"Detail in News Reporting," (No Place or Date)

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"Detail in News Reporting," (No Place or Date)
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On Reporting and Writing
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Burt, Al

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University of Florida
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*_ Florida's Roving Reporter and Miami Herald Columnist

"Detail in News Reporting"

(No Place or Date)

I am not an instructor by trade, so I hope you will excuse me if I wander and stray a bit. My
assigned topic is detail in reporting; a good one, because detail and reporting are one and the same.

I think good writers, and good reporters, use detail as an artist does to suggest the whole,
using the particular to paint a picture of the general.

The best way to do this is to work from example. My favorite examples are not Bob Woodward
or Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, but Homer Bigart a two-time Pulitzer winner who worked for
the old New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times. He covered World War Two, Vietnam, Korea,
and civil rights in the South.

I met him late in his career and visited his New England farm, joining him in a Polish vodka
before breakfast from the freezer. In retirement, he spent a couple of months each winter in the Florida
Keys. Once, he and his wife spent the night with us en route; what a good memory I have of us sitting up
late at night drinking Spanish brandy lakeside in Melrose.

But anyways, the best way to learn to use detail in your reporting is to look at examples from
the people who were masters. Bigart was one of those and his work is instructive for all of us.

Dec. 2, 1945 from the battleship Missouri:

"Japan, paying for her desperate throw of the dice at Pearl Harbor, passed from the ranks of the
major powers at 9:05 a.m. today when Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the document of
unconditional surrender. If the memories of the bestialities of the Japanese prison camps were not so


Al Burt Papers


University of Florida Libraries










fresh in mind, one might have felt sorry for Shigemitsu as he hobbled on his wooden leg toward the
green baize covered table where the papers lay waiting. He leaned heavily on his cane and had trouble
seating himself. The cane, which he rested against the table, dropped to the deck of the battleship as he
signed."

The news right at the top was the perspective offered by remembering the Pearl Harbor
beginning for Americans and the detail provided, one individual signing a paper, meant more -the fall
of a great power.

It was all there, those compelling details of a defeated foreign minister hobbling on a wooden
leg to a green-covered table and dropping his cane to the deck while he signed those humiliating papers.

A beautiful lead, all the news, and important details added which made it powerfully human and
understanding at the same time.

In 1943, during the war, after taking a troop ship to London, Bigart wrote about the crossing and
ended it with these words:

"You woke up one morning and the ship was very steady and you knew she had entered the
harbor. You had arrived. You had crossed the submarine-infested Atlantic without sighting even a
porpoise. A helluva thing to have to confess to your grandchildren."

Again, the humanizing detail was there: waking up in the morning and feeling the boat sit steady
rather than rocking in the water, references to submarines and porpoises, and the warm, immediately
understandable, note about the grandchildren.

This is great stuff from a great reporter.

During World War Two, from Italy in 1943 Bigart wrote:

"Generally, there is no mistaking the dead. Their strange contorted posture leaves no room for
doubt. But this soldier, his steel helmet tilted over his face, seemed merely resting in the field. We did
not know until we came within a few steps and saw a gray hand hanging limply from a sleeve."

In 1963, he wrote about unemployed coal miners in Kentucky facing a grim winter:

"Creeks are littered with garbage, choked with boulders and silt dislodged by strip-mine
operations. Hillsides that should be a solid blaze of autumn color are slashed with ugly terraces, where
bulldozers and steam shovels have stripped away the forest to get at the coal beneath."

Great imagery and detail set the scene and make it all an understandable piece of human
history. The details are informative, pertinent and interesting.

It's an art, not a science. It requires judgment as to what is usefully descriptive without being
cluttering detail that means nothing. The detail must further the process of passing the information to










the reader, not get in the way of it. The detail must concentrate on the information purposes of the
story more than on the reporter.



Back in the 1960s, I was city editor of The Miami Herald. Even now I remember a story that
came to the desk about a young woman who had been killed in an auto accident while on her
honeymoon. After a couple of false starts, the story lead came out something like this:

"The white satin dress that Mary Doe wore at her wedding on Friday became her burial gown
Monday."

I always thought that was a compelling example of elevating the story of an auto accident into
something special. The color and material of a dress that linked a wedding and a death was the key. The
reporter was Gene Miller, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for The Miami Herald. Miller was a master at
picking out small, immediately understandable things that made his stories graphic and compelling.

That's how the all-stars do it. But let me take it down to a more ordinary level, and I will recall
some of my own stories, most of which I remember well enough to talk more about.

