Creating an Investigative Narrative
On the second morning of the Nieman Foundation's three-day 2008 Conference on Narrative Journalism, Anne Hull, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, and Dana Priest, who investigated and wrote The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage that exposed harsh conditions for injured soldiers and Marines at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, spoke about "Creating an Investigative Narrative."
In an article in Nieman Reports's Spring 2008 issue, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele explained the importance of meshing narrative writing with investigative reporting. "It's not enough to drop a big number into a story — as difficult as it might have been to find that number — and expect people to be wowed, or even grateful. A lot of our effort involves coming up with a perspective that will succeed in connecting our findings with the experiences and/or feelings of those we hope will read about them … To provide the necessary context — and a pretext for readers to take a chance on hearing more of what we had to say — we came up with words that paint a stark comparison to the reconstruction realities of an earlier war."
In their presentation, Hull and Priest described how they brought these elements together in their story. Edited excerpts from their presentation follow.
Anne Hull: We never really thought of the word "narrative" when we set out to do the Walter Reed story. We didn't consciously think about the words that you often hear at these conferences: voice, sequencing, empathy, storytelling. But in the end, all those elements ended up being in the piece. In traditional feature writing we seek to illuminate, but this kind of journalism sought to expose and bring about change. My colleague, Dana, had plenty of experience as a journalist who exposed illegal deeds and wrongdoing. Her reporting on the CIA's secret prison sites around the world created a firestorm. She lives and breathes for impact. The highest impact journalism I had ever done was making someone cry. So we really brought a couple of separate approaches to our journalism. And in narrative journalism, in particular, we think of highly conceived stories. This story came about in the most old-fashioned, mundane way. Dana was sitting at her desk and her telephone rang, and she picked it up.
Dana Priest: The person on the line was an acquaintance, who had a friend that she wanted me to meet. As it was initially described, it wasn't anything I was necessarily interested in as the paper's intelligence reporter, but I went. During the lunch, my brain was saying, "This is too good to check," and the other half was, the jaw dropping, "How can this be true?." And if it were true, it would be a big story. Right from the start I was thinking of the contrasting worlds: the world of everyone supporting the troops and the world of troops being mistreated and not being able to get medical care.
This initial source had just a couple names. And with those two names started a process that really is classic, basic journalism: you start somewhere and you get more, and you get more, and eventually you've created a network of sources.
Right away I went to Anne for a couple reasons. I wanted someone who wasn't like me in the reporting she does, because I can learn a lot from her and her brain would work, probably, differently than mine. When I approach a story, I just naturally go to look at the system, usually about government. Anne does the opposite. She writes about people and their experiences and, if there's government in there, it's in the background, and you hear it through the person. That takes a kind of patience that I really didn't think that I had at that point.
Question number one was, what kind of access could we get? I had a source on the inside who said, "Just come on up."
"What do you mean, just come on up?" I said.
"Yeah, just come on up, and when you drive in give them your license and …"
Immediately we were confronted with how far can we go in this way. And we couldn't ever lie about who we were, so the trick was to never be in a position where somebody who we didn't [want to meet] would be asking us, "Well, who are you?" So that framed our whole reporting effort.
But I have to say that reporting this story was not smooth, step-by-step, everything goes according to plan.
Hull: The combination of my instinct and Dana's precision, in the end, really worked well together. As we proceeded in the reporting, we got more on the same page by just hanging out and watching people. We started out with people on the phone, or meeting them away from Walter Reed, and then we started interviewing. Often the wives would talk to us first, and the husbands would go on board later, either on the record or off the record. The husbands had languished on Walter Reed's campus for two years, and they were at their limit and were really ready to talk.
Slowly then, we had to get onto Walter Reed to do the bulk of our reporting so we could witness stuff with our own eyes to accumulate evidence. Typically, for a narrative, we go report and hang out to build scenes and describe something. This was kind of the opposite in that we needed to see things to substantiate the allegations that some of these people suggested were happening there. So we needed to get out of the hospital ward and spend time on the post where the soldiers were literally being warehoused in barracks. One of the first places we went was this hotel on the military post called the Mologne House. It looks like a nice Ramada Inn, so we go in there and the place is entirely jammed with wounded soldiers and Marines. It's inconceivable what we see, soldiers with their missing limbs, they're maimed, they're burned, they're dragging IV poles, and they have catheters. All 220 rooms are occupied by wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan and, quite often, their wives and children are crammed into the rooms with them. It's a really surreal scene.
