John Branch spoke to a gaggle of Grady undergraduates Monday about a series of stories on the death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard called “Punched Out,” which earned a Pulitzer nomination for Best Feature Writing.
Despite his obvious accomplishments Branch came across as humble and eager to answer students’ questions. A lot of what he said with regard to interview technique rang true with me. Given my limited reporting experience that doesn’t count for much. Nonetheless I was relieved and comforted to hear him say that he prefers to have conversations with his sources rather than simply have his questions answered. Though he did not say so explicitly, I suspect this is born out of a natural curiosity in what people have to say that extends beyond simply churning out a story. He also was refreshingly honest about taking notes on the spot without a recorder, and not being an absolute purist about accurate transcription. I think in some cases using a recorder is absolutely necessary, for example, at a Congressional press conference, where some communications director has planned out every word for maximum political gain. But in this case gaining trust and maintaining a natural feeling to the conversation rightfully took priority. I found his other methods of gaining Boogard’s family’s trust, including leveraging the strength of his writing, having a preliminary conversation off the record, and being honest about your intentions, potentially useful.
He also gave writing advice, including avoiding stringing quotes together rather than writing a coherent story, and that sometimes you can shine the brightest light using the narrowest flashlight, so to speak.
I would have liked to hear Branch speak more on what it feels like to gain so much familiarity with the details of someone’s life, only to move quickly on to another story. I imagine he must still think about Derek Boogard and his family. Reading the story is an emotional toil; I can only assume reporting it was difficult. It’s interesting that Branch seems to narrate as Boogard in the documentary portion, which implies an intimacy with his story that I didn’t get from the dispassionate way he spoke about it.