Feel free to interrupt me if you have a question or want to make a point.

Once in 1962, I was in Paraguay as Latin America editor of the Herald writing about Alfredo
Stroessner, then regarded as the last of the old-time dictators in Latin America.

It was his custom periodically to have a citizens' day, at which ordinary folk could come to his
palace and plead their cases for special treatment. A number of Latin America leaders had days like that;
it was a day of the peasants, more or less.

I sat in a chair at the side of the room while Stroessner greeted his people, one by one. He was
not a dictator, he had told me at our first meeting, no matter what the press or other people said.
Prominent on his desk was a small sculptured stone bust of himself.

I wrote about that day and about President Stroessner, and the story began this way:

"A white stone bust of Don Alfredo Stroessner sits on his desk and oversees his work as
president of Paraguay. No one else does. Yet Don Alfredo insists he is not a dictator."

That set the framework of the story. Before the day was over, he talked to me about his place in
Paraguayan history. Without being harsh or accusatory, the story put Paraguay and Stroessner into
perspective.

Another memorable occasion for me came in 1961 when Hurricane Hattie hit British Honduras,
now known as Belize.

The hurricane almost destroyed the coastal capital, Belize City. Later, it was moved inland. The
streets were covered in a muddy slime that ranged from ankle to knee deep. The water supply was










contaminated. Dead bodies littered streets and huge rats began to scramble among them. Out on the
edge of the city, at a place called Lord's Ridge Cemetery, I found a bizarre scene. Bodies were being
stacked in piles, layers of bodies alternating with layers of wood. They were being burned for health
reasons.



My story began this way:

"A gravedigger named William Coote poured kerosene on Hattie's dead today, and touched a
torch to them. The blaze lit up Lord's Ridge Cemetery on a hazy afternoon, and the stench drove away
the curious. It was an incredible sight: William Coote, his head swathed in a white handkerchief,
throwing wooden debris from the hurricane on burning, blistered bodies. The wood came from Coote's
own house on the cemetery grounds, blown down by Hattie, and when he tossed it onto the flames it
sometimes came in the shape of a crude, wooden cross. A half-dozen horses prowled among the white
tombstones and nibbled grass which was turning brown from the heat of the fire. Two boys with
bottles in their hands, searching along the cemetery ditch for drinking water, held their noses at the
stench and then turned and ran when they saw the burning bodies."

The use of detail to set a scene told the story of a hurricane's destruction.

Another story of natural disaster came in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in 1962.

It went this way:

"Each year when the rains fall, the Pellillo comes and the brown little kids in the barrios get
bellyaches, and a few die. This year more than 2,000 curled up in pain and at least 125 died. They call it
the Pellillo, or short hair, because it happens when the new grass forms on the hillside pastures after dry
season burnouts. It came, like always, early in May when the peaks of the Sierra de Omoa combed the
black clouds and rains swelled Rios Piedras and Santa Ana and they flowed muddily down into the valley.
Wastes seeped into the water reservoir. By the time the kids began doubling up with pain, an epidemic
was underway."


2011 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.
Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement.




Full Text

PAGE 1

Miami Herald Columnist Detail in News Reporting (No Place or Date) I am not an instructor by trade, so I hope you will excuse me if I wander and stray a bit. My assigned topic is detail in reporting; a good one, because detail and reporting are one and the same. I think good writers, and good reporters, use detail as an artist does to suggest the whole, using the particular to paint a picture of the general. The best way to do this is to work from example. My favorite examples are not Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, but Homer Bigart a two time Pulitzer winner who worked for the old New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. He covered World War Two, Vietnam, Korea, and civil rights in the South. I met him late in his career and visited his New England farm, joining him in a Polish vodka before breakfast from the freezer. In retirement, he spent a couple of months each winter in the Florida Keys. Once, he and his wife spent the night with us en route; what a good memory I have of us sitting up late at night drinking Spanish brandy lakeside in Melrose. But anyways, the best way to learn to use detail in your reporting is to look at examples from th e people who were masters. Bigart was one of those and his work is instructive for all of us. Dec. 2, 1945 from the battleship Missouri: major powers at 9:0 5 a.m. today when Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the document of unconditional surrender. If the memories of the bestialities of the Japanese prison camps were not so Al Burt Papers University of Florida Libraries

PAGE 2

fresh in mind, one might have felt sorry for Shigemitsu as he hobbled on his w ooden leg toward the green baize covered table where the papers lay waiting. He leaned heavily on his cane and had trouble seating himself. The cane, which he rested against the table, dropped to the deck of the battleship as he The news right at the top was the perspective offered by remembering the Pearl Harbor beginning for Americans and the detail provided, one individual signing a paper, meant more the fall of a great power. It was all there, those compelling details of a defeated foreign mi nister hobbling on a wooden leg to a green covered table and dropping his cane to the deck while he signed those humiliating papers. A beautiful lead, all the news, and important details added which made it powerfully human and understanding at the same ti me. In 1943, during the war, after taking a troop ship to London, Bigart wrote about the crossing and ended it with these words: harbor. You had arrived. You had crossed the submarine infested Atlantic without sighting even a Again, the humanizing detail was there: waking up in the morning and feeling the boat sit steady rather than rocking in the water, references to submarines and porpoises, and the warm, immediately understandable, note about the grandchildren. This is great stuff from a great reporter. During World War Two, from Italy in 1943 Bigart wrote: Their strange contorted posture leaves no room for doubt. But this soldier, his steel helmet tilted over his face, seemed merely resting in the field. We did In 19 63, he wrote about unemployed coal miners in Kentucky facing a grim winter: mine operations. Hillsides that should be a solid blaze of autumn color are slashed with ugly te rraces, where Great imagery and detail set the scene and make it all an understandable piece of human history. The details are informative, pertinent and interesting. I cluttering detail that means nothing. The detail must further the process of passing the information to

PAGE 3

the reader, not get in the way of it. The detail must c oncentrate on the information purposes of the story more than on the reporter. Back in the 1960s, I was city editor of The Miami Herald Even now I remember a story that came to the desk about a young woman who had been killed in an auto accident while on her honeymoon. After a couple of false starts, the story lead came out something like this: I always thought that was a compelling example of elevating the story of an auto accident into something special. The color and material of a dress that linked a wedding and a death was the key. The reporter was Gene Miller, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner for The Miami Herald Miller was a master at picking out smal l, immediately understandable things that made his stories graphic and compelling. stars do it. But let me take it down to a more ordinary level, and I will recall some of my own stories, most of which I remember well enough to talk more about. Feel free to interrupt me if you have a question or want to make a point. Once in 1962, I was in Paraguay as Latin America editor of the Herald writing about Alfredo Stroessner, then regarded as the last of the old time dictators in Latin America. palace and plead their cases for special treatment. A number of Latin America leaders had days like that; it was a day of the peasants, more or less. I sat in a chair at the side of the room while Stroessner greeted his people, one by one. He was not a dictator, he had told me at our first meeting, no matter what the press or other people said. Prominent on his desk was a small sculptured stone bust of himself. I wrote about that day and about President Stroessner, and the story began this way: president of Paraguay. No one else does. Yet Don Alfredo insists he is not a dicta That set the framework of the story. Before the day was over, he talked to me about his place in Paraguayan history. Without being harsh or accusatory, the story put Paraguay and Stroessner into perspective. Another memorable occasion for me came in 1961 when Hurricane Hattie hit British Honduras, now known as Belize. The hurricane almost destroyed the coastal capital, Belize City. Later, it was moved inland. The streets were covered in a muddy slime that ranged from ankle to knee deep. The water supp ly was

PAGE 4

contaminated. Dead bodies littered streets and huge rats began to scramble among them. Out on the stacked in piles, layers of bodies alternating wi th layers of wood. They were being burned for health reasons. My story began this way: d the stench drove away the curious. It was an incredible sight: William Coote, his head swathed in a white handkerchief, own house on the cemetery ground s, blown down by Hattie, and when he tossed it onto the flames it sometimes came in the shape of a crude, wooden cross. A half dozen horses prowled among the white tombstones and nibbled grass which was turning brown from the heat of the fire. Two boys with bottles in their hands, searching along the cemetery ditch for drinking water, held their noses at the stench Another story of natural disaster came in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in 1962. It went this way: bellyaches, and a few die. This year more than 2,000 curled up i n pain and at least 125 died. They call it the Pellillo, or short hair, because it happens when the new grass forms on the hillside pastures after dry season burnouts. It came, like always, early in May when the peaks of the Sierra de Omoa combed the black clouds and rains swelled Rios Piedras and Santa Ana and they flowed muddily down into the valley. Wastes seeped into the water reservoir. By the time the kids began doubling up with pain, an epidemic 2011 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries. All rights reserved. Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement.