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April 19 2012


Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.


As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”


“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.


The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.


Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.


The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”


This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

September 16 2011


Corinne Reilly on trauma medicine in Afghanistan, after a decade of war

Our latest Editors’ Roundtable looks at Corinne Reilly’s print series “A Chance in Hell.” Part of a multimedia project from The Virginian-Pilot, the series brings readers snapshots from the lives of combat hospital staff in Kandahar. Reilly covers the military for the Pilot and joined the paper in 2009 after four years working at the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. She has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. In these excerpts from our conversation, she discusses finding a different story than the one she had planned to tell, putting the reader in her shoes, and fighting war fatigue at home.

You had to go halfway around the world to report “A Chance in Hell.” What conversations did you have with your editors about the story before you left the U.S.?

I went to Iraq last summer with the photographer who went with me on this trip, Ross Taylor. That was his first experience embedded with the military, and as soon as he got back, he wanted to do it again.

I started broadly looking at what local units would be in Afghanistan at the time that we were talking about making the trip. A combat hospital was not even on our radar at first, but then we thought that something related to Navy medicine could be compelling. We’re a Navy town, and Navy medicine is kind of a big thing. They provide all the medical service for the entire Marine Corps.

I called over to the local Navy hospital that’s here, and that’s how we found out about the hospital. As soon as we started talking to people who had served there, we all knew that this was the story we wanted to go there for.

We had some meetings with my direct editor, and also her direct boss, and then also Maria [Carrillo]*, our managing editor, and our top editor Denis Finley, and came up with a plan for a topical series. I knew they treated members of the Taliban, or suspected members of the Taliban and enemy combatants. I thought that was really compelling and could be a story. I thought maybe there was also something general on combat medicine and the way it’s changed over the last 10 years of war.

But as soon as we got there and realized the power of the place and the access we would have, I immediately knew that our plan wouldn’t do justice to what was in front of us. So maybe the second day I realized I needed an entirely new plan.

So you knew you had to change the way you were approaching the project. How did you make that shift?

What really triggered it was the access we were given. Obviously, it’s a medical setting, so there are all kinds of privacy considerations to take into account. We just weren’t really sure what it would be, but it ended up being much wider access than Ross or I ever imagined.

That first and second day, I would meet patients or talk to patients, and it was not fitting into the plan that I came with. But it was so incredibly powerful, and I just thought, “The best way to tell this story is maybe just to tell it all, and it doesn’t have to be this neat topical series.” The way I think of the story is almost as one long narrative.

It took me a couple days of mulling it over in my head before it gelled that it could be a series of scenes, meeting a series of different people, with bigger-picture stuff thrown in at the right points to guide the reader. I’d exchanged emails with my editor, and we had one phone conversation where we decided that was the path we were going to take.

How long were you there?

We were at the hospital for two weeks – 14 days.

How do you report for narrative in that situation? What did you make sure to get while you were right there?

A lot of the particulars I kind of knocked out in the first couple days – things like how many people worked there, the lay of the land, what are the different departments, what are the different jobs. Once I had that, felt like I understood this place from that perspective. Then I literally wrote down everything. Anytime a patient came in that I thought could be a compelling part of the story, I tried to see that patient all the way through until they left the hospital.

I usually got to the hospital around 8 or 9 in the morning and then stayed until 8 or 9 at night, and then I would go back, and before bed, I would take a few hours to organize my notes. By maybe the fifth or sixth day, I had an idea of who I had met so far, and I had identified a few people I thought could be key characters. And then subsequent days, I would go back and spend more time with those doctors to fill in their stories.

You got a lot of sensory detail in there.

I feel like this story was very unique in that so many of the details in and of themselves were striking. Whatever struck me, I wrote down. There were definitely times I went back and used Ross’ photos, and he also took a lot of video, so I could use it to fill in. For instance I had a detail of a physician’s assistant wiping blood off of a patient’s face, and I couldn’t remember the color of the cloth she was using, but I wanted that in the story, so I went back and looked at photos for things like that.

But certainly things like smells I was trying to write down – even thoughts that were going through my mind. There’s a section where I kind of expand on “who is this person on the table?” You’re noticing details about him, and you’re wondering who he is. Those were my own thoughts in the moment.

It’s interesting that you brought that up, because it’s an unusual mid-story shift to the second person. Had you also seen the wounded soldier in the gym, as is mentioned in the story, or was that a shift to the doctor’s perspective?

I had not seen him in the gym. I guess that “you” was a hybrid of my thoughts and even conversations I had with Ross when we were standing there while they were prepping the guy for surgery – we almost had that conversation: “I wonder who that guy is. I wonder how long he’s staying here. I wonder when he’s going to get to go home.”

And then part of it was also conversations with doctors afterward. A lot of them said things like, “We keep these patients for 36 hours, and then we never see them again. We never get to know who they are or see them again after.” Once in a while they do, but so many patients come through that they don’t get to follow up with once they leave the hospital.

Certainly when that physician’s assistant said that she’d seen him at the gym, I thought that was incredibly striking.

