I’m looking for two elements when reading the news and non-fiction in general. Both are tied together by one activity: learning. There is the informational value. Getting up to speed with current events and subject matters of interest to me. Together with the value of reading a good story, that’s part of the standard news reading routine. Beyond learning about the world we live in, I’m also looking for advice about how to tell compelling stories. The Uncounted, a recent long-form investigative story from the New York Times Magazine about civilian deaths in military operations in Iraq, is one example that taught me on both fronts. It’s a powerful and important story where facts meet emotions. It’s a read that not only teaches us about the situation in Iraq, it also teaches us about storytelling; from the reporting basics, to writing structure, to online presentation.
The Basics: Research and Reporting Feast
“The Uncounted” is a true feast in researching and reporting. Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, the journalist/research duo behind this investigative story, collected information from a wide variety of sources. There’s the personal stories that sparked the doubts about a report that claimed the airstrikes in Iraq were not as precise as the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria claims them to be.
There’s data from the coalition itself — on the airstrikes carried out, the victims, the dates, as well as explanations on procedures and challenges they face. The investigation spanned 18 months and can only be described as a deep, deep dive into the coalition’s mission to drive ISIS out.
It includes data on airstrikes, time frames, locations, maps, personal accounts of events, procedures behind the airstrike campaign. They also went into the field, bringing the ground work full-circle. At risk to their own safety, they gained a proper understanding of the situation, connected the dots with accuracy and precision — the two most important values in journalism —, and verified every aspect. They got close and personal, not shying away from putting themselves in harms way.
The data was collected and analyzed. Not behind closed doors. They explain their methodology thoroughly. That doesn’t make for the most exciting reading (or writing) material, but it’s valuable and worthwhile. Laying out how the data was collected and processed allows readers to understand the processes behind this investigation. It provides transparency and supports the claims made. Readers can understand how and why they arrived at the points made.
“The Uncountable” is an example of journalism that understands the term objectivity the way it should be understood. It’s more than just pitting two sides against one another. It’s journalism that isn’t afraid to make informed, objective choices and speak out the truth that has come out through diligent research and reporting.
What I enjoy the most about “The Uncounted” is how facts meet emotions. The story connects data and context with faces that provide personal stories. The journalists stepped back to understand the personal stories in the wider context of the air strike campaign.
Structure Guides Readers
The goal of all journalism must always be to tell stories effectively. A good structure is vital for that. That’s true for short-form, but even more so for long-form content.
I love how Khan and Gopal combine personal story and context. They’ve written an organic story. Both parts inform one another, the transitions are elegant and perfectly timed.
The personal story of Basim Razzo leads us into the story, hooks us to learn more. But there is a bigger trend behind his story. Just like in a good novel, where passages of plot development and context create a dynamic that keeps your eyes peeled to the pages, Razzo’s fate and the exploration of the air strike trend at large take turns.
Online Presentation Gives That Little Bit Extra
The structure is supported by the online presentation of the story. It’s a very convincing example of online journalism. I usually don’t like auto play, but here it works. The slideshow at the beginning, a mix of quick text passages and visual scene setters, is an introduction to the actual lead. It works as a primer for the beginning of the story. The opening hooks readers and, at the same time, preps us for what is to come. Given the heavy nature of the story, it’s a good idea to be eased into the matter.
I also love the chapter breaks, if you want to call them that. What I mean are the visual elements that break the story into five sections. They’re sidebars of sort. In a quick and efficient manner, they give us an introduction to additional personal stories — stories similar to Razzo’s.
They support the importance of the story by demonstrating that there’s a multitude of similar fates. That leads to more depth and punch for the story. These sidebars are also ideal resting points, places to stop and think, places to pause and pick up again after a break (practical for a long read). And while all personal stories would be worthy for such an in-depth look, it would loosen the focus of the story and thus weaken the piece. One personal example, in as much detail as provided here, makes for a stronger, more impactful case. Cramming all personal accounts into the main storyline would overwhelm it and readers.
Where’s Light, There’s Shadow
There’s really not much to talk about in terms of negative points when it comes to “The Uncountable.” But referencing is one aspect where I would love to see a bit more of a user-oriented approach. Most of the documents and online sources mentioned are linked. But there are a few that aren’t.1 And I would prefer external links to automatically open in a new tab — this is really nit-picky, I know. But it makes for a much smoother reading experience.
The passage that explains the coalition’s report naturally has a lot of numbers. I could see a few key graphics in that section to help readers visualize the data.
A final suggestion about multimedia usage. While I find “The Uncountable” to be a rather convincing online presentation, I believe a bit of strategically placed audio-visual content could make this story even more convincing. But, again, that’s more me trying to find something to further improve a very strong piece of investigative journalism that excels because it demonstrates the combined power of rigorous reporting and clever storytelling — facts meet emotions.
- For example, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend’s opinion article in Foreign Policy. It’s easily findable, of course. But giving a link would be more user-oriented still. ↩︎