Creating Believable Journalists in Mysteries and Thrillers…
From One Who Knows
By Neely Tucker
Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph
Creating believable journalists in domestic mysteries and thrillers is an often overlooked means of building the story, and it’s easy to see why.
The work these real-life characters do is pretty boring, as far as narrative drama goes. Digging through court cases, building databases, interviewing people (mostly over the phone)…it’s just not sexy.
I’ve been a reporter for about three decades now. My day job as a roving reporter on the national desk at the Washington Post is largely consumed by background reading, catching flights, annoying facts that get in the way of a good story, ethics, endless fact-checking (which means sitting at a desk and reading figures, looking up assertions and spellings and dates and zzzzzzzzz).
But I was also a roving foreign correspondent for seven years, working in dozens of countries and often covering war and violent conflict. Nothing boring about that. Two friends were killed in conflict areas. More than half a dozen were wounded by gunfire or shrapnel. Three were kidnapped. I got beaten up by a mob in the Congo. An enraged Serbian soldier once put a gun to the back of my head and cocked it.
So when I started a series of crime novels built around a reporter named Sully Carter, my idea was to transplant a war-injured foreign correspondent back home to the U.S. He reports on the late 1990s criminal scene in D.C. as if the city’s drug wars were another conflict zone.
But the reporter in your novel doesn’t have to be Hunter S. Thompson, or an unethical loose cannon, to greatly complicate your story.
Good journalists are really just freelance detectives without the power of arrest or subpoena. They are skilled at computer and courthouse research, untangling bureaucracies, reading people and knowing that there is more than one way to get information.
Reporters can send a plot skittering in all sorts of ways that police, or private detectives, or vigilantes, simply can’t. They transmit a public narrative of events to millions of people at once—though that information might be right, wrong, misleading, or mostly true but not quite. And they have access to expensive public-information databases—like LexisNexis (and Accurint)—that few people do. Seriously, in less than ten minutes, I can find out how much you paid for your house, your credit rating, places you used to live and your driving record. Plus, the names and numbers of all of your neighbors.
When I covered D.C. Superior Court and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, some of my best sources were clerks, secretaries and U.S. Marshals. They were privy to almost everything that happened in the courthouse beyond public view. They knew what files key documents were in, and they knew not only who could quietly access those documents, but who would.
It’s getting a little sexier now, right, how this game gets played?
So I put together a list of Things Every Fictional Journalist Knows. They might be helpful in developing your trouble-shooting (or causing) reporter. Either one would know all of these.
1.) Everybody lies. All the time. About everything. Big things, little things, things that don’t make any difference. They lie to your face, they lie by omission, they stab you in the back. I once wrote a story in which a federal judge was quoting, talking sternly about a fellow judge who was in trouble. He dictated his quote and had me read it back to him for accuracy. He confirmed it and I put it in print. The judge never said anything else to me, but it turned out he got a lot of heat for this quote. So he wrote my editors an official letter saying that he had never spoken to me and that I had completely fabricated the quote and he wanted them to know what type of person I was. He did not want a correction because he, as an esteemed jurist, wanted to stay above the fray. Welcome to Washington, kids.
2.) Even when they don’t lie, they’re often wrong, and it’s not necessarily their fault. When a reporter starts asking questions, they’re often putting them in a framework that is not the same of the subject, so it’s like asking the wrong question. Let’s say the cops tell you a fatal shooting followed an argument at the XYZ Bar about 6 p.m. You show up and ask a witness, “So, hey, what was that argument about?” But the witness, who had been at the bar longer than you or the cops, thinks you’re asking about the original argument, which happened two hours earlier, over a spilled drink, not a woman, and he describes that to you. You put that in your piece—and you’re wrong. Maybe you actually know more than the police at this point, but you still put the killing in the wrong sequence of events, which (innocently) skewers the public’s understanding of the crime.
3.) The general does not prove the specific. This is the No. 1 lesson my journalism professor, Tommy Miller, taught, and has proven to be the most valuable. Example: Cops are shooting a lot of unarmed black men. That’s generally true. A lot of husbands beat up their spouses. Campus rape is a problem. Yep, Yep, Yep. But none of this proves the next case of the above that goes viral is true. It’s the difference between statistics and data points. Remember “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot?” It spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. But the U.S. Justice Department later found that Michael Brown, the victim in that case, did not have his hands raised when he was shot. The alleged rape at the University of Virginia, as reported in Rolling Stone, completely fell apart. And if anybody has found those “weapons of mass destruction” that the Bush Administration told us were in Iraq, hey, give us a call.