The first night we went there we found out that there's a bar, so while there's no social worker working in the lobby of the Mologne House, there is a cash bar open every night where soldiers, who are highly medicated, many would say overly medicated, sit and drink all night. And we sat there and watched for a couple of hours and took it in. We didn't take notes that first time; obviously, we didn't want to be detected. We just wanted to get a sense of this place. We would continually go back to the bar and listen to who might have been complaining or who seemed extra frustrated. And when that soldier went away from the crowd, maybe went back to his room or went outside to smoke, we'd find a way to talk to that soldier and say, "We've heard there are some things going on here. We're newspaper reporters. Would you care to talk to us about it?" That's how we'd test the water to see if that soldier wanted to talk. A concern we had was whether that soldier will then go to his commander and say there're two reporters hanging out here. So it was a cat and mouse game every minute of the reporting.
Another place we would hang out is outside where the soldiers smoked. Almost everyone starts smoking in Iraq, and it turns into a two-pack-a-day habit. So always outside of this Mologne House there are smokers. I don't happen to smoke, so it would be odd for me to go and stand there and listen. So we arranged for a friend of ours who smokes to come with us that night. Our friend would smoke, and I would talk to this friend and not seem so out of place. You just kind of have to think creatively of how to approach people and how to get stuff. From these smokers we ended up finding a private named Joshua Calloway, who we ended up profiling later in the year, a very long profile about his PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] and how Walter Reed wasn't treating it appropriately.
Priest: It came pretty early on that we heard a rumor about this place called Building 18, which ended up being the lead of the story and, when television got into the mix, it became the story. The first time I heard about Building 18, I just could not believe that such a place could exist. And I was determined to get there because it was just all there, the contrast — we support the troops, but we let them live with mold. It just seemed, again, almost too unbelievable to be true.
So the questions became how are we going to verify what's in Building 18, and then, how are we going to get into Building 18? Every interview that I did, or we did, after that, there would always be, "Hey, do you know anybody living in Building 18? Have you ever been in there?" And there weren't a ton of people, because it's a relatively small building, but little by little, we found people who were there.
One of the things that I learned in doing this story is the importance of listening. It sounds like such a basic thing, but we're in this era of journalism in which a lot of journalists are doing the talking and often talking about derivative information. But the art of listening is so fundamental to what we do. And if you have a heightened ability to do that, and a heightened sense of that importance, you can pick up so much. That person standing there, reading his body language, not a complainer, macho guy, not supposed to be wounded, not feeling comfortable enough to tell us the whole truth about the building because he didn't even know us. But there is just so much in his voice, and in the voices of a lot of people that we would talk with even though we didn't know their whole stories. So I tell myself when I start new projects, just listen, and it does pay off.
The other thing is patience, in terms of building sources in particular. And it's people like we were dealing with who are not going to tell you everything. They don't know who you are exactly, and what you're doing exactly, and you don't want to actually tell them what you're doing. You might want to express an interest in finding out more about their life, but to be patient building those people as sources. When you're asking people to go deep into their personal lives or, in this case, stand up in a small or large way against their institution — which many of them depended on, loved, thought themselves a part of, and now they're being disillusioned by it — you just can't expect that to come out right away. Or if it comes out right away in a typical soldier way, just complaining, you have to know that part of it is just complaining, especially when they're around everybody else, and how much of that is truth? So be patient, start with easy questions, easy subjects, and work to the harder things. We took months to cultivate a lot of our sources and to get what we were really after.
In this story and so many others, it's about context, context, context. The anecdotes you have, the personalities that you develop, the sources that you build — to me, they obviously all have a context. But, again, when you're looking at, as I often do, the contrast between rhetoric and reality, it all comes down to setting it in a context. And we could only do that at Walter Reed after understanding, not only all of the anecdotes and systems, but then, too, the larger context of the Army and the war in Iraq.
Hull: When you contrast the picture of that cruddy room where a soldier who'd been blown up by an IED is living under this mold with this shining promise the country has given these soldiers, it makes all the difference in the world. One way we knew that the story would come to life is describing these moments in vivid detail and not just having a source describe them for us. We needed to see as much of it as possible, which is why we asked to sleep in the rooms of soldiers. And what do you get from one night? It yields a whole bunch of stuff that ends up in a story. We had to see it with our own eyes; we can't have someone tell it to us. And that's one reason why the story was time-consuming, but it's also a reason that we hoped it popped to life in ways that traditional investigative reports often don't.
In my usual narrative reporting, I'm used to submerging in a particular subculture, and the rest of the world kind of falls away. But in this story we really needed to be conscious of building sources and fostering relationships with people who are going to pick up the phone and call and tell us something. So by the end of the process we probably had 10 subcontractor reporters at work for us, and they were soldiers and Marines. And it's because we kept greasing those relationships, which is traditional in Dana's world but less so in mine. For every one name that appeared in a story, there were 10 soldiers talking to us whose name never appeared in a story. We had this whole network of soldiers and Marines calling us all the time, and we babysat them, checked on them, and it was just a really intense relationship all that time.
