Savvy writers know the value of public records—police reports, courthouse files, meeting transcripts and the myriad other documents generated by government agencies. Public records provide detail, authority, libel protection and the occasional smoking gun that often makes for powerful journalism and narrative nonfiction.
But there’s another, less obvious record type that smart writers use to add unforgettable ingredients to their stories.
You won’t find them in a government filing cabinet or database or discover them with a Freedom of Information request.
These are private records, the documentation that people create and keep about their own lives or others, the kind buried in a box in the attic, hanging on the refrigerator door or inside a photo album or yearbook.
This class of documentary evidence can strengthen your reporting and bring a new level of intimacy and depth to your stories, shedding light on a person’s character or a time in history. They don’t require a FOIA or hours toiling in a courthouse basement; by simply asking sources to hunt in their attics and basements and memory boxes, writers can locate records that reveal a character’s inner life and history.
I’d never really thought about the distinction between public and private records until I heard Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, talk about their value at a writing conference years ago and and a later meeting with a group of my students.
“Whenever you’re working on a story, you ought to be thinking about what documents can help you,” she advised these young reporters. To take advantage of public records, she says, “everyone should know how to search a court record and file a FOIA request.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an ideal place to learn about these skills.
But don’t ignore the value of private records, said Kiernan, who now is editor of ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit investigative project.
Among them: baby books, high school and college yearbooks, playbills for student productions, teacher evaluations, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and videos. She described how a Tribune colleague used teacher evaluations to profile a dying professor, the students’ comments opening windows into their teacher’s character. In a long-term project about postpartum depression Kiernan used excerpts from the journal of a woman who had committed suicide.
After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct the last hours of five victims.
NEW YORK — The alarm on Moises Rivas’s nightstand went off at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11.
He had been up until 2 a.m., playing slow salsa on his guitar. He shut off the alarm, snuggled up to his wife, and fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until 6:30 that the 29-year-old cook raced out of the two-bedroom apartment, already late, and headed for work on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
It would be a busy day. A big corporate breakfast meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rivas wore baggy black bell-bottoms that morning, but he could change into his crisp white chef’s uniform when he arrived at the Windows on the World restaurant.
His instructions for the day awaited him, taped to a stainless-steel pillar in the restaurant. “Moises,” said the handwritten note posted by the banquet chef the night before. “The menu for Tuesday: B.B.Q. short ribs, roast chicken legs, pasta with tomato sauce. NOTE: Please have the butcher to cut the pork chops. Cut the fish. Cut, Dice Carrot Onion Celery. Cubes of Potato for the Stew. Cook one box pasta. See you later and have a nice day.”
How could the Journal writers know what that handwritten note said, since the Windows on the World restaurant vanished when the north tower collapsed? According to a sources note appended to the story’s end, the reporters based it on a “handwritten note to Mr. Rivas: reconstructed by Windows on the World banquet chef Ali Hizam from notes written to himself in his notebook.”
The reporters also used a store receipt to document the price of a pair of sneakers purchased by a survivor whose feet were sore from fleeing down 92 flights of stairs in heels. The note revealed that a private record bolstered the narrative detail. “Source: Shoe shopping: $43 price from Baldini credit-card receipt.”
In October 2019, a team of ProPublica Illinois journalists under Kiernan’s direction used an unusual private record in an investigative narrative that exposed the human impact of a clinical drug trial of children with bipolar disorder by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Following an investigation by reporter Jodi S. Cohen of flawed clinical trials at UIC, Cohen, and engagement reporter Logan Jaffe, who managed a call-out to hear from families who participated in the study, obtained the online journal kept in late 2010-early 2011 by a woman named Aline*. In it, she records the disastrous side effects experienced by her 10-year-old son Wilson* (*middle names were used to protect their privacy) while participating in one of the UIC studies. Then, in an unusual, innovative move, one, Kiernan said, “that breaks the ‘rules’ in all the right ways,” they let the mother and son tell more than half the story. Together the reporters crafted a digressive structure that shifts from Cohen and Jaffe’s contextual narrative — based on the traditional tools of documents, interviews and research — to the private record of a family’s torment, what one colleague called “an emotional piece of evidence.” In addition to the mother’s journal, they also persuaded mother and son to reflect now on the devastating impact of Wilson’s treatment. These were used as real time annotations linked to Aline’s 8-year-old reflections and paired in a scrolling interactive presentation. The reporters and Kiernan unpacked their approach in a story I wrote for Nieman Storyboard. (The passage above first appeared there.)
I’ve used private records to report and write a memoir about my father, who died when I was 10 years old, particularly the impact of his father’s involvement in a government corruption scandal in 1932.
Perhaps the most important was one of the documents included in a packet of materials his prep school’s alumni office provided. I described my findings in “The Only Honest Man,” an essay published in River Teeth, a journal of nonfiction narrative:
“There is another document that I have studied as carefully as my grandfather’s testimony. It is a single piece of paper, about the size of a 5 x 7-inch index card, divided into columns that are filled with typewritten figures. It is my father’s report card from the Canterbury School. It charts his academic career from his entrance in 1929 to his graduation on June 10, 1933.
“He was ranked 8th in a class of 17, far from the weakest student. Still, there seems little doubt that something happened to my father towards the end of high school. His freshman year, he earned middle and high Bs. By his junior year, his marks had nose-dived to a dispiriting collection of low Ds and just barely-Cs. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his father as a Tammany Hall grafter.”
• Begin by thinking about private records in your own life. If someone were to write a story about you, what might they learn from your yearbook, the letters or cards you’ve kept, your journal entries, photo albums, videotapes?
• Ask sources for private records. Investigative reporters know to always ask for public records. Ask for private records as well: the yearbook, the photos, the letters that a source might have. Be alert to the possibility that private records might exist.
As Louise Kiernan observed, “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you…what people make and keep for themselves.”