4.) The most terrifying thing for any serious reporter is….a correction. All you have in this business is your credibility. All good reporters are fiercely protective of their name and reputation. If your character hasn’t taken a shower at 11 p.m. and realized, with horror, that they left something in their story that is wrong and it’s ten minutes after deadline, and then started shrieking/yelling/crying/throwing things…that’s not a real reporter. The cornerstone of any serious journalistic career is accuracy, and the statistic for this is corrections.
5.) Corrections REALLY changed after the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times. This is sort of a B.C./A.D. date for modern journalism. Before this date, newspapers in particular would correct only *serious* errors. A correction meant you had really, really effed up. After this date, EVERY error of fact, no matter how piddling, had to be corrected. In digital journalism stories can be updated continually. Most institutions acknowledge stories have been updated and/or corrected. Some don’t. But remember: When someone sends a link of the early story…they are NOT sending the corrected one, meaning that the recipient wouldn’t know it’s been updated. (Now there’s a nice plot twist.)
6.) Your reporter always knows more than they can print. The difference between what you know and what you can print is essentially the difference between what a cop knows and what they can prove. Just like lawyers work to get things in front of a jury by the rules of the court, reporters work to get things in a story, but by the rules of journalism.
7.) The rules for getting facts into a story: Roughly, you have to have a physical or online document, a recording, video or eyewitness testimony. When an editor points to a line in a story and says, “How do we know Sen. Tucker was drunk at the time of the car crash?” You’ve got to have the Breathalyzer results, the officer’s incident report, or court testimony. That’s it. You could report his bar tab, if you can get it, but just because Sen. Tucker paid for eight shots of bourbon in two hours doesn’t mean he drank them. It just means he bought them. Think of the proof as a tangible object. It has to be something the reporter can show their editor.
8.) So we’re all good with using a leaked document that is factual, right? No, no, no. The real-life problem for reporters is not “Is this document a source is leaking to me accurate?” It’s more like, “What else ISN’T this person leaking to me?” and “WHY is this person leaking this to me?” Sources, like everybody else, are rarely altruistic. They have grudges, they’re sanctimonious, they’re ambitious, they’re motivated by greed, lust and loathing. And a few have strong moral convictions and want to do the right thing.
9.) Reporters almost always break stories from sources with whom they have long-standing relationships. They are also most often “punished” by the same. The number two official in the police department is not likely to leak a key revelation in an ongoing criminal investigation to a reporter he or she just met. They’re more likely to confide in someone they have known to be discreet and trustworthy. Conversely, in big city markets, if a reporter breaks an unflattering story on this same police department, it’s not at all unusual for the department to retaliate by giving a competing organization a good scoop, thereby making the offending reporter look bad. Happens every day.
10.) “Credible malcontents,” “nut grafs,” “off the record” and other fun jargon. The aforementioned is a source within an organization who is sane, coherent and honest…but unhappy with how their agency or company is being run. This is what reporters are always looking for as key sources. “Nut graf” is the paragraph, very high in the story, that makes clear what the piece is about. “Off the record,” means it’s not for print, but beyond that, it gets weird. “Not for attribution,” “background only,” “deep background”—all mean different things to different people. Generally, when a source asks me if they can talk on background, I’ll say something like, “Okay, our conversation will be on background, but I’m recording it and taking notes. If I hear something I want to use for attribution, I’ll flag it and ask you on a case by case at the end.” If someone says they’re telling me something that I can’t use but need to know for context, I *always* tell them okay, but first: Depending on what it is, I may very well try to get those facts from other sources. You can’t just tell me something and act like I am therefore prohibited from pursuing it.
11.) The thing reporters never really know is…motive. Why did the suspect kill six people at a gas station? Why did the corporate executive embezzle $6 million when he was already wealthy? Rarely do you know why anyone does anything. You may know why they say they did it, or what a lot of evidence suggests, but neither of those are the same thing. Why not believe that, even when the case is settled? See Rule #1.
Neely Tucker’s latest Sully Carter mystery “Only the Hunted Run” was published by Viking on August 30, 2016.
Neely Tucker is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He’s the author of two previous Sully Carter novels, “The Ways of the Dead” and “Murder, D.C.,” as well as his memoir “Love in the Driest Season,” which was named one of the 25 Best Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Tucker lives with his family in Maryland.