Longreads: the ethics of writing about tragedy

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail


Good morning sports media fans. Since we spend so much time talking about journalism here I like to devote space to looking a the nuts and bolts of the process. As such I am always on the lookout for interesting articles that stand out from the pack. For example, last year I spoke to Kevin McGran about his excellent profile of Gary Bettman. 


Last week Dan Robson of The Athletic wrote about the life and death of Ray Emery. His 7000 word piece took me almost 40 minutes to read. It is an emotional journey. 


“On a full day without sleep, after playing his first hockey game in more than a year and a night out that hit the morning, he took a breath and dove out.”


With a story like this one the reader knows how it ends. The challenge for the writer is to draw you in so you’ll want to spend the next half hour getting to know someone who will be gone by the time you reach the last paragraph. Like most people I only know Ray Emery from the headlines. By the end of Dan’s story I understood so much more about who he was as a human being, what drove him, how his family supported him, and how his death has devastated those he left behind.


After finishing the article I reached out to Dan to see if he would be interested in talking about how his story came to be. Here is our conversation


An Interview with Dan Robson

Q: When you set out to write a story of this scope and length how do you plan out the various parts and how they will fit together?


A: I find that in the course of reporting I set out with a question. The question here was “what really happened to Ray Emery?” I felt like we didn’t have answers and that it was going to take a lot of time to get those answers, and that no one else was going to go out and do the work. So I knew from the outset that if I got an answer to what really happened that I would start the piece there, and then go into the rest of his life, and then come back to that night at the end.

I only found that information out in January of this year, so I didn’t have that all along. Most of my information came from sitting down with his family. Really the heart of the story came from the meeting with Sharlene and Paul and evolved from there. So, when I started working I had a sense of what I wanted the story to be. I didn’t want this to be just about his death. I wanted to fill in some of the gaps in who he was as a person. And the more I spoke to people the more I realized just how many gaps there were. That’s why the piece is so long.


Q: From beginning to end, how long did you work on this story?


A: The morning Ray drowned I was at a cottage with some friends, including someone who was from the Cayuga area. He got a text saying something had happened. And from that moment I had questions rights away, but this is not the kind of story you want to jump on too quickly. When I left Sportsnet I spoke to James Mirtle about the kinds of stories I wanted to work on for The Athletic, including this one. From there I started working on the piece in late November and then all through until this week. So pretty much two and half months.


Q: Is that normal for a piece of this length?


A: Yeah, this is normal for me. I don’t write very often and I’m usually working on a few things at a time. Three months is about right when you include all the drafting and editing. And I’m glad we took this long here because a lot of the reporting came later in the process and the piece would not have been as complete without it.


Q: Can you give an example of the kind of information that came late in the process?


A: The details around what happened that morning. I spoke to about a dozen people who didn’t get quoted in the article and all of that eventually led me to the people who were actually there. And I really understand the reticence to speak about it at the outset. Some of them were worried that this would be a take-down piece about Ray. So it took a while before they were willing to speak on the record. Mark Nicholson eventually sat down with me for an hour to go through the events of that morning.

Q: As a reporter how do you earn the trust of your subjects for a piece like this?

A: Timing was important here. I didn’t want to contact them too soon, since everyone needs time to reflect when something like this happens. As a reporter I want to go meet people to give them a sense of who I am and try to establish a little credibility for the kind of piece I want to write. I reached out to his brother first. The from there to the rest of the family.

Q: Is there a process of telling the family what you will and won’t write about? Is it a negotiation?

A: I don’t really want to bring those conversations up as a journalist. I don’t want people to be guarded. I’d just rather have a cup of tea and a conversation and see where it goes. The recorder is out and it’s all on the record but I don’t want it to feel like a formal interview. I’m trying to establish some comfort. With Paul and Sharlene I think we spoke for 3 hours. I find that most people that I have written about — and I’m proud of this — have found the pieces to be fair and have generally approved of them.

Q: This is not a normal interview. You’re talking to parents about losing a child. As a journalist how do you change your approach in light of this?

A: Empathy. And trying to get them to talk about him as a person rather than the stuff that made headlines in Ottawa or wherever. Whenever you get to know the family you really get a sense of who this person was. They spoke with a lot of pride about Ray. And there was a lot of grief obviously. I didn’t include some of that in the piece. It’s a balance. You want to respect their privacy while still getting the most important details. I was very conscious of this throughout the reporting. I really wanted to be reflective about their loss while being honest and not sugar-coating things.

Q: Did you see yourself as doing investigative work in this piece?

