Reporting Lessons From Investigative Journalist Seymour Hersh

From a post on niemanstoryboard.org by Don Nelson headlined “Lessons from a relentless ‘Reporter'”:

“Reporter” had to be the inevitable title for legendary investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh’s 2018 autobiography. It’s perfect — a simple, proud word that encompasses craft, passion and conscience. In Hersh’s telling, it’s the grandest job in the news business and, done right, the most demanding.

Hersh was a freelancer in 1969 when he uncovered the truth behind the My Lai massacre, a search-and-destroy mission that left 504 Vietnamese villagers dead, the majority of them women and children. His story became one of the revelations that shaped American sentiments against the Vietnam War. It also earned Hersh a Pulitzer Prize and elevated a career that included stints at The New York Times and The New Yorker….

Hersh didn’t write “Reporter” as a textbook or tutorial. It is labeled a memoir, and is a straightforward, detail-dense, chronological account of how he has always done the job, and why he does it that way. Nevertheless, it ends up being instructive throughout, if you are paying attention. Hersch rarely offers directives, but if you are or aspire to be a good reporter and are not taking notes, you’re missing the best journalism course you can get for under $30….

Here are a few things I gleaned from Hersh’s memoir that are, and always should be, fundamental to good reporting:

“Being first is not nearly as important as being right, and being careful …” Hersh says he learned that lesson in 1959 as a neophyte reporter at City News in Chicago….

Experience matters, and one does well to pay close attention to those who have it.

Sourcing is everything. Hersh carefully but assiduously cultivates sources, building relationships that may last for decades. Hersh pushes his sources as far as he can, and protects them when necessary. He cites a lot of anonymous sources — a continuing criticism of his work — but says he can vouch for them if required. Also, he is a voracious collector of documents….

The “core lesson” of being a journalist, Hersh writes, is “read before you write.” For Hersh, in the pre-internet days, that meant hours in libraries or newspaper morgues, finding everything he could in the way of background.

Good stories beget more good stories. Hersh’s exclusive revelations often generate additional information, contacts and angles. The credibility of his reporting encouraged additional potential sources to come forward.

Don’t just jump abruptly into interviews with questions. The Hersh rule: “Never begin an interview by asking core questions.” When appropriate, tell the interviewee what you know (or think you know) to get things started. They may be motivated to correct or amend what you’re telling them. “I learned early in my career that the way to get someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask questions that showed it,” he writes.

At the same time, don’t play coy with sources: “I never did an interview without learning all I could about the person with whom I was meeting, and I did all I could to let those I was criticizing or putting in professional jeopardy know just what I was planning to publish about them.”

When you’ve thought of every way you can to get at the story, think some more. Be creative, innovative and, sometimes, a little unconventional. It was an impulse, at the end of a exhausting and frustrating day, that led Hersh to talk to a couple of guys working on a car in the dark, which then led him to Calley’s residence.

Develop a thick skin and stand by your work. For months after the Calley story broke, Hersh endured brutal criticism by many in the military and even from professional peers. Hersh says he learned that “I would survive any criticism of a story I knew to be true.”

Every detail matters, no matter how small. One slip-up can undo an otherwise brilliant story. Check everything, then check it again.

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