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 http://drugresistantstaph.blogspot.com.
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? Read the rest of this entry »