by Adriana Janovich
The first paragraphs set the scene for what is to follow: a well-written, well-researched investigative narrative detailing the death of a Roman Catholic nun in the heart of a tribal region in eastern India.
Readers know the outcome of the story from the title of the series: “The Murder of Sister Valsa.”
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a five-part series documenting the brutal Nov. 15, 2011, killing. The piece by reporters Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett was published on the newspaper's India Real Time blog as well as india.wsj.com. According to the introduction, the project was based on dozens of interviews, witness statements, court documents and police files.
The story is compelling from the start. The first eight paragraphs — none longer than two sentences — recreate a dramatic scene using dialogue and description, framing an ominous atmosphere and foreshadowing the imminent murder.
The following chapters deftly introduce characters and conflict, providing depth and breadth without being verbose or using the old, top-down news story structure of the inverted pyramid. This is the kind of investigative journalism that makes sense of complex issues and histories, takes readers to the scene because the reporters themselves traveled there and — above all — tells a riveting story.
It's also the kind of journalism most journalists who covered this story didn't do. Most news outlets — including BBC, Time, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, India Today and State Observer, among other mainly Indian media — largely covered Sister's Valsa's murder as breaking or daily news. The Sunday Guardian did its own two-part series in January, two months after the murder. Sister Valsa isn't mentioned until the ninth paragraph.
Beckett and Pokharel do what most of reporters didn't: They went back and they went deeper. They provided context. They portrayed humanity.
New Delhi-based Pokharel and Beckett went beyond the daily deadlines to give an in-depth portrait of a person — and brutal tragedy — to tell a larger story, the story of modern India, a place where industrialization threatens traditional ways of life, women's and children's rights are often overshadowed and poverty and corruption compound problems that are already dire. This is a story not only of one nun's life and death, but also of friendship and faith, the old and the new, a village and a corporation, David and Goliath.
Most reports — particularly initial ones — barely began to scratch the surface of those elements. A few of the stories got Sister Valsa's age wrong. Most raised more questions than they answered. Because many were breaking and daily stories — likely written under the constraints of fast-approaching deadlines and pressure to get the scoop — they don't go deep. They offered superficial he-said, she-said accounts that lacked context and failed to paint a picture of Sister Valsa as a person.
They also highlighted the need for long-form investigative journalism, the kind of work that takes longer than a couple of hours or days and requires more than a few phone calls. It requires going beyond the news release or press conference, asking for records and knocking on doors. It requires leaving the office. It also requires support from editors, which it seems — since Beckett is his organization's South Asia bureau chief —this project enjoyed.
Beckett and Pokharel take a non-linear approach, explaining events of the last week of the nun's life, going back in time to shed light on where she comes from, exploring her work in the tribal areas of Jharkhand state, then coming back full circle to the night Sister Valsa was last seen alive. Their series — as well as follow-up online live chat and video — go beyond the breaking news briefs and daily headlines.
Pokharel and Beckett kept Sister Valsa's life and death from falling into the memory hole created by today's multi-platform, 24-hour news cycle, a place where all too many important stories unfortunately end up. Their work on this series can inform and enrich some of the basic strategies used in initial coverage of the story as well as other follow-up pieces.
Pokharel and Beckett let readers into Sister Valsa's world. They recognized her life and death — and the complexities surrounding both — were worth a closer look, which they provided in exemplary ways.
Adriana Janovich is an Annenberg Fellow in the specialized journalism program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She's interested in reporting stories about education, immigration, youth, religion, lifestyles and social issues.