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Why “getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care”

At the heart of the public’s trust in journalism is the relationship between each journalist and the people he or she writes about, a relationship that if given the care, respect and attention it deserves will translate into the finished product.

Pulitzer-winning journalist Katherine Boo’s storytelling skills are legendary, but she’s also a meticulous reporter who brings investigative rigor and a deep sense of accountability and humility to her work. “Wean yourself off of the tit of your own ego,”  she advised, at the Mayborn Conference for Storytellers — one of her 15 rules for narrative non-fiction. Of those she reports on, Boo said, “My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor. They’re enriching my life, and if I stop seeing that, it’s going to show in my work.”

Boo says she fact-checks ‘like a madwoman,’ because those who have less power already have to work harder than anyone else to be believed. If she gets a small detail wrong, she knows that will be used to discredit the story as a whole and harm her subjects. Boo has taken to videotaping many of her interviews to provide evidence in case the story comes under fire. When she can’t find confirmation for something, she makes that explicit. ‘Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,’ she said.