A: Yes, definitely. Obviously around the events of the morning of his death. But also around the question of who this person was and the kinds of battles that were going on inside him throughout his life. The stuff about race, the stuff about his relationship with Keshia, his biological father … these are things that didn’t come out in the headlines. Throughout that research I kind of got a sense of a person who was searching for who he was. There was reticence but there was also curiosity. All of that was what I’d call “emotional investigation”. Then there was the more ordinary factual investigation that involves calling the police, looking at records, and all the stuff you do to get first-person accounts.

Q: There were salacious aspects to Emery’s life story, including drug use, partying, and a restraining order. The story mentions alcohol use on the night and morning of his death. How did you approach that delicate topic in your interviews and in the framing of the story?

A: I wrote what I know. As a writer you have to include the facts but you also have to question every fact to make sure it is the truth. There were news reports from the time of his death and so I had to talk about those with the friends and family. Those are part of the narrative and so I have to seek comment on that. The person who provided the most context was his ex-fiancée Keshia. I feel very fortunate for her participation because she was able to counter some of the TMZ-style headlines and explain what was going on in his life at that time. It’s a really difficult topic for her obviously. She never wanted things to become public. But she was also really helpful in getting more of the story out.

Q: Her voice is one of the clearest in the article. What are the boundaries when talking to a partner (or an ex-partner) about a deceased loved one?

A: Romantic partners really do provide special insights. These are the people we are closest to on a day to day basis and see us through our struggles close up. She had some very nuanced opinions on the domestic violence charge. She also spoke at length about the kind of help Ray sought out. As a journalist I had to ask about the cocaine. It’s something you can google so I have a responsibility to address it. But for me the more important part is being able to take the reader behind those headlines.

Q: What do you do if someone says they won’t talk about something that you think needs to be addressed?

A: Frankly, I feel fortunate because we never had that conversation. Faced with that kind of situation I would try to make a sensitive argument about why it’s a good idea to give their side of the story. The story is there. And this person has details that we are not aware of, and I know it’s a challenging thing but I try to convey that I am trying to get a complete picture of the person; it’s not just about one event or one thing. By not talking to me they would be weakening getting the whole story out. But I agree that it’s a difficult thing. And as I said, there are things that are not in the story precisely because it’s not an expose. There are personal things I left out because I didn’t think they served the bigger picture I wanted to show.

Q: As a journalist on this kind of piece does that mean that you have to mediate the interests of the audience with the interests of your subjects?

A: It’s an interesting question. I guess I feel most responsibility to the story I’m telling. My goal is to tell the most complete story I can about this person while respecting the family’s feelings. In the end the reader makes up their own mind. You have to show all sides of a person’s character in order for the story to be true. And that’s my objective – to get the truth across.

Q: Sports writers often say they don’t root for teams they root for stories. Is this something similar?

A: Yeah, that’s right. But I do want to say that humans are complex and there’s so much to a person beyond what we see. While writing this story I really felt for Ray. When I was talking it over with my editor I remember saying “I’m sad”. Because as a result of speaking to people I really came to believe that there was so much more Ray had to offer. Not just in the generic sense but in terms of being a smart guy with a magnetic personality. As a writer I can’t change the story but I will say that while writing I did come to root for Ray, and really felt the tragedy of his death.

Q: One of the understated narratives throughout is Emery’s biracial identity. It seems this was not something he spoke publicly about very much. How do you approach reporting on that topic?

A: Speaking with his friends I got a sense of why he didn’t speak about that topic very much. I wanted to honour that struggle and his privacy. There were a few incidents from his career that were well publicized previously so I didn’t include much about that. Also, this is not something that I am in a position to comprehend, so without him telling me about it directly I didn’t want to speculate or put words in his mouth.

But I was able to draw on those close to him. Keshia, for example, who is also biracial talked to me about those issues. As a writer I tend not to use long quotes for stylistic reasons, but I quoted her at length in the piece because she had more insight than anyone into how these struggles affected him and how he thought about them. This was definitely a topic that I didn’t want to brush past nor dive into. So I decided the best approach was to let those who knew him best speak on his behalf.

Q: Have you spoken with any of these people since the piece was published?

A: A few. It’s long so not everyone will have had time to read it yet. I spoke to Sharlene and she was happy with it. That means a lot.

Q: Were there voices you wished you had been able to include?

A: Yeah, the guy who owned the boat. But he is not talking and I can understand that. Other than him I don’t think there are too many missing voices. One of the things that sucks as a writer is when you talk to people and then don’t include them in the story for one reason or another. They were great conversations but just didn’t fit in the end.

