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The Books and Movies That Made Us Better Journalists

Reporters are always consuming journalism articles, books and movies to help inspire their craft.

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Early last year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this column, reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis writes about the books, articles and movies that have inspired the journalists in our newsroom.

Would you recommend any specific books and/or other sources to an interested person who is not in a position to attend journalism school? —David Weinkrantz

I didn’t major in journalism, but the pieces that have influenced me the most are often stories with captivating sagas that take me to a place or time I know little about — New Yorker articles like “The Marriage Cure” or “The Assad Files,” or Esquire’s “The Falling Man.” These stories are deeply humanizing and thoroughly reported.

I threw your question out to my colleagues, too. Here are some books and other resources they recommend:

“Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide From the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University”

Editor-in-Chief Louise Kiernan says this is the book she recommends more than any other to aspiring and practicing journalists.

“It’s 12 years old now, so it’s dated in some respects. But for hearing renowned reporters and editors talk directly about their work, from conception to publication and beyond, it’s invaluable,” Kiernan said. “Generally, though, I think the best way to learn about good journalism is just to read good journalism.”

“Why Should I Tell You?: A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting” by Natalie Yahr

Engagement reporter Logan Jaffe recommends this online resource, saying it “should be required reading for every journalist.” The guide, written by Natalie Yahr, a fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, includes 12 rules to help make journalism more mutually beneficial for both the reporter and the people they interview. The guidebook touches on everything from how reporters can properly communicate what sources can expect during and after an interview to creating boundaries and making the editorial process more inclusive.

“With this guide, I aim to help journalists navigate the ethical dilemmas they encounter as they interview people who have experienced harm,” Yahr writes. “While there are numerous practical guides on such interviewing, especially on trauma journalism, I have yet to find a guide that explores the deeper ethical questions of what conditions, if any, make such journalism morally justifiable and not purely extractive or voyeuristic.”

Jaffe also recommends the Pulitzer Prize-winning article A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in GQ, which she said was one of her “favorite examples of narrative, investigative reporting that embraces the writer’s point of view,” and “Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers” by David Paul Nord. She said the book is a “bit dated” but nevertheless a “very thorough history of newspaper/reader relationships.”

“She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Reporter Melissa Sanchez recommends this investigation of film producer Harvey Weinstein that became a pivotal moment of the #MeToo era. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, both of The New York Times, lit the fire with their expose in October 2017 detailing how Weinstein sexually harassed and allegedly sexually assaulted women in Hollywood for decades. The book, which came out this month, details how they did it and the impact their investigation has had on the country.

Sanchez also recommends “Travels with Herodotus” by Ryszard Kapuściński. Sanchez, who dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent when she was younger, says she was “deeply influenced” by this memoir. The Polish journalist worked for decades reporting in places such as India, Iran and Congo. The book is intertwined with excerpts from the works of ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

“Though I never became a full-fledged correspondent — there are fewer and fewer of these jobs each year as news organizations slash jobs, and my own goals changed — I did get to spend some time in Latin America reporting a handful of stories,” Sanchez said. “The excitement and wonder of doing this kind of work probably grows old for some people, but I still feel giddy when I think of the prospect, and re-read books like his”

“Boss” by Mike Royko

This book by the legendary columnist is a Chicago journalism staple, and it’s one that deputy editor Steve Mills received early in his career and continues to recommend to friends.

“With ‘Boss,’” Mills said, “Royko gave me — then new to Chicago and still learning its political history — an unvarnished education in the first Mayor Daley and in how things really work in the city, the kind of education you get after spending decades observing people like the mayor. And it was fun to read. What more could you want?”

Mills also suggests “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” from former Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan. The book details her nearly two decades covering stories on the beat.

“Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now” by Alan Rusbridger

Newspapers around the country have been shrinking or, in some cases, closing. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, explores what this means for democracy and the news industry. It’s a recommendation from reporter Jason Grotto.

“Anyone interested in journalism should consider the newspaper industry’s recent trajectory as well as the core values undergirding it,” Grotto said. “Knowing how and why newspapering has changed will provide great insights to those wanting to learn more about journalism in the larger sense. Rusbridger’s story brings both of those things together, the history and the values.”

And if movies are more of your thing …

ProPublica Illinois story producer Vignesh Ramachandran recommends the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” The movie is based on the true story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered widespread child sex abuse within the Catholic Church.

“The part that was so powerful to me was seeing the reporters and editors work so hard to build a larger systemic story about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — the hours and hours spent combing through paper records (things we’re now sometimes lucky enough to do digitally today),” Ramachandran said. “They didn’t settle until they could pull multiple pieces together and tell a wider systemic story that was even more powerful than it would have been.”

A nonjournalism source that a couple of folks recommended was Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which documents his journey to becoming one of America’s most prolific writers.

If you have a reading recommendation, please tweet us at @ProPublicaIL or email us at Illinois@propublica.org. And if you have questions about our journalism, you can ask us at the same address.

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Lakeidra Chavis

Lakeidra Chavis is the reporting fellow for ProPublica Illinois.

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