Being there: David Finkel on the importance of showing up

It’s a tenet of reporting so basic that it was right there on the syllabus for “Introduction to Journalism” when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois: “The most important thing a journalist can do is show up.”

In a time when technology makes it possible to gather information from great distances — for instance, using Twitter to monitor messages coming out of volatile countries or Google Street View to explore a far-off city without getting on a plane — it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Nearly every story will be better if the reporter goes to where the action is taking place.

Last week, I had the good fortune of showing up at a lecture hall at the College of Media at Illinois (where I am employed as a reporter for CU-CitizenAccess.org) for a talk given by David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, titled “Beautiful Stories: Creating a Journalism of Felt Life.”

ImageThe focus of the talk was Finkel’s 2009 book “The Good Soldiers,” a ground-level account of the 2007 troop surge in one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad. At the time, Finkel said, there were already “great macro, big-picture journalism done on the war,” along with soldier memoirs that were beginning to be published.

“There hadn’t been, in this war at that point, the third-person journalist at some distance, going in, not to chronicle the big picture, but to chronicle the far end of policy: what was happening on the ground,” he said. “Very simple idea. I wanted to go, and I wanted to write a book about what happens to a battalion, really, of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds when they’re sent into a war that was widely acknowledged to have arrived at its lost moment.”

(To get a sense of what life was like for the soldiers, see the video below, narrated by Finkel.)

This type of narrative journalism requires a level of detail that is practically impossible to recreate after the fact. The best way to bring the story to life for readers is for the reporter to observe it firsthand. To write “The Good Soldiers,” Finkel spent between eight and nine months in Baghdad with the infantrymen he was covering.

By being there, riding along on patrols in their Humvees, he was able to observe the way the men stood with their legs staggered and their hands tucked into their body armor in hopes of sparing limbs and appendages if an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, were to tear through their heavily armored vehicle.

Finkel was there with Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann, one of the battalion’s best soldiers, as he waited to be choppered out of the war zone. When Schumann carried a fellow soldier, who was shot by a sniper, down from a rooftop, the man’s blood kept dripping into Schumann’s mouth. Six months later, he could still taste the blood, and, midway through his third tour of duty, he couldn’t take it anymore. (Finkel is now working on a book following the lives of Schumann and others after returning from the war.)

While the book tells the story of one group of soldiers in one part of Baghdad during one phase of a long war, it touches on larger themes through that specificity.

“It’s just a chronicle of what happens on the ground; it’s nothing more,” Finkel said. “It’s not a book so much about the Iraq War, but it’s using the Iraq War to write about war, what war does to the soul of a man. … It’s a very simple book.”

Creating a work of journalism that arrives at such universal themes through rigorous, detailed reporting and narrative storytelling isn’t an easy feat. It requires months — if not years — of work. In Finkel’s case, it meant traveling around a war zone armed with notebooks, a camera and a digital audio recorder.

But the first step is very simple: “This kind of journalism requires going, first of all. You go. And you work like a photographer. You try to get to the center of the thing. And then you stay. And you stay and stay and stay.”

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