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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Different, and Not So Different, Life of a Journalist

I am racing, and when I say racing I really mean that, to finish up a book on the Chile mine disaster and rescue before we leave on our family trip to India. This has been a really interesting experience for me. Even though I have written about contemporaries (Bobby Kennedy) and even on person who is still alive (Bill Gates) I have always been able to start writing by using books. I could get to my subject through the portal of people who had carefully studied the person, the period, the themes. And in turn those books had been examined, critiqued, challenged with new books and new evidence. So I could begin my research with good lay of the land. I found my own path, I looked for new evidence, I was happy to depart from those books, but they always gave me a solid start. Not this time.

For this book all of my sources are either news articles or interviews that I am able to set up with experts or some level of participant. In one way this is very different from my usual approach — I have to sift through accounts and figure out, for example, exactly what happened when. There are plenty of summary articles with timelines of key dates — except when you really get in close there are gaps in those dates — especially in the dark period of those first 17 days before the note came up from the miners. The world press faded away, the articles stopped in that period, I suspect most reporters were getting ready to write about tragedy, anger, and blame before the note arrived. In a way what I am doing is more similar to what kids have to do (or do in fact do, even if it is not necessary) than my usual approach. That is, most kids don’t have the interest or time to read a secondary book, much less an academic book, before they begin their research. I think they should do this — using a good middle grade book – but as we all know, in fact they leap for the internet. And that lands them where I am.

The Net is full of summary articles about the story. I quickly realized that the problem with a summary, as extensive and well written as it may be, is that it leaves me to write a summary of a summary — as flat a precis as anyone could imagine. So I had to do exactly what I do with books — go wide to go narrow. That is, find every article possible — from day by day accounts as events took place, to summaries, to interviews, to pieces on TV or in the press from media all around the world, to specs from manufacturers — and then out of all of that material, construct two guides: one, my own sense of the timeline, two, the beginning of my sense of the spine of the book — what is the story I wanted to tell, how did all of this add up? In one way I like the in-the-moment excitement of this kind of writing — speaking to people who were there, and part of the event. In another way it feels like free fall, without the security of previous studies. And best of all it helps me to understand kids surfing and sailing out there on the net. The great danger, I see, of Wikipedia is not that it may have biased or inaccurate information, but that it is too much like the encyclopedies we were cautioned not to use as our sole source when we were kids: it summarizes, and to get the story you have to go through the summary to the raw reporting where it all gets messy, then you piece what you have back together. If we can just teach kids to see the first site they land on as a door, not a finish line, we will have accomplished something.

Comments

  1. Mira says:

    This post is going to be very helpful to me going forward in class this week. Earlier this week , we had an opportunity to do some research in my 6th grade classroom. I asked one student to type in a date in the search bar. The kids spontaneously started arguing about which link to open. This led to a very interesting discussion about the authenticity of one resource versus another. Time ran out before we arrived at a conclusion but the discussion was exciting in no small part because it happened in serendipity. The discussion of the value of various links filled the whole space.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    sounds like the perfect discussion, glad if the post is helpful

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    “If we can just teach kids to see the first site they land on as a door, not a finish line, we will have accomplished something”

    - I’d add “the first site OR the first book” but otherwise, beautifully put.