The Dirty Work of Research

Featured Panelists at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Explain Their Research Processes


Asher Lauderdale

Naveena Sadasivam explains her research process during an interview.

Elise Sawyer, Reporter

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference is, to say the least, not for those with an aversion to research. The panelists, being storytellers, have sometimes spent months and even years focused on exclusively one topic. For instance, Naveena Sadasivam, a writer for Grist, writes pieces related to environmental journalism, a field which involves elements of both science and society. Her research process begins with an attempt to understand the issue she is reporting on before she tries to get specific quotes.

“I start out conducting background interviews. I try to reach out to as many people possible who are aware of the issue that I’m researching who might be able to provide information. Once I feel like I have a decent understanding of what the story is, I can file off records requests depending on the kinds of records I’m looking for— and then, it’s kind of iterative,” Sadasivam said. “You do a little bit of research, you have more questions, and then you try to chase down those questions. At that point it becomes a series of interviews. Once I feel that I have found good characters for the stories, I go out and try to meet them. And then, once I have enough information, I outline and write a draft, and work with the editor on that draft.”

Laura Beil had a somewhat similar process for beginning research on her podcast “Dr. Death,” which focuses on a neurosurgeon who left at least one patient dead and 31 patients paralyzed. In her case, she started by examining information from the neurosurgeon’s trial. 

“It took eight months of work, so it’s hard to describe in general. There had been a two-week trial before, so I started by just reading hundreds of pages of what had happened at the trial,” Beil said. “Then I went about just trying to figure out where records were, who was available, who would talk to me. I had a spreadsheet of resources and where they were.”

Margot Lee Shetterly spent several years researching for her book, Hidden Figures, which tells the story of black female scientists at NASA such as Katherine Johnson. Shetterly often looked through old databases in order to put together their stories.

“The NASA technical report server had the scientific information. The telephone directories at NASA told me who was sitting next to each other in what office, so I could look up Katherine Johnson, find the extension of Katherine Johnson, and then find everyone who shared that extension, and then start looking for those people in the NASA technical report server to know what they were working on,” Shetterly said. “It was like a mystery novel! This was digital technology working right. This would have been much harder 15 years ago or 20 years ago.”

A part of research some still find difficult today is the process of finding sources to interview. Common reasons for this include people unused to reporters or public officials who do not want to be quoted; but Beil, in addition to dealing with these reasons, also faced people who did not want to talk about their experiences in the hospital.

“I think a lot of them had just moved on and were trying to get over it. When people said ‘no’, I didn’t try to push that hard to get them to talk to me,” Beil said. “There were [also] certain sources involved in the story who wouldn’t talk. His family members wouldn’t talk. His ex-girlfriends wouldn’t talk. So there were people very close to the story that certainly wouldn’t talk.”

However, research roadblocks can sometimes uncover a new story angle. For example, Sadasivam’s story on small businesses facing monumental fines for recordkeeping errors originally started off with a completely different concept.

“Initially, my angle of the story was perhaps that the state was violating civil rights laws for not [sending notices in different languages]. It went nowhere. As I reported on that, it became clear that the story was bigger than focusing on the public notification requirements,” Sadasivam said. “It’s hard to know [the angle] sometimes, but that’s a necessary part of the process. You hit a bunch of walls, [and] it informs your reporting down the line.”

Despite its difficulties, Shetterly doesn’t regret the several years she spent extensively researching the women she wrote about.

“Honestly, that was the most fun part. That, to me, was this huge game. The research was really great because the artifacts tell the story. This was so much archaeology and anthropology for me, collecting all the bits and pieces to bring them back together,” Shetterly said. “The thing that was so exciting was to make a leap and know enough. I loved it, and I love the feeling of going down this path with different people.”

Sadasivam, when asked what research advice she would give to younger journalists, said to try to attend conferences like the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

“Try to learn what other journalists are doing and learn from them. I would particularly encourage them to go to ones where there are hands-on workshops,” Sadasivam said. “In 2019, when you’re trying to be a journalist, it’s not enough to just report. You’ve got to learn to deal with data.”