Priest: In documenting this world, we were seeing things firsthand and not just being told about them. But we also were told about them, and for that we had a group of insiders who could help us validate stories that individual soldiers were telling us about either themselves or rumors that they heard. So we were operating on several different levels. We would always ask people for their medical records when we got to know them and when they agreed to help us. So we were trying to get any kind of documentation that we could.
Hull: We wrote our own sections. We wrote our stories. Dana would write on one day, and I'd write the next. And then we went through that inevitable process of having to redraft, which we did a couple of times with the great help of David Maraniss, our editor, and this helped the pieces to have a unified voice. We didn't think so much about creating a beautiful piece of writing as we did accomplishing a goal and that was to expose what the Army was doing. So we were not being super conscious of the writing, per se, other than the organization of it to maximize our anecdotes and to hit certain themes and to kind of tie it up that way.
I want to talk a little bit about what we call the showdown interview. We're doing our fact checking, making sure we've got everything right — sequential, age, theme, all this stuff. But we had to go to the Army and confront them with everything we'd found out during the last four months. Since we were off the radar, they didn't know we'd reported. They didn't know we'd spent time on post, even. And, in fairness, we wanted to give the Army more than a typical routine — when you fax over a set of questions on Friday and they have to respond for the Sunday publication. So with Dana understanding the culture of the Pentagon, and wanting to give them ample time, we called on a Monday or Tuesday before our Sunday publication.
Priest: We wrote out our 30 questions, picking everything we could think of that they should be able to respond to. We didn't tell them any names. We didn't tell them how we did the story or anything like that.
Hull: "How many caseworkers do you have per soldier?," that kind of thing, to show the staffing inadequacies.
Priest: We did give them four days, which for a daily story would be crazy, but for a story like this it's not. It's a fair way to do it. We didn't tell them about Building 18 yet. We told them everything else. And then they said the Walter Reed commander, Army Major General George W. Weightman, wanted to respond, and asked us to come over to his office. And we went through everything, and we had what would be a typical interview with the general and eight colonels sitting with him in the office. It was all very nice. They realized we really knew what we were talking about. General Weightman was a complete professional at this. He didn't get angry. He tried to put the best face on it without lying. And then when we were leaving I said to him — again, because I've covered the military so long I know what they hate more than bad news is not knowing that the bad news is coming — I said, "I just want you to know that we have been up here and you will see that in the story." And he says okay, and then he says, "So I suppose you're not coming to the press conference tomorrow?" And I'm like, "What press conference?" And it turned out that they put on a preemptive press conference, which ended up kind of backfiring, because the reporters couldn't figure out why they were calling this, but they eventually got them to admit that there was a Washington Post story. So all these Pentagon reporters are now really upset. They're like, "What, we're your mouthpiece?" And they boycotted doing stories until our story came out.
Then we told them about Building 18 on the Saturday before the Sunday. Now why did we wait? Because we wanted the full weight of what had been going on to be in the paper. And we didn't want to give them a chance to clean it up and say, you know, "Well it's since been cleaned up." And I thought a lot about it; is that fair? I totally think it's fair. Every day Anne and I had this talk: "They're probably going to find the building; they're probably going to clean Building 18 up." We'd been there four months; we thought for sure they would clean it up, because it wasn't that hard to clean up. But they never cleaned it up. We felt very fair in telling them at the last minute and got a "I'll go right over there, ma'am." And they went over there, and they came back and that afternoon, we got a statement that included the fact that their roach and rodent abatement program had started several weeks ago, and they believed that it was making great progress.
Hull and Priest took questions from conference participants. Excerpts from this exchange follow:
Question: I still don't understand how it was that you flew under the radar for that long. Were you amazed that somebody didn't put the kibosh on you months before?
Priest: It's the way you move about. Once you've been embedded in a place, you get to know the place, and you feel confident about being there. And so it's somewhat about your manner of being in a place in which you don't stand out, and it's leaving the room when someone walks in who might be a little bit more aware of who should be there and who shouldn't and sees an unfamiliar face. A lot of times, we did that, or we didn't go somewhere, or we left somewhere.
Hull: We made sure that we stressed with each person we talked to, please don't tell anyone you're talking to us, especially your supervisor, but other people, too. And if you see us in public, don't acknowledge us.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about scheduling? Were you working on other stories as you were working on this? How often were you there? And how often did you write? Was it at the end you just wrote it all, or did you keep on writing little bits over the course of the four months?
Hull: We pretty much lived and breathed that story for four or five months. And even after its publication we lived and breathed it because of the outpouring. For every e-mail that came in there was often a tip, and we had to follow it up, so it never has stopped, really. It still goes on. But we were up there all the time. We often went there separately, because we could accomplish twice as much work and, if one got caught, it's better than two getting caught. So there was a strategy to how we went into the place. And we just reported like crazy for about three and a-half months. And then spent a month writing and redrafting but continuing to report while we were writing and getting the piece redrafted and edited.
