Semester One Reflection

S1 Final Project: A presentation on my journalistic process January 29th at 1pm

My independent study combines my interests in history, journalism, and the environment. While my timeline for my independent study has changed, my final goal remains the same: to write a narrative journalistic piece about the history of local protected land areas. In my initial proposal, I outlined three major phases of my project: research, interviews, and writing. And although I’ve been working diligently since August, I am only beginning to start interviews. 

I became interested in narrative journalism after reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an honest and revealing account of life in Annawadi, the airport slum in Mumbai. Her book is sensational for many reasons. As a foreigner, who does not speak Hindi or Marathi, she was able to write respectively and accurately about the Annawadians through stellar and thorough reporting. Additionally, her writing is simply beautiful. 

Boo’s elegant prose and nuanced look at poverty are made possible by one thing – details. Because narrative journalism is a genre that seeks to write about critical topics – race, gender, poverty, religion, politics – through a human lens, it depends on details. What does the interviewee see, smell, taste? Behind the Beautiful Forevers succeeded in penetrating the minds of an international community of readers, because Boo wrote about poverty not through statistics, but through the thoughts and senses of real people. 

The critical question of narrative journalism then becomes: how do journalists get details? How do they get them respectfully, especially when details do not always show the interviewee in a positive light?   

I took a course in narrative nonfiction this summer at the Duke University Center for Documentary studies, and we spent a lot of time discussing how journalists get details. The key is for the journalist to establish a baseline of trust between themselves and the interviewee. The subject needs to feel comfortable with the writer telling their story. And there are several ways to earn trust. 

First: A journalist must be knowledgeable about the topic on which they are writing. One must show their interviewers that you respect them and their story by taking time to learn about its context. Katherine Boo writes about wealth disparities, thus when she began reporting in Annawadi – although she lacked linguistic and national access – she brought to the table a deep contextual understanding of poverty. 

Second: A journalist should spend time with their interviewees and become part of wherever they are reporting. Katherine Boo spent four years in Annawadi. Eventually, she was a part of the place too – still an odd part of the place, but a part nonetheless. 

Third: A journalist should use iterative interviewing. Once they’ve established trust with their interviewee – they should speak with them multiple times. Each time, the interviewee will become more comfortable with the journalist and disclose further details. 

When I designed my independent study the goals of trust and details were on the forefront of my mind. Although I don’t have four years to complete this project, I did want to experiment with a more long-term journalistic piece, where I could practice gaining the trust of my interviewees by spending time in their world. My research phase took longer than expected. Here’s why.  

In the Documentary Studies Course, the instructors, Barry Yeoman and Janine Latus, set aside a whole morning for learning how to do thorough background research on whatever topic you, as a journalist, might be writing about. Janine spoke mostly about document-based research – how to use articles and databases to give oneself a solid understanding of their chosen topic. 

So, when I envisioned the “research” part of my independent study, I pictured myself pouring over JSTOR articles and digitized archival materials. And granted, I’ve done plenty of this conventional research. I read Rachel Frankel’s thesis on the history of the Couch land (now part of Duke Forest), perused various old newspapers for any mention of the “Occaneechi” on “digitalnc” and “chroniclingamerica.loc.gov”, and explored the old Eno Journals published by the Eno River Association in the 1970s and 1980s. But most of my research turned out to be done through people. 

Since August, I’ve made a lot of phone calls and sent a lot of emails to strangers. After gaining a basic knowledge of the Duke Forest’s and Eno River’s histories, I started reaching out to local environmental history experts. Each person I spoke with gave me a lead – a resource I could turn to, an individual I could talk to. 

The very first expert I spoke with was Vera Cecelski, site manager at Historic Stagville. When I mentioned to her that I was interested in the history of the Eno River and its peoples, she recommended that I check out the new exhibit at the Orange County Historical Museum (OCHM) about the Occaneechi. Because of her suggestion, I attended “Digging up History” – a virtual event hosted by the OCHM on the archaeology of the Occaneechi settlements along the Eno. I then went to two more OCHM events – one featuring Lawrence Dunmore (Occaneechi Tribal Historian and Storyteller) and Vickie Jeffries (Occaneechi Herbalist). After learning so much from these events, I was able to reach out to Courtney Smith (Exhibit and Program Coordinator at OCHM). She not only filled in gaps in my research, but also put me in touch with two of my potential interviewees: Lawrence Dunmore and Vickie Jeffries.

My document-based research allowed me to reach out to Courtney Smith because I could demonstrate a respect for local environmental history and the story of the Occaneechi. But it was only through my many conversations and emails that I was able to find potential interviewees. 

This is only one of the several interpersonal threads I’ve followed in order to find potential interviewees. I’ve spoken to countless others including: Cassandra Bennett (Durham Parks and Rec Cultural Historian), Tom Magnuson (Trading Path Association), Nicki Cagle (Nicholas School of the Environment and Couch genealogy expert), and Judd Edeburn (former resource manager of the Duke Forest) to name a few. 

Even though I’ve yet to begin interviewing, each of the phone calls I’ve made and emails I’ve sent has been invaluable. I’m now a part of the small local environmental history community. I know this because when I spoke with Greg Bell (Eno River Association) he asked, “Have you talked to Tom Magnuson?” and I said, “Yep. I spoke with him on Wednesday.”

Because gaining the interviewees trust is about approaching them in the right way, I’ve spent the fall semester making call after call, so that I could be connected to an interviewee by someone they already respect. Thus, when I speak with an interviewee for the first time, there will already be a base-line level of trust between us. Trust brings details and details yield deeply human and compelling stories. 

As I spoke with Mr. Lawrence Dunmore (who has agreed to be interviewed for the project) this fall, telling him about my vision for this piece and my deep interest in the Occaneechi’s story he said, “I have a good feeling about this. You approached us in the right way.” 

That made me smile. Because that was my exact intent.