Daniel Zwerdling: The greatest question in journalism

01/04/09 at 12:26 pm

In 2006, before the mainstream press began reporting on the neglect of soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and a year before the Washington Post exposed the horrible conditions of soldiers at Walter Reed, National Public Radio’s ace investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling was on to the story.

Following a tip from a source, he went to Fort Carson, Colorado and began interviewing war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and coming back with PTSD and other serious mental health problems. Zwerdling found that these soldiers were being punished and mistreated by their officers; some of them were even kicked out of the Army because of their illness. His reporting prompted the U.S. Congress,  the Pentagon and the Government Accountability Office to  launch separate investigations. At the same time, commanders at the army base acknowledged their lapses and promised to treat emotionally wounded soldiers better.

On March 26, in a talk hosted by the Stabile Center and the Columbia chapter of SPJ,  Zwerdling  walked  students through his investigation from the time he first heard about the soldiers, to how he got them to open up and how he corroborated their stories of abuse and maltreatment. He also recounted how he dealt with the Army’s top brass. He paused at every key decision point during his reporting, giving students insights into how he strategized his approaches to reluctant sources and how he tried to get into the minds of his interviewees in order to convince them to talk.

Zwerdling said  he got “compelling details” by getting sources to go back in time, sometimes with the aid of maps, and to reconstruct events as they happened.  It’s almost like hypnosis, he said, asking people to dig deep into their memory of what happened — the time, the place, the weather — so that the incident comes back to them. “Make me a movie,” Zwerdling said he told them. And as their story unfolded, he would prompt, “And then what happened?” That, he said, can be the greatest question in journalism.

Listen to Zwerdling’s talk here.

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