As any regular Romenesko
reader knows, the New York Times Magazine has fired a contributing
editor, Michael Finkel, for using "improper
narrative techniques" in his profile
of a Malian teenager who worked on a cocoa plantation. The basic facts
of the case are simple: Finkel conflated the stories of many different
boys to tell a story which wasn’t true. Furthermore, parts of his
story weren’t even true of any boy at all, let alone the subject of
the piece. That’s the sort of thing which you might get away with
but it’s just not done at the New York Times.
Finkel understands that, and doesn’t
blame the Times for firing him. Neither do I. But after reading
an old profile
of Finkel, and a new story
in the New York Observer today about the whole affair, a slightly
more well-rounded picture emerges.
Finkel’s prose is spare and clean, and a huge amount of work goes
into it: "the dirty dark secret is that it takes me forever to
make it sound like I just wrote it in a minute," he says. Since
the New York Times gig was by far his most high-profile job, it stands
to reason that Finkel would have put even more effort than usual into
the story he submitted to them after travelling to Mali. The problem
was that he hadn’t found what he was looking for: he’d pitched a child-slavery
story, and found only boys working for very low pay and in great hardship.
If anything, the story was that aid agencies were playing rather fast
and loose with the slavery label, because it suited their own ends.
The Observer talked to the photographer who travelled with Finkel
to Mali, Chris Anderson.
After a couple of weeks of reporting in June and
July of last year, Mr. Anderson said, Mr. Finkel had a lot of trouble
writing. Mr. Anderson said Mr. Finkel went through a lot of drafts.
To compensate for the lack of a hard child-slavery angle, Mr. Anderson
said, The Times editors wanted Mr. Finkel to "try to make it
more personal, more human, so Mike tried to do that and wrote a couple
more drafts, and they were all rejected for one reason or another."
These drafts, it would seem, involved much more than tweaks: they
were full-scale rewritings and restructurings. A huge amount of time,
work and frustrated effort was going into this story, and Finkel was
very keen to get it out of the way so that he could move on to other
projects: specifically, a mountain-climbing expedition in Nepal.
Only the New York Times editors ever saw the original drafts, so
only they know for sure, but I would be very surprised if the first
couple of drafts had anything ethically wrong with them. The problem
was that Finkel had travelled to Mali to report one story, and was
now being pressured to write another: one which his reporting really
couldn’t sustain. According to Adam Moss, the editor of the New York
Times magazine, Finkel wrote the story which ended up being published
"as an exercise, to put down on paper what he wanted to write,"
although that hardly explains how it got into the hands of the magazine
without any indication that it wasn’t true.
Freelance journalism is a risky gig, for reporters and editors both.
Stories get pitched and commissioned before they’re fully reported,
and most of the time the story which emerges at the end is different
from that envisaged at the beginning. Problems arise when, after the
reporting has been done, the resulting story turns out to be very
different indeed from the one which was commissioned.Reporters are
generally happy to go back to a magazine with a tale along the lines
of "as I was reporting on X, I stumbled across a much bigger
story: Y". What they’re less keen on doing is saying "the
more I looked into X, the more I realised there really wasn’t a story
there at all."
It’s the job of editors to help journalists find the angle and write
a good story, even when the reporting doesn’t necessarily back up
the original commission. A lot of the time, the editor will propose
that the reporter phone a few more people and get the extra material
needed for the new story, as it’s now envisaged. The problem in this
case was that no one was proposing that Finkel return to Mali, and
there was no way that the extra material could be obtained over the
Eventually, Finkel gave the New York Times what it wanted: a compelling
third-person account of a typical "child slave". I’ve written
a similar kind of account myself,
although in a very different context. My story was written directly
from my notes, a couple of hours after I talked to the subject of
the piece. Even though the conversation was still fresh in my mind,
I relied heavily on what I wrote down as he was talking.
Finkel, by contrast, doesn’t take any notes at all when he’s talking
to his subjects, only writing down his "impressions" later
in the day. Furthermore, he wrote the whole New York Times story without
referring to his notes once. With all the good will in the world,
I have great difficulty imagining how such a story could ever be wholly
accurate. To that we must add the facts that the story was being written
in order to pacify an editor who had already rejected several drafts.
In such a context, it becomes clearer how the noteless writer ended
up producing something better than the story which he was actually
able to write, given the reporting.
While Michael Finkel is certainly to blame for this affair, I think
there is a lesson here for all features editors: Beware stories which
change significantly after the reporting has been finished. All editors
should go back to their writers and ask for more material when more
material is needed. But if what they got originally was short on crucial
elements, then they should bear in mind the fact that there’s a good
chance the journalist hasn’t had any access to those elements. If
you’re an editor and you get back a revised draft which adds in stuff
which wasn’t in the original and which couldn’t have been obtained
in the mean time, proceed only with extreme caution.