Campus & Community

Journalism conference looks at truth, lies, and narrative

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How to assess truth in storytelling

War and truth telling dominated last weekend’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (Dec. 3-5). The ongoing violence in Iraq and postelection timing lent a sense of urgency to the many lectures, panel discussions, and question sessions about improving the craft and content of news writing.

Journalist Seymour Hersh gave one of the keynote addresses at the seventh annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Hersh, whose work appears in The New Yorker and elsewhere, spoke on ‘Dateline Washington.’ (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

The Nieman Foundation’s annual conference is devoted to storytelling, or narrative. But this was a year in which many journalists – from prize winners to neighborhood beat reporters – were compelled to tell stories that were, more often than not, tragic. The reporting legacy of World War II and the Vietnam War were recurring reference points in conference discussions about how to depict reality in the midst of military battles – and the battle for hearts and minds.

“‘Reality’ is a word that’s in danger of being lost. The only bright side is, for most people, ‘reality’ isn’t a word that lifts the heart. It’s slightly depressing,” said novelist Norman Mailer ’43 (one of four keynote speakers), delivering Saturday’s address to the 1,000 journalists, editors, and scholars from around the world who assembled at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge.

The origins of the narrative journalism movement are rarely mentioned without crediting Mailer, author of the seminal “nonfiction novels” “The Armies of the Night” and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” He delivered a speech contrasting what he calls the “myths” America has been offered to justify the war with “hypotheses” that require inquiry or verification.

“May many good questions prevail,” he said in closing. “They are in peril.”

Industry introspection

It’s easy to spot the impact of the narrative journalism movement in newspaper stories. They are the ones that seem to live and breathe on the page, that pull you in from the first paragraph like a good book you can’t put down.

Yet industry introspection about the integrity of reporting and the ethics of sourcing were central themes of the conference, in a year when even the nation’s leading news organizations admitted to faulty reporting based on inaccurate, unverified “official” information.

The spectrum of opinion and charged atmosphere was reflected in the responses of Saturday morning’s keynote panel to the assigned question: “In wartime, do journalists become propagandists?”

“No,” was the self-described “simplistic” response from David Finkel, a Washington Post writer who has reported from Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He described the mission of battlefield reporting as capturing the truth through all possible lenses, passing the cumulative vision on to the reader.

“We are trying in our various ways to just get at the truth of what is going on,” Finkel said.

Daniel Ellsberg countered that simply seeking truth is no guarantee of the accuracy of what you find. Propaganda, he claimed, is delivered on a government level: “And the press, seeking the truth, didn’t seek very well and failed.”

Ellsberg is known primarily for his role as a source of classified information during the Nixon era. In 1967, as an analyst at the RAND Corp., Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret study of U.S. decisionmaking in Vietnam, to the press.

He illustrated his point that reporters are easily diverted with a magic trick, opening and closing his empty palm then producing a yellow silk scarf from his fist. Ellsberg encouraged the press to assume the “humble but vastly heroic” role of the dog Toto in the “Wizard of Oz,” and pull back the curtain to unveil the truth.

Photographer and Nieman Fellow Molly Bingham described the reality of covering a war under the threat of kidnapping. In Iraq, she suggested, journalists end up inhibiting their ability to report freely in exchange for the safety and access of being embedded within the military forces.

“We aren’t bothering to figure out the other side,” said Bingham, who spent 10 months last year on an in-depth story about Iraqi insurgents. She has reported from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Gaza Strip, and was Al Gore’s official photographer.

Bingham said reliance on official sources meant that even though Iraqis stood at the prison gates with tales of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib months before the stories were disseminated by the press, it was only when American soldiers produced photos that reporters began to take the news seriously.

Writing – and photographing – war

Veteran narrative journalism coach Roy Peter Clark from The Poynter Institute traced the evolving role of the journalist in wartime from World War II to Vietnam.

World War II journalists embraced the role of journalist as loyal propagandist, he said, a wartime role changed by Vietnam where, Clark asserted, the scale of losses turned the press corps toward actively exposing misinformation through fact.

“The belief that what we do is not propaganda but truth telling is a form of propaganda itself,” said Clark, noting that intervening in Sudan, for example, would require a kind of biased information campaign that many would view as positive.

But the conference wasn’t only devoted to text. Editors constantly make critical narrative choices in the selection and placement of photos.

“The Iraq war for the last year has been waged on the back of images,” said former journalist Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Zelizer, whose research focus is news images in times of crisis, highlighted the role of images of kidnapped Americans before beheading. The images were used to mobilize troops and support, but the sources of the photos were kidnappers who effectively usurped the role of journalists in conveying the wartime message.

Former Nieman Fellow Geoffrey Nyarota told the story of a critical “Page One” photo choice at the Daily News, a newspaper he co-founded in 1999 as Zimbabwe’s only independent newspaper.

A female supporter of one political party was kidnapped by supporters of another party, Nyarota said, and forced to sit on a hotplate in a kitchen. When the photo of the mutilated woman turned up on his desk, the editorial staff engaged in discussion about whether to run it. Was it too shocking and revolting to appear in the paper, or would such an offensive photo confront the public with the reality of the consequences of political violence?

Nyarota said the solution they came up with was to make copies of the photos and send them home with editors to gauge the responses from their families. Then they’d decide.

“Three days later, they all came back and there was unanimous assent that we should print this picture, and print it on page one,” said Nyarota.

The reaction was tremendous from both sides of the political divide, with a consensus that the political violence had gone too far, he said.

Nyarota came to Harvard as a Nieman Fellow after he fled to South Africa to escape his seventh arrest during Zimbabwe President Mugabe’s campaign against freedom of the press. He is now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“By protecting the public we mislead them into thinking there is no violence in war,” he warned, echoing the feeling among many journalists at the conference, that part of telling a story effectively is having the courage and diligence to tell the story at all.