When you got back, you had all this stuff. At that point, did you already have the story segregated into pieces in your mind? How did you approach dividing the material into separate stories?

I definitely wrote large pieces of it while I was there. I would come back after a day at the hospital to the place where we slept. A first I started out organizing my notes and my thoughts. I would say by the fifth or sixth day I had a plan for what I wanted the story to look like, and I actually started writing scenes. So if I witnessed something that day that I knew would be a significant scene in the story, I would write a first draft of it that night before going to bed. I felt like that was really essential to showing what it really felt like to be there.

So in terms of breaking it into a five-part series, that didn’t happen until much later. I just sent everything I had written to my editor, Meredith Kruse, and we talked about an order and piecing them together, and how many parts do we need – we figured that out together. We literally laid the pieces out and kind of outlined it. And then she said, “This is what I still think is still needed here.” And I went back and wrote the entire second section of the first chapter, the one that pulls back and says “This is where we are.” Those were the parts where I didn’t feel like I would lose details if I waited until I got back to write.

You’re playing an educational role in getting a lot of information across to your readers. How did you think about balancing facts with the more scene-based parts of the story?

I wasn’t terribly deliberate, but I definitely didn’t want the bits with the facts – things I might consider drier pieces of information – to weigh down everything else, to weigh down the people, and the emotion and the real meaning of the place. I tried to convey as much as I could about the place through the people who were there and their stories, so you don’t even have to come back and say, “We are at a combat hospital. We are in Afghanistan. We are in Kandahar.” By the time you get through that first scene with Cpl. Ward, you already kind of understand what this place is. I wanted to make it so that you need as little additional information as possible.

You tucked in a few graphic details, but not a lot. How did you approach pacing the use of sensory detail and the most graphic material?

I think through all of it, with the writing and the whole package, we were really worried. It’s a very fine line. You want people to see it the way it really is, but you also don’t want people to turn away and stop reading. I tried to include details that might be graphic if I thought they served a purpose other than simply being graphic.

Did you start with more of those details in and then took some out, or did you go back and add things in?

There were a few cases where I did take things out, because I thought they were too graphic, so I would say it was a little of both. When I was actually in Afghanistan, I did err on the side of putting more in, because not everything makes it into your notebook and it’s only going to last in your memory so long. So I thought I should do it while it’s fresh in my mind, and if it comes out later, fine.

We’ve been at war a long time. People have seen a lot of war scenes, and they’re also pretty conversant with medical stories. What were your strategies for making sure they paid attention?

I did think from the very beginning that was going to be one of the key challenges with this story. We’ve been at war for 10 years; people know that. One of the biggest challenges of this story was getting people’s attention and finding a way to say “this is why this matters now,” even though this story could have been written five years ago.

The second little part of the first chapter where I quote one of the main characters in the story, Ron Bolen, saying, “You know, I know this is old news and that what we’re talking about now is winding down.” The reason I chose to put that there so high in the story was because I thought, “Let’s just address that. Let’s get it out there.” Yes, this has been happening a long time, but I thought I could almost flip it and say maybe that makes it more important now. It’s kind of saying, “We acknowledge that, but look, they’re still here; they’re still showing up every day.”

*Maria Carrillo is a member of our Editors’ Roundtable but did not select this story for discussion and was not involved in any aspect of our coverage of it.

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September 15 2011


September Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: The Virginian-Pilot on saving soldiers in Afghanistan

Our first Roundtable of September examines “A Chance in Hell,” by Corinne Reilly. Visiting a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Reilly shows the endless challenges of trauma medicine just a helicopter flight away from the front lines. The project, which includes photos and video by Ross Taylor, ran last month in The Virginian-Pilot.

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

I’m intrigued by Corinne Reilly’s use of “you” in the last section of her story. The second person perspective often results in awkward, self-conscious writing. The last time I can recall it being used to decent effect – more or less – was in Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.”

(For a list of notable second person narratives, check out this Wikipedia page.)

But Reilly’s use of “you” is a stroke of genius, elevating an already strong piece of reportage to one that resonates deeply. Here’s why I think it works:

The reporter remains disciplined. As a narrator, Reilly keeps herself out of the story until the final section. Many writers would be tempted to tell the entire story in first person (“This is what I experienced, and I lived to tell the tale!”), but Reilly is wiser. Like most good narrative reporters, she checks her ego at the door and restricts herself to being a fly on the wall (to mix metaphors). When she does introduce the second person, she uses it sparingly.

The reporter surprises us. Reilly recounts the story in taut documentary style up until the final passage – and then the second person comes out of nowhere:

Looking at him now, quiet and still for the first time since he arrived, you begin to notice things about him besides his terrible wounds.

You notice how young his face is. You notice that he’s tall.

You notice his muscles, how lean and toned he is.

You figure he has to be an athlete.

Maybe he is – was – a football player.

You notice the two words scrawled on the back of his forearm, and you wonder whether, after this, he’d get them tattooed there again: “No regrets.”

It’s jarring. It makes the reader pause. And then it works, because it is jarring: The narrator is shocked to remember that, even in a situation that would desensitize most people, she and the people she is writing about are thinking, feeling human beings.

The reporter presents an epiphany. Reilly doesn’t dwell on her feelings, because they aren’t really the point, at least not in this story. Instead, she uses the second person perspective to present an epiphany: After wondering about the wounded soldier’s future from her own perspective and that of others in the room with her, the narrator suddenly reveals that, unlike so many wounded before him, this soldier is someone the trauma team knows.

You think about the long recovery, all the rehab, the prosthesis. You wonder what he dreamed about doing after the Army and whether he’ll still be able to do it.

Then you realize you’ve seen him before.

The reporter connects with the reader. By using the second person, Reilly avoids the more exclusive “I” and allows the reader to imagine being there in the operating room with the doctors and nurses. We can all relate to moments when we observe a person – someone we initially think of as a stranger – in one context and then suddenly recognize them from another context. It’s a universal moment, and one that brings a deeper sense of humanity to Reilly’s excellent storytelling.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

I’ll start with a dare: Read Part 1 of “A Chance in Hell.” Now try not to read the rest.

I had little intention of reading all five parts of Reilly’s series in one sitting. I figured I’d read Part 1 for purposes of this forum, then set aside the others to get to … someday. I had all the same excuses all readers do: Behind on my work. Errands to run. Friends to see. Tired. And not thrilled about reading yet another war story.

An hour and all five parts later, I am pondering why some stories are easy to put down, and why others pull you in and don’t let you go. (Why is it easier to figure out the former than the latter?)

Reilly has some particular challenges here. Among them: Multiple characters, an over-the-top subject, and the need to balance narrative and exposition (show vs. tell). I’m going to address each briefly.

Multiple characters. If I have an editor’s tweak about this series, it would focus on the opening grafs. I had a little too much trouble following the action. Doctors, flight medics, corpsmen, surgeons, nurses, the patient. Inside, outside, doors, helicopters. It took me awhile to realize the medic came in to brief the docs before the wounded soldier was wheeled in. But Reilly held it together, against those odds, with that wailing. And then once I was past that little hurdle, the story spooled out smoothly, blending the necessary chaos of the trauma hospital with the structural devices that turn characters into individuals (dialog, titles, roles and reminders).

I ended Part 1 thinking the piece was going to be just about Eddie Ward. But as the series went on, the power became the number of Eddie Wards who came through, and the focus was correctly on the medical community who takes this incoming, day after day after sordid day. The postscript at the end, about Ward and the other standout characters, was a simple but brilliant touch.

Subject. High-stakes hospital situations offer natural and dramatic narrative, but can be a turn-off if overdone. Reilly uses all five physical senses when reporting, including smell (a very powerful tool), and dares to use the sixth sense – emotion. But note how she doesn’t overdo. With the exception of necessary but spare description of grisly wounds, she usually errs on the side of understatement. She makes minimal use of descriptive adjectives. In the most horrific scenes, she tends to just state, simply, what she sees, hears, wonders. That allows me to see, hear, wonder, but not to be pushed past tolerance.

Narrative vs. Exposition. This is a fascinating study of news narrative, versus more pure narrative or fiction. Reilly starts us in a scene – a very dramatic scene. She returns to scenes often. But she probably spends as much or more time on exposition: explaining how the hospital works, the status of the war, who the subjects are, how this place has come to be and why it’s (sadly) special. I am not just dragged into an emotional soup; I learn a ton along the way: about the war, about this aspect of the U.S. military presence and about medical care.

It would be tempting to stay with or over-torque the narrative (scenes, action, description, emotion), and you could argue it always offers a more gripping read to do so. But Reilly’s in-and-out pacing carries me along the storyline while giving me both relief and enlightenment. Some patches use dialog that puts me in the scene, some more traditional quotes that offer stand-back observation. Some are in-the-moment, some are quick backstory. A good documentary would work the same way: camera close-ups of action and scenes, with pull-backs to commentary and context. That in-and-out is also what allows her to include multiple characters without losing the center of the series. News reporters who want to cover important issues and write narrative would be smart to study this approach to learn how each can enhance the other.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Corinne Reilly. In the meantime, take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

December 29 2010



The Virginian-Pilot, the newspaper redesigned by Deborah Withey, had yesterday a fantastic news mix.

From a memorable and exhilarating picture to facts, what’s next, and advice.

A superb front page news package from the Denis Finley team.

Well done!

January 14 2010




My friend Denis Finley, editor of The Virginian-Pilot, explains:

“A disturbing image from the earthquake in Haiti appears on the front page of the Virginian-Pilot today. We typically refrain from publishing photos of the dead, but the tragedy in Haiti is unprecedented. To sanitize the story by publishihg a “safe” photograph would be an abdication of our responsibility to you. We believe this photograph captures the anguish and the toll better than any words ever could.”

Well done!

(Via Charles Apple)

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