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How The Washington Post's Eli Saslow perfected the storyteller's art of being there

How The Washington Post's Eli Saslow perfected the storyteller's art of being there

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Eli Saslow's cinematic stories place a premium on scene and dialogue.

One of Eli Saslow’s signature gifts as a storyteller is his extraordinary knack for simply being there as people navigate some of life’s most harrowing crucibles — opioid addiction, grinding poverty and early death, to name a few of the issues his deeply reported narratives for The Washington Post have explored.

But that ability to be there as people confront life in extremis is not a matter of simple journalistic luck, as Saslow explained in his keynote address to fellows at the 2017 USC Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship. Saslow may have a cinematic knack for ferreting out moments of tension and drama, but his presence during such moments is paid for with time: The days, weeks and months spent finding the right characters to illuminate pressing issues, and then “essentially embedding with people for a brief period of time so that I can watch these big issues in the country play out in a smaller, intimate way,” he explained.

For one of his stories in the Post’s “Unnatural Causes” series last year, which explored the alarming rise in death rates among rural white women, Saslow began, as he usually does, by spending a week or so looking at data — “trying to understand essentially what the problem is, and where it’s happening and where the best place might be to go tell a story,” as he put it. Oklahoma kept surfacing as one of a handful of states where rural women were dying at alarming rates, so he began combing through obituaries of Oklahomans online. “Essentially, I was looking for people who had drunk themselves to death or committed suicide,” he said. When an obit suggested a likely candidate, he’d call the family and gently try to find out what had happened, telling them why he thought their experience was important and part of a larger trend, and ultimately, in the case of Anna Marrie Jones, why he wanted to write the story.

It’s a reporting process that begins with a big issue and big data before narrowing down to a particular family — Saslow likens it to a funnel. But once he’s found his subjects, the real reporting has in many ways just begun. “Then comes the hardest part of my job with this kind of reporting, which is getting on a plane and going there and essentially trying to earn the trust to be there when people are in really hard moments,” Saslow said.

It’s also the kind of reporting that requires huge investments of time, an increasingly scarce luxury in today’s decimated newsrooms. Riding around in a mail truck in rural Oklahoma for two days, for example, might only result in 500 words in a 4,000-word story, but it’s the only way to capture the kinds of moments Saslow is looking for. “In my somewhat limited experience, I would say there’s no shortcut to that. It is time. It’s being there for a long amount of time — or as much time as you can.”

But while time is crucial for overcoming people’s initial wariness, building trust and getting past more practiced versions of the truth, so is timing. Saslow tries to time his trips so that he’s there at crucial plot moments — at a mother's funeral, or during the agonizing wait before an addict can receive a shot that blocks the effects of opioids. Saslow refers to these moments in terms of narrative tension.

“I’m thinking constantly about tension. What’s the tension in the story? What’s the reason someone is going to want to keep reading? If I can show up in a moment when there already is tension, that solves a huge part of that problem. You know you’re going to be there to see something happen.”

And since Saslow is far more interested in capturing scenes and organic dialogue between family members, rather than reporter-prompted quotes, being there when larger life events are unfolding allows him to more easily fade into the background as an observer. He gets small as the scene gets big. During particularly intimate or fraught moments, it’s natural for a journalist to feel like an interloper. Saslow’s response is to seek consent: Can I come? Should I be here? Surprisingly often, the answer is yes, and he’s granted access to aspects of their lives he’d never otherwise glimpse.

“For me, asking somebody to tell you about their experiences is great, but the power of that is accentuated when you can see some of those experiences for yourself, and you can be there when they’re asking themselves some of these questions,” said Saslow, who won the 2014 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting for his series on food stamps in post-recession America.

Not that all such narrative moments have to be as clearly defined as a funeral or the throes of withdrawal. For a gripping story about a family in West Virginia that lost both parents to a heroin overdose on Easter, the moment of tension was whether the oldest son, 17-year-old Zaine Pulliam, would succumb to the despair and addiction all around him or whether he’d find a way to forge a different fate. The question hangs in the balance throughout the story, pulling the reader along.

Saslow says he spends a lot of time thinking about the ethical implications of the work he does. He’s asking strangers to let him into their lives during some of the most intimate, painful moments imaginable — and then trust him to write about it in a way that does their story justice.

“Figuring out how to do this work honestly and empathetically without becoming purely an advocate is something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Saslow said. “I think the only way that happens is if you’re not doing it in cloying ways, and if it’s coming from an unbiased place where you’re going in and writing about things as they are. Because otherwise, it’s just transparent advocacy journalism, and it’s very easy for people to dismiss that.”

[Photo by Miller Center via Flickr.]

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