Q: What about the police? Did you speak with them?

A: No. It’s a closed case. The police spoke about the case at the time and there is no new information so they would have no reason to speak about it. As far as documents I don’t have access to anything. The family would be the only ones who could see those reports.

Q: How many people at The Athletic saw this story before it went to print?

A: It’s funny because this is my first story for The Athletic. I started a while ago but then didn’t write anything for months. But they have been really supportive of me taking the time I need on this. I submitted something in December that was unpublishable but had the bulk of the story. It was really great to get outside eyes on it both to fix what was wrong with it but also to confirm that the story was there and was worth telling. I think the full version was 12,000 words to start with, and ended up being 7000 by the end. There were probably six versions of the story before the final one. Everyone involved, me especially, wanted to make sure everything was right so we spent a lot of time on editing.

Q: Was this process different from how things were at Sportsnet?

A: Pretty similar. We had good editors at Sportsnet Magazine and at the website after the magazine folded. I had the luxury of working with people who gave me lots of autonomy to chase the stories I wanted and then helped tremendously in shaping the final product. It was a great team. I feel very lucky that in my career I have been able to write longform stuff from the start. That means I disappear from time to time which is not great for boosting my twitter followers but I like it that way. I’m not going to be one of those guys who are writing all the time and are very visible at the rink or wherever.

Q: As a reader and industry observer I was very excited when The Athletic created your position because this fills a void in the market with Sportsnet Magazine closing, TSN reducing their writers, and the papers slashing budgets. What kind of mandate do you have in this role?

A: Yeah, that’s exactly why James [Mirtle] brought me on. They already have tons of amazing people who can cover the analytics and the games. I have experience writing books so I’m more comfortable with stories that take a while to tell. And that’s my mandate. I’m going to be pulling in more people as well and working with young writers to help them tell their stories. There are great writers at Sportsnet but I want us to compete with them. I also want us to look for stories that others aren’t going to get, and stories that are hard to get. It’s going to be a challenge but I’m excited.

Q: Both Sportsnet and TSN have devoted tons of resources to video features over the last couple of years. This seems to have come at the expense of writing. I love reading and will make the time for it but I tend not to make time to sit down and watch features. As someone who writes for a living, how do you feel about the “pivot to video” trend?

A: It’s interesting because at Sportsnet I did a few pieces that were both video and written. And I wonder how many people saw both … whether there was any crossover. Obviously you can get into a lot more detail in a written story. But some stories have more visual elements. I’m a writer so I have a bias. Take this story about Ray. I can’t picture telling this story in video form and having it come out the same way. We are constantly being told that readers want bite-sized content but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I guess my belief is that if a story is worth it then people will find time for it. People certainly still buy books, for example.

Q: Last/obligatory question: what advice do you give to young writers trying to break into the industry?

A: I knew pretty early that I wanted to write longform stuff. I worked at The Star doing some different things outside of sports and pitched doing a story about James Reimer. And that was the story I sent to Sportsnet which got me the job at the magazine. Steve Maich took a shot on me and things went forward from there. So the advice I give all the time is to put yourself out there and ask for help from people. The other big thing is to read lots and to read great writing outside of sports. A lot of people want to be sports writers because they are sports fans. And that’s fine, but as a writer you want to have a skill-set that is broad enough that you can go write about other things too.

Thank you to Dan for his time and the insights he provided into the process.

Further Thoughts

I don’t want to turn this into a referendum on the value of The Athletic or subscription-based writing in general. With that said, it was a little shocking to read so many angry comments on twitter regarding the paywall. 

I understand that money can be tight and that there are plenty of free offerings out there. But it’s hard to imagine complaining about paying to read a story that someone spent three months working on. If you don’t want to pay for it, that’s fine. We all get to make our own decisions about what deserves our discretionary dollars. But it seems odd to suggest that something one doesn’t want to pay for should be free. 

Another topic I’d like to put up for discussion is the one I mentioned in the interview. How do you feel about the loss of magazine writing in sports in Canada and the corresponding pivot to video?

The business side of it makes sense, sort of. Someone reading a 7000 word article might see at most one or two ads online. A half hour video can sustain multiple ad breaks and can be distributed with ads both online and on TV. That said, paying for a reporter and a camera crew to travel around the globe is way more expensive than sending a single writer to do interviews. So in the end it might actually be cheaper to pivot back to the written medium. That’s what I’m hoping for at least.

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

photo credits: NHL.com

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