Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, two veteran journalists at The New York Times and authors of 2019 book She Said, visited Northwestern’s McCormick Foundation Center Forum the evening of Monday, Oct. 24. Medill Professor Patti Wolter joined them to discuss the power of sources and personal stories in journalism.
In their hour-long talk, the pair talked about topics ranging from their work investigating Harvey Weinstein to larger ideas of how journalists should interact with their sources.
Kantor began by explaining that most investigations are fearful, that a journalist rarely knows what the truth is when they first start out. She shared an anecdote from when the two were initially writing their Oct. 2017 story titled “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” which would become the first of a series of articles chronicling Harvey Weinstein’s undesired sexual advances and their cover-ups. Kantor and Twohey met with an editor who questioned them on how much of their evidence was usable. Their response: they did not have a single publishable account; all the evidence was off the record.
This is the scariest part of writing an investigative piece, according to Kantor, and that the prospect of a story failing to publish looms.
“Anxiety shifts to ‘I have this information, but can I put it in the paper; can I prove it?’” Kantor said.
Still, journalists continue to research and uncover information; the motivation, according to Kantor, is thinking that you know the truth, but need to decipher how to share it.
Further into the event, Twohey shared an additional piece of advice, this time regarding the emotional aspect of reporting on tough topics.
“We don’t stop reporting at 6 o’clock at night and leave those things on our desk,” Twohey told the audience.
Twohey said that a critical point in her investigations is when she starts to dream about her stories.
This embodies Twohey's disagreement with the practice of creating emotional distance between herself and her work. She spoke of turning personal outrage into productive stories to enact change and that her work reporting on mental health issues helped her open up more about her own mental health.
“I think to acknowledge some of the emotional difficulties can be a valuable thing,” Twohey said.
The two repeatedly told the audience that journalists have to take care of themselves and that another important aspect of investigative journalism is the caretaking of your sources. This was especially relevant when doing the reporting for She Said, where many of the sources were discussing topics of victimhood and harm, something that most individuals are not driven to bring up frequently.
In answering a question regarding this topic, Kantor brought up coverage of the recent Uvalde shooting. Two of her colleagues at The New York Times reported on the aftermath of the shooting in the Uvalde community; Edgar Sandaval, the photographer, made it a point to ask for permission to take pictures of objects in the home of one of the young victims.
This reflects one advice that Kantor shared: as a reporter, you should give people the respect that they deserve and devise techniques to work through extractive journalism. This idea is not unheard of, especially since Kantor spoke of not allowing your questions to inhibit you – dhr said that sometimes reporters can be worried that they are taking something from their sources in an unfair way. She added that reporters should be mindful of the complexities of this relationship.
“Knowledge is hard won, [and] the trust…is really sacred,” Kantor said.
Twohey also talked of her experience with sources. When talking to individuals for numerous pieces, she mentioned that it is important to give sources a greater perspective on their impact.
For example, Kantor went to Twohey for help when she first began investigating Weinstein, knowing that she had worked with sources in the past who had shared hard topics such as sexual misconduct allegations towards former president Donald J. Trump.
The final piece of advice that the two shared was about the underlying power of sources. In investigative reporting, like She Said, it is not always possible to gather a large number of individuals to speak on the record. Yet, a small group of sources has the ability to make a huge difference.
“We hope that one of the permanent takeaways is the power of airing these stories and the power of facts to effect change,” Kantor said.
She Said has also been adapted into a film that Northwestern will be hosting a free advanced screening for on Nov. 2 at The Wilmette Theater. Tickets can be accessed here.