Question: As you were reporting, were you continuously writing your notes?
Hull: We're both pretty good about keeping up with our notes, and we're both very organized. So when we would have a full notebook, or we had a day of reporting, we transcribed that night and then we'd share with each other what we had. So everything was open between us, and we'd talk 15 times a day. If I went two hours without talking to Dana, it was really strange. And it still is really strange.
Question: Did you have cameras? Did you have any kind of video material? And what kind of technical backup do you need at your paper when you're doing an investigative article like this?
Priest: We are both pretty low-tech. We took notes in certain ways when we were there so we would not draw attention to ourselves. We did tape record some interviews with people that we had off post. And we had to learn the bureaucracy, since this is all about a bureaucracy failure, and then we had to learn about the Army structure. There were a lot of details we could scribble down, but they were still so murky. That was why sometimes it was good to have a tape recorder. And then we had some inside sources who could explain things, like how the brigades are organized and who the platoon sergeants are. Other than one time when we did use a camera, we didn't take cameras or notebooks or other things that would identify us. If we did get caught and someone wasn't thinking you were a reporter, they're just wondering, well, why are you there? Or maybe someone would ask to look in your bag, which did happen. And you wouldn't have things that would stand out as identifying you with the paper. Then, hopefully, they wouldn't ask, "Well, who are you with?" I mean, like, "What organization are you with?" If you were with a soldier, you've got to brief the soldier so they don't lie about who you are, but maybe they don't totally disclose who you are, either. And so finding that phraseology is the key.
Question: Can you talk about the editing process and the rewriting process, and your work with the editor, David Maraniss?
Priest: The word I learned in this process is "unpack." I'm still working at that, the idea that you not only unpack, but then you have to give the broader context before you get into how it's broken. I am like "Come on, come on, let's get through that so we can get to the broken part." And then I hear, "No, no, no, no. You're not going to get the impact unless you can describe the world." Then you have to describe it in a way that's easy to read so you don't lose people before getting to what I want to really get to. So that took patience, which is not a virtue of mine. But I'm learning it.
Question: It sounds like you did a fair amount of reporting when you weren't telling people who you were. How do you handle having conversations with people so long as they don't ask you who you are? How do you handle those conversations, like the ones where you were with the smoking people and just listening? How do you handle them in terms of being able to use that stuff?
Hull: When we were hanging out and listening, the first stage, without notebooks, obviously, none of those quotes ever appeared in the story. But when we did bring the notebooks out, anyone who was quoted in the story knew that we were reporters working on a piece for The Washington Post on Walter Reed. There was only a brief scene on one of the days where we were hanging out in a bar and ended up quoting some people, because I had something to write on and had written down verbatim what the dialog was. But we did not identify those people. We made sure that they couldn't be identified when we used the quote. Everything else is completely attributed. It has to be.
Priest: There are privacy rights involved and so we were never going to put somebody's name, or even a descriptor with a blind quote, or a feeling that could be identified, unless that person allowed us to do that. We have to respect that people there don't want everybody to know they're even there. So we had to use those rules.
Question: You had mentioned earlier that a lot of soldiers and their families really weren't clued in on what you were doing, and that's the reason why this story didn't break. You didn't' stumble upon any soldier or any soldier's family that thought, "Wow, okay, something bad is happening, I have a chance to be part of something and publish a book on my experience with this." I'm wondering if in this world of citizen journalism and reality TV shows, why out of all these hundreds upon hundreds of people, no one took advantage of that?
Hull: After the stories were published, we did learn that there's an awesome guy blogging from the Mologne House. He's an injured Marine, I think. But we just didn't find anyone who was doing that. Plus there's a mythology about Walter Reed that everybody wants to kind of keep alive. And that is it's a place of great medical care for our nation's heroes. And I don't think people wanted to pierce that, which is why it took so long for some people to have the courage to step forward and speak out against the Army and against Walter Reed.
Priest: I remember one of the main characters in the story, Staff Sergeant Shannon, and he was a team sniper leader, so he had a very risky and responsible job. And his eye had gotten blown out from an Iraqi sniper. We talked with him; he was so articulate. He could tell us so much about the system, and we talked to him for a long time many times. And it wasn't until, maybe, the sixth time when we felt like we needed to say, "Okay, can we get you to go on the record with any of this?" It was a very nerve-wracking question to ask: How are we going to pose this so that he doesn't say no? And when we finally asked him, he looked at us like, you know, "You have to be crazy, of course I'm going to go on the record. I am a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, and my Army is not supposed to be treating people this way." Staff sergeants are in charge of the lives of the soldiers, and they're like their mothers, really. And he had had a young troop down the corridor who had killed himself because he wasn't getting care, and that sparked him to do all sorts of things, but not ever to think about going outside his chain of command. So that's military culture. That's the agency culture. It wasn't going to happen, and it didn't happen.