Investigative Reporting Tips from Vanity Fair’s Suzanna Andrews

Image

My data and narrative journalism professor, Alan Deutschman, introduces some really amazing and inspiring journalists to the university. I mean, these people work for big time papers and magazines.

The guest he brought to us this week grabbed my full attention and is probably my favorite guest he’s brought so far. It was Suzanna Andrews, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, who writes features and investigative articles on business, politics, culture and crime — in her definition, her theme of writing is “abuse of power”.

She’s also written for other numerous publications such as The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Reader’s Digest. She was also a story consultant to ABC’s “20/20”. She’s won a couple of Front Page awards for her features on Vanity Fair.

As a class assignment and in order to prepare to ask her questions, we were required to read two of her most impacting articles, Murder Most Yale and Arthur Miller’s Missing Act (I suggest you read both of them — they’re really good).

Both feature stories required so much investigation, stalking, credible information, and main sources. How did she do it all? Andrews shares her helpful investigative tips to the class and especially her experiences while writing these stories.

Murder Most Yale is a feature investigative article by Andrews based on the murder of Yale student, Suzanne Jovin, in 1998. It’s a case that is still under investigation today; they say it’s the “college version” of the Jon Benet Ramsey case. Andrews focuses the timeline of the night of the murder in her story, but mainly focuses on the people that surrounded Jovin’s life to find more information on the case.

Jovin’s story was first published in the New York Times — and Andrews said that this story “needed a lot of play”

Finding Personal Recommendations

As you may have noticed in the article, the police weren’t as involved. Andrews said with most crime stories, there will be slim chances that a reporter will get information from the police. Instead of constant calls and emails to set up interviews, Andrews recommends following them instead.

As a semi-experienced reporter, I find it difficult how to contact the main sources I need to talk to for my stories. Some connections may not always lead you to that significant source, but apparently the ones you’d never think who would have any contact with them might actually do! Andrews said during her investigation to find Jovin’s closest friends to interview them, she gotten from a word-of-mouth that a restaurant owner nearby Yale was pretty popular among the students — they loved him. When Andrews approached him, he was able to connect her with Jovin’s friends.

Andrews said each story has source circles; you have to work your way into the hub. You start interviewing those on the outside of the circle: Aquaintinces –> Close friends –> Parents –> Suzanne.

“It gives me time to think about the story and what to collect,” Andrews said. “When I get to the center of the story, I feel like I know the story as much as they do, or better.”

If you get enough attention, your sources might come to you

Andrews said she had a difficult time getting a hold of Jovin’s parents for an interview. After attempts with a few phone calls with them, she had to end up emailing them the interview instead. During the phone calls, the mother could not stop sobbing and the father refused to talk.

“I was horrified calling the parents,” Andrews said. “It was clear to me that they were grief stricken and angry.”

Andrews said you can’t always fire questions; sometimes its best to play it off as a conversation.

“There’s that element of authenticity, too,” Andrews said. “You want to get people to talk.”

However, Jovin’s younger sister approached Andrews with a phone called and accepted an interview. Somehow, she found Andrews.

Andrews said getting in contact with James Van de Velde was one of the most difficult parts writing the story. Van de Velde was Jovin’s professor and thesis adviser, and is a suspect of her murder. Andrews said she could only get a hold of Van de Velde’s emissaries or friends. One emissary of Van de Velde’s that Andrews got to interview was a woman. Like the rest of Van de Velde’s friends, it was expected that this woman would say nothing but good words about the professor. However, Andrews said the woman had different thoughts about Van de Velde and saw him the night of the killing.

“(The story) consumed my life,” Andrews said. “It’s a psychological rage.”

Andrews said during the time of writing this feature, she played out possible scenarios in her head and timed the driving and distances within the area of where Jovin’s body was found.

Does Andrews think Van de Velde killed Jovin? She said yes, but she doesn’t have an exact reason why she was so drawn to write this story.

“I kind of wondered that myself,” Andrews said. “I felt like I was lead to it. I didn’t feel like I was going to nail the professor, but the story latches on to you.”

Andrews’ Arthur Miller’s Missing Act is based on playwright, Arthur Miller (Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge and ex-husband of Marilyn Monroe) and the abandonment of his son, Daniel Miller, who was diagnosed with down-syndrome as an infant.    Miller cut Daniel out of his life immediately and never mentioned him when he brought up his children in books, interviews and even at his wife’s funeral. For 40 years, Daniel was kept as a secret. When Miller died in 2005, it was known to the public that he did not leave a will, but he actually did, and left Daniel a good portion of his money to last him for the rest of his lifetime.

Andrews said it was almost a possibility that Vanity Fair didn’t run article due to the intense emotion of the story and that it could offend those who have a child of down-syndrome of their own. But everyone knew it was a story that deserved attention.

Rebecca Miller, Daniel’s sister and a daughter of Miller’s, is now a close member of her family. Rebecca didn’t allow Andrews to speak to Daniel. In fact, Rebecca and her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, were disgusted by Andrews’ story. Andrews said she thinks Rebecca was afraid for the safety of her brother.

“This story was fought very hard by Arthur Miller’s family,” Andrews said.

