Story and photos by Jigna Kotecha, 2016 JAWS Fellow
How do journalists report stories of people who are distrustful of news media? How can a journalist establish trust to get invited into people’s lives? Fernanda Santos, Phoenix bureau chief of The New York Times, answered these questions at an Oct. 29 JAWS panel on the art of storytelling by sharing her experience reporting about a wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters in 2013.
Fernanda’s book, “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting,” is the story of the only municipal crew of wildland firefighters in the United States, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and 19 men who loved one another, loved what they did and refused to give up on one another even as they died.
The session was moderated by Marina Villeneuve, a reporter at The Associated Press.
“We connect with stories we write because we connect to the people we are writing about,” said Fernanda, who reminded the journalists that every story they write is about people who are affected by that story, so they need to be fair to their sources. Fernanda described the steps she took to form a narrative that is both real and fair.
What are you after? Fernanda asks this fundamental question before writing a story. It helps her set her focus and develop the storyline. In this case, her question was, “Who were these 19 firefighters?” She was curious to find out why those firefighters, faced with a 40-foot wall of fire, chose to stay together.
Lead the story: Journalists who report breaking news tend to follow the common narrative adopted by popular media organizations. To lead the line of reporting, Fernanda recommends telling the basic facts but also picking a unique angle of the story and exploring it.
Report what the audience is curious about: Santos keeps a notebook, separate from her reporter’s notebook, for random thoughts, ideas and questions. She believes that writing questions that she needs the answers for lets her understand what the audience is curious about. For her book, her questions included who were those firefighters, why did they fight the fire, how was this fire fought, what exactly are hotshots and what are monsoon storms.
Focus on the right direction: Journalists must know what they are focusing on, as it helps them and their editors to take the right approach to the story. Fernanda advises journalists to avoid complicating the story and focusing on how they want the story to be read and what they can realistically accomplish on deadline.
Get people to open their doors: When covering a tragedy, it becomes difficult for journalists to approach bereaved families who do not want their privacy invaded. In such situations, Fernanda recommends reaching those families through someone who knows them.
Build trust: “I always approach my interviews as conversations and not like interrogations,” said Fernanda, who connects with her sources by crying, laughing and sharing her own stories.
Never judge: Fernanda advises journalists to not judge or compare the way people grieve.
Find significant details in ordinary stories: People lead ordinary lives but have incredibly deep details that make their stories significant. While writing the story about firefighters, Fernanda found that though they lived ordinary lives, some were recovering drug addicts. It helped her find significant detail in the story that those firefighters were a crew of second-chancers.
Be honest: Ordinary people don’t know the rules reporters operate under. Hence, it is the responsibility of journalists to be honest with their sources in terms of what the published story would look like. A good practice would be to gently remind sources to avoid sharing what they don’t want to see in the story.