"It's very scary to adapt someone's life and do it in two hours, and the person is there. In the first period you say, I cant do this. No way. Then the story starts to eat at you and you say, Oh, I have to. Then you meet the person, and it becomes clear how daunting the task is. It's someone's life. On top of my being a perfectionist -- and trying to shoot for the idea of perfection in an imperfect science -- it's a gut-wrenching task."
-- Actor Will Smith, quoted in The New York Times
My favorite kind of story is the profile that demands digging deep into someone's life. I love figuring out who has had the most influence on them, even in earliest childhood, and speaking to that person when possible. I like trying to determine what drives someone to succeed -- or impels them to fail -- and where that drive comes from and what squelches or amplifies it. I want to know what scares someone and what makes them laugh really loud. (Or rarely crack a smile.)
I want to know things about them they may not even know about themselves.
I dont think there's anything more interesting as a story subject than another human being.
The challenge is trying to understand, analyze and tell the story of someone else's life. As Smith says, here describing the difficulty of portraying on film Chicago stockbroker Chris Gardner, a man who was briefly homeless, in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, your first reaction when asked to write a profile, certainly a long and thoughtful one, might be fear. I dont think journalists are scared enough of the responsibility of portraying someone else's reality. I dont mean to suggest we should soft-pedal and avoid thorny questions, even if it provokes a subject's anger or discomfort when we probe too deeply.
But it's a daunting task to try to accurately present someone you dont know to millions of readers who will never meet them.
Author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell once pissed off a room-full of journalists at the annual Neiman Conference in Boston when he argued that profiles are a waste of time. No pile of facts, he said, no matter how beautifully written, edited or illustrated, can ever really explain someone's life.
Yet interviews can be excruciatingly intimate. I've questioned people about the most devastating moments of their life: when they were shot point-blank or killed someone or had their husband shot dead beside them. When they suffered cancer or lost everything in a fire. What is felt like to face prison, for the first time, as a woman of 19. I think, if you handle it sensitively, you can elicit extraordinary material from people, even painful and dark stories they're initially reluctant to share.
Never forget for a minute that you're trying to enter, understand and portray someone's life. It's not just 12 tedious inches you need to finish by 6:00 p.m. deadline or 3,500 words whose payment will cover the rent.
In my 30 years in journalism, I can count on the fingers of one hand how many people have grilled me before they allowed me access to them. They werent wealthy, powerful individuals but regular women leading quiet lives, deeply fearful of being distorted and misrepresented in the media. Before they'd even sit down with me face to face they asked: Will there be a photographer as well? How long is the story? What happens if other journalists try to track me down?
Why, basically, should they trust me?
Good question. I'm not sure I have an answer. I usually send sources to this website, in the hope theyll read some of my articles and find them persuasive. I tell them how I typically approach and work with sources. Sometimes, rarely, I'll even give them my editors name and phone number.
I think it's a little weird, certainly for people who havent -- like politicians or entertainers -- chosen the public eye and it's scrutiny to automatically trust me just because I'm a journalist. Why should they?
What some sources consistently find most persuasive, and it's a risk I choose to take, is when I reveal something of my own life.
So, depending who I'm talking to and what the story is going to be about, I may share something relevant, and even something a little dark or difficult, about myself. I'm not trying to prove that I'm just like them because I'm not. But I'm asking them to open up and reveal themselves to me, and I think it's fair to open up to them as well, to offer some idea who this person is they're talking to.
I think barreling into someone's head at 60 mph with little to no preamble is likely to be seen as what it is -- rude, invasive and aggressive.