakness at times, is that I will compose [the image] first and wait for the moment to happen within the composition. More often than not, this approach works.

PM: I think my instincts of knowing when to shut up have served me well. When I reported on the last remaining leper colony in Romania, the residents really opened up and let me into their lives. And I think that was because I showed an interest in theirs, and wanted to really show that they are people with a disease, not the disease itself.

My news instinct was honed early on in high school, Countryside High School in Clearwater, Fl. My teacher was Rik McNeill, a really involved teacher who encouraged us to pursue our stories, even when they nearly cost him his job. That stuck with me. And in our high school class alone, of 25 students, more than half of them are still practicing journalism 25 years later, as sports photographers and reporters, magazine writers and news anchors.

MM: About a year ago, I wrote a piece for SELF Magazine about a group of people who are suffering symptoms of what they say is a new disease; medicine says the disease does not exist. The story began as a larger version of the sort of disease-detection narratives that are my calling card, but it turned into a meditation on belief and the nature of evidence. I allowed it to go in that direction because after spending many hours with the various characters — the victims, their families, the CDC epidemiologists, the researchers who support one side or the other  — I was confident that they were not fantasizing or pathologically attention-seeking. I challenged them in interviews and in print, when I found facts that contradicted what they had to say — but ultimately, there was not a lot of fact-correcting to do, and so I let their statements stand. There is no standardized test for sincerity, of course. My gauge was my instincts, based on my specialty knowledge, but also just on practice: 20+ years of looking people in the eye and getting the facts down. Pattern recognition, again.

Q: Did you attend J-school? Did it help? Or is/was experience the best teacher?

SC: I left my village in South Florida and headed to Daytona State College and joined their excellent photography program that, as it turned out, primarily focused on commercial photography. I left with a portfolio that didn’t suit journalism but was hired on as photo lab technician at the Palm Beach Post and Evening Times. I eventually became a photographer and was fortunate to work with an immensely talented staff on a diverse range of assignments. DSC taught me the craft, working at the newspaper developed my skills as a journalist. I pursued my fine art projects on my own, but at times I’ve been able to merge the two disciplines.

PM: J-school definitely helped. We were taught by editors and reporters from excellent newspapers and news organizations like the Washington Post and Kiplinger’s. I went to J school at George Washington University (Communications),  but I was a transfer student from the University of South Florida, where I was studying fine arts.

MM: I went to the Medill School at Northwestern because, in the 1980s, journalism school was the accepted ticket of admission to the industry: If you didn’t have a journalism degree, particularly a masters degree, you had a harder time getting a job and a much harder time climbing the ladder. (I don’t think that’s true anymore, by the way.) I already knew how to write; I had been freelancing and also writing persuasive materials for a political nonprofit. But the Medill program at the time was very practical, and what it gave me was a taste of what newsroom discipline would be like: what it feels like to go to a courthouse at 8 a.m. knowing that you have to find something by 3 p.m., to convert acquaintanceships into sources, to have to digest a piece of legislation quickly, to pound out a story every day. The professors there were almost all journalists of the very particular breed that Chicago used to be famous for: unsentimental, detail-oriented, very “go back and find out what color the corpse’s eyes were.” They were emphatic about this being a job and not a romantic pursuit; a craft, more than a profession, that you practiced every day, slowly got better at, and were likely to be bruised by.

For me, the beginnings of good instincts were based in those teachers telling me over and over again to get the date and the day of the week, the middle initial and the apartment number, the numerals to two decimal places. The point was that you had no business making leaps of logic until you were rock-solid in the facts. What that did was strengthen my own inclination toward pattern recognition, wanting to notice when something rises above the background — which you can only execute when you know the background really, really well. That turned out to be very useful for writing about public health and medicine, because outbreak response is all about pattern recognition: when a case of disease is beyond the norm. (One definition of epidemic is, “a number of cases above the expected background level.”) But it’s also about patiently analyzing the data, and not making wild assumptions; as the medical-school Year 1 advice has it, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”

Q: Best advice to a less experienced news journo/shooter about the value of trusting your instincts?

SC: Be the first one there and the last to leave. Don’t ignore the axiom “it takes 10 years to become a photographer.” Today’s technology makes it easy to become a good photographer. But it still takes a great deal of work to become an accomplished photographer.

PM: Just like you wouldn’t rush out into traffic before looking both ways — stop, look and listen. Prepare questions, but let them fully answer the questions. And let them answer the ones you didn’t think of. Silence is your best friend because it makes everyone uncomfortable. So let the interviewee be the one to fill the silence. You always get your best quotes that way.

MM: Pay attention to what feels good: when you feel energized by a story, when it bores you, when it drags you down. Those are big, bright signposts to the way you ought to be going, which is to say the way that will be most emotionally rewarding for you. If poring over Excel spreadsheets makes you yawn, that is a pretty reliable indicator that database investigatory work is not for you; ditto for crime writing if the culture of policing offends you more than it intrigues you.  When something does intrigue you, start gathering material, and be prepared to gather it for a while before you see the connections. (The newsroom term for this is “saving string” — to wind into a ball, I suppose, but no one ever said.) Put a box under your desk and throw articles into it; set up DevonThink or Evernote and drag in anything that moves you.  If you want to have a specialty (which in the post-newspaper era is one way to be marketable), be prepared to study on your own. Read up, go to libraries, take a course, seek a fellowship. (I’ve had five: two yearlong, three that were one week to one month each.) Get off your butt. There is no substitute for spending time with people, talking to them face to face, looking them in the eye, engaging their milieu with all your senses. It is so tempting, these days especially, to do everything on the Web or by phone. Resist the temptation. Lack of contact starves your journalism of depth.

All of these are ways of saying: Invest time.

Next Weeek’s J-Day: Former Los Angeles Times writer, author William Lobdell and T/S contributor Michael Hastings, formerly of Newsweek, talk about the story that broke their hearts. Lobdell,  a religion writer, lost his faith while covering stories of Catholic priest abuses; Hastings lost his fiancee to murder in Baghdad. They’ll talk about the challenges of writing well about the most painful, personal issues.

2 thoughts on “It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts

  1. thomasmedlicott

    Three more reasons to read! Work ethic and talent hone instinct to a fine edge and ms. McKenna and ms. McCracken are examples of that creed. Mr. Crowley, as a photographer, would depend on instinct as a graphic artist or a fine artist might. Broadside has written before about the trauma a journalist encounters just doing their job. I look forward to reading the Times article you recommended and following these fine writers – and artists. Tom Medlicott

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