Andrews had the chance to speak to one of Daniel’s caregivers, however. Andrews said she was on the web for days just to find connections between Miller and Daniel. She ended up on a Vietnam Veteran chatroom and spoke to a member who saw Daniel at a party. The member she spoke to in the chat room ended up being the husband of Daniel’s caregiver.

Andrews said when she called up the caregiver for an interview, the caregiver said, “It’s about time.”

After Andrews’ lecture, I feel that I can be more confident in expanding my choices when writing a hard or feature story. So I think I have until tomorrow to meet one-on-one with Andrews in Professor Deutschman’s office until she has to go back to her home in New York City. I would love to see if I have time  to have coffee with her for a more personal talk, but even just a handshake and a short conversation might do well — whatever the outcome is, it’s worth it, right?

Follow Suzanna Andrews on Twitter!: https://twitter.com/AndrewsSuzanna

Starting off the new year cocky.

I think I received the most cockiest yet super awesome gifts for journalism. I’d like to say that I am set for upcoming New Year with reporting and school in general! I got an awesome bag from my girlfriend and it has secret pockets and large ones that I could reorganize in any way that I want (sadly, no picture included)!

But I am set with a smartpen, cocky-confident shirts, and other supplies to help me out with my writing in general. I even have a keychain dangling down my lanyard that says, “Headlines & Deadlines are my life”. Look what else Santa got me HERE!

Ah...little hints of the inspirations of this blog. Best coffee mug as well!

Ah…little hints of the inspirations of this blog. Best coffee mug as well!

“Once upon a time…there was a beautiful and extremely gifted writer…”

This set includes: Livescribe's Echo Smartpen, a blank-paged notebook, a writer's workbook, and two journalistic shirts - "Don't make me use my journalistic voice!"

This set includes: Livescribe’s Echo Smartpen, a blank-paged notebook, a writer’s workbook, and two journalistic shirts – “Don’t make me use my journalistic voice!”

A water bottle that scares --- I mean, says, "If you were in my novel, I'd have killed you off by now."

A water bottle that scares — I mean, says, “If you were in my novel, I’d have killed you off by now.”

...the cockiest yet truest of all!

…the cockiest yet truest of all!

Like some of the things I got? Find them here:

First Saturday, First Post.

Imagine if a human had 900 years to live without the aging and health problems. Like, what if a 65-year-old looked like they were still in their 20s with good health?

Anyway, let’s just pretend all of those kind of goodies are available in your 900 years of lifetime. Now, without getting killed (or killing yourself), what else would you do during your 900 years of life?

The answer is simple: everything that you’ve always wanted to do. What if you had all the time in the world to achieve and fulfill 200+ of your dreams?

Obviously, it’s possible (but difficult) to do that within 70 to 100 years of your life. But remember when you were a kid, you went back and forth of what you wanted to be when you grew up? I believe those kind of career interests will stick with you for the rest of your life. It’s what fascinated you the most and it will always be a piece of you. You may not be as interested in some of them after a couple of years pass because you have already made a choice (or more) of what you want. However, and usually, there’s a piece of you that still wants to try that something else, but it seems like there’s a limited amount of time (and money) to do so during your life.

That’s how I feel, anyway. When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor. I went through the fantasies of becoming a teacher to an oceanographer, to a performer, an animator and then a writer. During my teenage years, my goal was to become a funeral director, but I was an online news editor for my high school newspaper. Today, I am a senior in college majoring in journalism, experiencing competitive adventures in and out of newsrooms. I just wish I had enough time to explore my other interests as well. But isn’t that the beauty of writing and journalism? I can research and write about whatever the hell I want!

I love doing journalism because reporting gives me the opportunity to learn and write about things to share with the world. I enjoy showing things people don’t know or need to know about. Pretty much, that’s what I’m here for. This is going to sound conceited but every Saturday, I will post something that somewhat revolves around my interests and you will learn something from it. Let me define the following in my tagline:

Literature – I’m a book-worm and I want to practice writing reviews. Ah, I know: book reviews! I have many books from good to bad to share that I have read. If you’re thinking I’m going to review books such as Hunger Games, Twilight or Harry Potter, this section is probably not for you. I’m going to review books you might never heard of and convince you to read them. 🙂

Writing – I’m going to post some of my articles from newspapers I have written for, as well as narrative and fictional pieces. And yes, my “typical blogger” side will lash out with rants, randomness and other personal-conversational pieces here and there.

Life & Death – My book reviews and writing will revolve around these two subjects the most. How-Tos, Did-you-knows, titles, old and new news stories, my experiences (especially at the funeral home), personal thoughts and stories that have significant relevance.

And including…

Universe – I passed astronomy with an A. I’m also an employee at the local planetarium at my university. Studying and thinking about what’s out there passes through my mind consistently. I think I would say that it’s almost a hobby. So I want to share experiences I’ve had at the planetarium or cool news to know about the intergalactic world (it’ll be interesting, I promise).

I feel as if these descriptions are vague but I know it’ll get interesting as it goes. I can’t point out specific subjects that will be posted, but you’ll get what I mean (eventually).

It’s the Christmas season, and my mother is rolling small portions of cookie dough to make Reese cupcakes. I think we’re ordering pizza tonight and the flavor of marinara sauce sounds tasty. It’s time for me to exit, but I’ll will fix up this site as I go.

See you next week,

Molly