Come With Answers

By Robin Sloan

During the question and answer period of Samantha Power's Sunday afternoon session, she tossed off a phrase that I think is worth dwelling on:

"Win trust by knowledge."

Power spent many years reporting and writing her book "A Problem from Hell," a review of America's response to genocide in the 20th century, and became an expert on the subject. She often knew more about the subject than the government officials she was interviewing -- more about the history and about the personalities involved.

It sounds grimly sixth-grade: The low-level officials wanted desperately to know what their bosses, the national security advisors and secretaries of state, had told her. These high-level policymakers in turn asked her: Well, what did those below me say?

Power told former NSA Tony Lake about Prudence Bushnell, an deputy assistant secretary of state who was one of the first to warn of trouble in Rwanda. Lake asked: If this was so important, why didn't she call me at home?

Power mentioned this to Bushnell, who wondered: "Who does he think I am?" It would have taken an incredible amount of institutional self-esteem, Power says, for Bushnell to call the national security advisor at home and argue the case for Rwanda.

I think it's crucial that Power moved beyond surface explanations and down into the human gears of policymaking. It must have been a huge asset: Who wouldn't want to talk to a reporter who, besides posing questions, could also provide answers?

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in book-length narratives, reporting, sessions.Against Neutrality, speakers.Samantha Power on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Lemann to Nieman: How 'Bout Some Rules?

By Robin Sloan

During Saturday's Ethics Keynote Panel, Nick Lemann made a suggestion to the assembled attendees of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism: Set some standards.

Lemann is a member of the Society of American Historians, a group of "historians who can write" and journalists interested in serious history. He proposed a code of ethics to the group -- something that would go beyond plagiarism to address issues such as scene reconstruction and quotes that an author didn't witness him- or herself. But, he says, "I've had absolutely no luck with this."

He said it was especially important for the book industry, because -- and this was a big surprise to me -- non-fiction books are not fact-checked. So standards and norms matter a lot.

He encouraged the Nieman Foundation or some other group to take up the task. He thinks it would be very useful -- just a short statement that declares what is and isn't ethical. "Of course," he says, tongue in cheek, "the result of all this is that people love us, trust us, revere us even more than they already do."

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, book-length narratives, ethical reporting, scene reconstructions, sessions.Keynote Panel: What's a True Story?, speakers.Nick Lemann on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink