Behind the behind-the-story stories

March 8, 2019

In February 2019, this story began with a tip from a CJR editor: have you noticed that recent trend, my editor (who requested to remain anonymous) asked, of pieces where major media outlets write about how they reported some big story?

Intrigued, I immediately began digging. My efforts spanned two weeks. Using a sophisticated reporting tool known as a web browser, I reviewed nearly a dozen pieces, from outlets including CNN, The New York Times, Politico Magazine, ProPublica, and the Boston Globe. But some of the biggest questions remained unanswered: When did we start to indulge the self-serious practice of outlining how stories came about, and why? And who are these for, exactly?

Answers were hard to come by. But through dogged investigation, I came to learn that the genre has a few, easily categorized variations, each intended for a very specific audience.

There’s the ass-covering version: a pre-emptive defense against a lawsuit, or an attempt to avert accusations of bias that might be made by the subject of the piece. CNN produced a fine example of this variety last year, to accompany a story which alleged that the Mayo Clinic had mistreated a young patient. A few weeks after its initial publication, it was updated with thousands of words of response to Mayo’s responses to the story. Two CNN reporters got the byline, but the legal department surely deserves a great deal of credit.

ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times

Another kind, that only emerged in the last few years, is presented as a form of reader education. Like so many defensive actions taken by the mainstream press, pieces of this kind read as attempts to teach media literacy to people deeply hostile to the media. No, see, they insist, we didn’t make this up, or pay anyone to make it up, and in fact we worked quite hard to get it right.

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The Washington Post produced a video laying out how it uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct by Republican politician Roy Moore. It states its reason for existence quite clearly at the top:

A new poll by the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, finds that while overall trust and confidence in the press has increased during the Trump administration, 52 percent of those surveyed don’t trust the news media. More than half of America is skeptical of journalists’ motives.

With that in mind, The Post launched a new series aimed at deconstructing the journalism process while answering questions about how reporting works.

The hostility this is designed to overcome was cultivated over many years by people who have built their own, mostly profitable, parallel media. That alternate media spends hours every day telling their audiences that reporters at the Post aren’t just slanting their coverage to reflect their personal political biases, but that they are engaged in wholesale cultural warfare against the rightful order of things.

And that audience will only ever encounter your reporting through its treatment in that parallel media; they won’t just disbelieve that your reporters were diligent and fair in their reporting, they’ll never even see you make the claim. The forces that sent James O’Keefe to try (and spectacularly fail) to trick the Post into reporting false allegations have a hold on their audience that no video explainer can shake. It’s like trying to explain how you derived heliocentrism from your telescopic observations of the phases of Venus—to the Inquisition.

The last version of the “how we did it” piece, and by far the most annoying, seems designed to cultivate not merely an audience or subscriber base, but a “fandom.” The New York Times has an entire vertical, Times Insider, devoted to celebrating the Times under the auspices of providing a peek behind the curtain. It’s there you’ll find not just “How Two Times Reporters Pieced Together Allegations Against Ryan Adams” and “How We’ve Reported on the Secrets and Power of McKinsey & Company” but also “How a Celebrity Interviewer Creates Rapport With Big-Name Subjects” and this compelling story of how they convinced the newspaper’s publisher to appear on the newspaper’s podcast.

It is designed to ingratiate the Times to the reader as a beloved brand. It’s marketing, really, and I don’t hold it against them. But it is still a bit embarrassing to see the nation’s most prestigious paper try to cast its reporters as the friends of the kinds of readers spending $28 on tote bags bearing the logo of its behind-the-stories podcast. (There’s now also a newsletter to take you behind that podcast, making The Daily a news version of the movie Inception.)

Unfortunately, a lot of reporting is rather boring to witness, let alone hear recounted after the fact. Many stories-behind-the-story begin with, “someone told me something” or “I found something,” neither of which make for a very compelling start. It’s hard to read this from the Times, for example, and not just laugh:

A central finding of the story began to emerge in April 2017, when Ms. Craig had been Google searching an arcane term the group was interested in — “mortgage receivable,” which the Trumps used to describe the mortgages from the children to Fred — paired with the last name “Trump.”

Other great achievements of journalism surely began with someone Googling some keywords, but they are mainly greater for my not knowing that.

And of course, by necessity, these pieces—unless written about pure data journalism, done with publicly available numbers or documents—always leave out some of the most crucial elements a budding reporter would need to re-report the story, like a source’s known professional grudges, or the outlet’s institutional cachet (without which no phone calls would have been returned) or the fact that an editor went to school with someone who works there, it turns out.

Other great achievements of journalism surely began with someone Googling some keywords, but they are mainly greater for my not knowing that.

So when Politico’s reporters tell us they got a tip about Tom Price’s use of private jets, which they managed to report out with considerable (and admirable) legwork, they don’t tell us—can’t tell us—the source of the tip, or the tipster’s motives, or the tipster’s relationship to the then–secretary of Health and Human Services. What led to the story is that someone, for whatever reason, told some reporters to look into it, and they did.

“How the sausage is made” used to be the domain of the media press, done for an audience of other journalists, or journalism students. If something about the reporting process was important to the story, you put it in the story. If something funny or interesting (but not particularly relevant) happened in the course of reporting, it was saved for the eventual end-of-career memoir about a life in newsrooms. If reporting the story involved an extraordinary amount of effort, well, the reader didn’t need to know—better to make it all seem a bit magical, anyway. After all, the reward for that effort was the story itself.

That brings us to the final intended audience of these sorts of stories. Take a look at the entry questionnaire for submitting work for a journalism Pulitzer Prize and see if it resembles anything discussed above.

Alex Pareene is the politics editor of Splinter and the former editor of Gawker, Racket Teen, and Wonkette. He has been a columnist for Salon and written for publications including The Baffler and the (Minneapolis) Southside Pride.