Advice from the pros at BU’s narrative journalism conference

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Desert the herd. Fact-check memories.

Celebrated writers Adam Hochschild, Samuel G. Freedman, and Alia Malek shared those thoughts last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.

Conference founder Mark Kramer organized the three days of speeches, panels, and informal sessions as editors try new ways to tell complex stories.

“The best stories come when you don’t follow the pack,” said Hochschild, using examples from his new and well-received Spain in Our Hearts: Americans and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

Although nearly 1,000 writers covered the war—eating, drinking, and occasionally, like Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, sleeping with each other—Hochschild noted that they missed two huge stories.

The first: that Republican militias created a social revolution. The only one to explore this was George Orwell, who detailed the saga of idealism and betrayal in the classic Homage to Catalonia. Hochschild pointed out that Orwell was there as a fighter, not a colleague sharing wine and story ideas.

The reason they didn’t tell the second story: Nobody asked the simple question of who provided fuel for Nationalist dictator Francisco Franco tanks and Hitler’s planes. Hochschild details their delivery from America because Texaco’s chairman supported Franco and Hitler, despite a neutrality act forbidding that.

His point: “The best stories come when you don’t follow the herd. Explore on your own,” he said, adding that new technologies now let non-journalists do this without having to follow the “party line.”

As the memoir craze continues and the fact-fiction line blurs, Freedman insisted, “Photoshopping my memories is not good enough for me.”

The noted journalism teacher and New York Times columnist is the author of Who She Was, which has been lauded as a moving but candid probe of his mother’s past.

Freedman rejected the notion that memoir operates by different rules from any other kind of nonfiction.

To him, much-emulated memoirist Vivian Gornick’s admission that she’s invented scenes and used composite characters invalidates her work while prolific author and journalist Pete Hamill’s up-front comment that his memory can be faulty makes him trust his.

With memory as the starting point, Freedman applied reporting skills to his own life. For Who She Was, he interviewed family members the same way he did anyone else: letting them know he was a journalist. And, as with any other source, he let them fact-check the manuscript and considered any objections they might have—but told them that the final decision about what or what not to include was his.

Malek, born in Baltimore to Syrian immigrant parents, uses the same intensive reporting technique in her forthcoming book about her motherland. Her aim: to put today’s headlines in context.

Her third book, a still-untitled narrative, uses her family’s house as a metaphor to trace 100 years of history. Like Freedman—her Columbia Journalism School mentor—she said she reports personal conflicts as she would any other story.

“It’s difficult if you do your job diligently,” said the former Department of Justice trial attorney and Al Jazeera America senior writer who did award-winning reporting from Syria for several major outlets.

Like Hochschild, Malek mixes narrative with history. “I don’t want to bore the reader,” she said. “The difference between the novice and expert is good storytelling.”

She called expertise crucial to nuanced reporting. Her journalism teachers told her, “If you can cover a Kansas school board, you can cover anything.”

She disagrees, noting that many Western reporters covering the Middle East chiefs don’t speak Arabic, and call themselves totally objective while covering complex conflicts. “We don’t buy into that idea,” she said.

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.