Anthony Shadid talks about journalism: ‘A narrative can play out over two paragraphs or 10′ | Poynter.
Even in a spot story, particularly from a place readers know hardly anything about, a few sentences of background help — the town’s population, its history, the scene there, its reputation. One simple question I like to ask is what the town is famous for. It sounds a little banal, but it’s remarkable how often the answer adds a compelling detail. Another, perhaps obvious lesson: Names and ages are always essential. In their own way, they restore a bit of humanity to victims who often go nameless in times of conflict.
A narrative can play out over two paragraphs or 10, so space is rarely a legitimate excuse. Stories can be brief, yet still driven by detail, or they can stretch for an entire article. But in the end, those kinds of stories are what really matter.
Shadid also shared thoughts in the 2004 edition of “Best Newspaper Writing” after winning an ASNE award for his reporting in Baghdad.
On looking for the story of the day:
There were plenty of news conferences to keep you busy, plenty of these tours that would take you out to place, or you could try to break away from that. You’re taking a great risk as a daily journalist in breaking away from that because you may miss something. I was rooming with the Associated Press reporter and that was a great crutch in the sense that he would share stuff and he would keep me in formed and posted, and he did it as a friend rather than as a colleague. But in driving around, the idea was to just keep looking, looking, looking. In a story in which information is such a commodity, almost everything you see becomes a detail for the story. It becomes a paragraph of color.
On conveying humanity:
… I had to be very aggressive in the reporting. It was AP training in a lot of ways — I worked for the AP for 10 years — and I had to get names and ages and I was insistent on that. To me, it’s the very basic element of turning this person into a real person in that story. And ages are not something the people necessarily know in Iraq. When you ask them their age, they’ll sit there and think for a few seconds and then they’ll say, the year they were born, and you’ll ask the day and they don’t know. So even that becomes a little bit of a hassle. I would always ask people what they ate. When a certain thing happened, I want to know what they were eating or what they were doing at the moment that something happened. … I think they found it difficult to be honest because the questions were in some ways very bizarre. Why would somebody want this kind of detail? Why would somebody want to know such facts that seem so inconsequential at a moment of such tragedy? It was difficult. You feel awkward but you do understand that if you don’t ask these questions, then you’ll never be able to convey the humanity of the moment.