Every time we do a feature story, we take a leap of faith. It starts with just a topic. In Thailand, we decided to write a story about Muay Thai boxing. That’s all we really knew; the underworld of boxing was a total mystery to us. We chose the topic because it was sensational, and because an American audience would at least have heard the name “Muay Thai” before, and might be just curious enough to click through a headline.
The challenge is that we’ve only got one shot to get it right because of time constraints. It normally takes a week just to set up a story, arranging the right interviews and following the reference trail to find the people we want to write about. If we dive into an underworld and find out there’s nothing there, or there are no fresh angles to cover, we’re out of luck—we won’t have enough time to start over with a fresh topic. It’s in the nature of this trip that we have to keep moving.
We try and beat the odds by forming hypotheses about where the story might come from. We start running a NECER analyses before we’ve got any facts. That is — what is the News, Emotion, Conflict, Entertainment, and Relatability? We use that to start building the story in our heads. In Thailand we thought: They have kids boxing. That’s sensational… they must be getting used for something. What’s the betting like on the kids? Are the trainers raising the kids like they raise dogs for a pitbull fight, so they can bet on them? Yes — that’s got to be the story! The kids are raised for combat so they can be bet on. Let’s try and find the boy hero that’s being forced into the ring.
These hypotheses are good, because they give us a place to start. But they can also close our minds to other clues that might lead to the real story.
As we biked to Isaan, where we would do our investigations, we came up with a few unsupported predictions: that Muay thai boxing isn’t a way out of poverty, because there is too much other economic development in the region, that a fighter didn’t make money until he went pro, and that the trainers were inherently self-interested. We were wrong on all counts. The only thing we had right was that the story was about kid boxing.
The story ended up being about kids who box to support their families. They can make as much money in a night of fighting as their parents make in a season of rice farming. It was about the pressure a 9 year old boy faced as he was tasked with winning to bring his family a better life. The children loved the fraternity of the gym. The trainers were kind and charitable. They bet on the fighters like everyone else, but they trained them as a service to the community, and as a way for children to learn discipline and respect. Chan, the trainer we ended up reporting on, would take anyone who came and was willing to work. He sheltered and fed the fighters out of his own pocket.
It took us weeks to find that story. We spent days arguing about what kind of cash flow Chan was hiding, what his interests were, how we could pry them out. We poked hard enough we offended him and almost compromised the story.
As a reporter, it’s often a struggle to drop the juicy story in your head and tell it how it really is. One has to learn to drop hypotheses in a minute, redevelop them multiple times in the course of an interview. Mostly, we as writers have to learn to show the story, not tell it; it maintains the discipline of truth and helps eliminate what is imagined.
We have had to learn that a good story cannot be fabricated. It must be built with what is there. In some ways, it is similar to photography. A good photographer knows exactly how to adjust the settings on their camera and position themselves for good composition. They have the eye, and they can see the photo before they take it. But the photo has to be there before they can bring it out.
It is the same thing with good journalism. Our job is not to write stories. It is to find them, to develop an eye for them. Good technique and writing only serve to make the raw stuff of a good story more alive and accessible.