EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The hardest stories to write

One of the questions often asked but yet always difficult to answer for me and maybe other lifelong journalists is about the hardest stories ever written or the hardest kinds of stories ever to write.

Often the hardest stories to write are a challenge for logistical reasons, such as an integral source doesn’t get back to you until 10 minutes before a hard deadline. That prompts a scramble. Other times, it can be because just as you think you have the newest and most important information and file a story on it, along comes a new source or piece of information that is too late to get into the newspaper. Those are painful moments when you have to remember there will be another paper tomorrow in which you can update a story. Twenty-four hours never seemed so long.

Usually when people asked about challenging stories, though, they aren’t looking for examples of logistical difficulties. There are numerous reasons stories can be particularly hard to write.

It should surprise no one that journalists aren’t experts on all the topics about which we write. Rather, we know how to access people and other sources who are those experts, how to question them, and how to garner enough understanding and information in order to relay the important parts to readers. Over time, long-timers will learn a great deal about topics, even if they don’t want to. Writing about things hard to grasp is a real challenge. One time, I was asked to cover a speaking engagement by an acclaimed religious leader, philosopher, author and scholar who was explaining why bad things happen to good people. This was not a self help setting; it was an audience of scholarly types. Well, toward the end of the complex theological/philosophical discussion, a light bulb went on in my head and I understood what was being taught!

Then the light went out and I couldn’t grasp it.

Later in a followup interview, the same thing happened again. It was simply over my head. So, I wrote an article about the evening’s event, but there was no grand wisdom to pass on about the meaning of life. And I’d thought being steeped in municipal finance and zoning variances was difficult!

Stories with which you have a visceral connection are tough. I’ve struggled finding words for stories on homicides after I’d been on the scene; shoot-outs when a bullet came too close; and an incident where I had to take a step back on a riot story after hanging from an overpass to collect photos of the destruction. Journalists need to remain detached and that makes it a challenge when circumstances place one in the middle of events.

Sometimes, one can get too deep into a story and perspective becomes an issue. Personally, I haven’t struggled much with it, but there are plenty of cautionary tales about it happening to others. I was researching a book several years ago and ended up spending a good bit of time with an urban drug dealer. This particular crime circle wasn’t exactly a cartel and on the surface, it was not particularly dangerous. But still, it was part of a culture and environment that could change fast and one had to stay on one’s feet not to end up as the wrong guy at the wrong place and wrong time. Some haven’t been able to maintain their detachment and their cool and the results were bad.

Still, often the hardest stories are the ones that are just a challenge to stomach. Years ago, I wrote a series of stories about this suburban homicide where a teen ended up murdered by a group of his friends. They weren’t particularly bad kids. To the outside world they seemed fairly normal, there was no movie-of-the-week type secret at the center of the crime. Nothing, almost random. I remember walking the scene of the crime months after the fact, trying to magically gain some insight. It never happened.

In another crime case, a young guy had been stalked and killed and the case became back then, literally the textbook case for the FBI to study stalking well before it was a household word affiliated with crime. Something about the victim’s background clicked and it was a hard one to write about.

Most often, however, the cases that one struggles with the most and this includes at the Minot Daily News are the ones that involve harm to children. If you have a hard time reading or watching on TV stories about kids getting hurt or worse, imagine how hard it is for journalists. We tend to be privy to more details than end up in reporting, we often have to speak to grieving family members and then we are charged with telling stories with some kind of detachment. Journalists, like police, get callused over time, but there is nothing to protect one from that kind of horror.

We struggle with that here at the paper, which details we include in a story, which ones we don’t. People need to understand the real danger out there, but there is a line to carefully walk. It’s a discussion we have every time there is a story with a child victim.

Sometimes, a story can’t be told at all. I have one like that. A story I wandered into when I was still pretty young, one in which children were victims in a way so horrifying, so jaw-dropping wrong that I have never told it to an audience. It’s the kind of story only told after many drinks with other longterm storytellers who have their own true tales too tough to often repeat. Every journalist will end up with one of those in his career.