The Story I Never Wrote


Syrian tower

Last year, I abandoned a story. It happens, journalists don’t write every story they think they might. But this one I still think about.

It started innocuously enough. A paper caught my eye about looting and archaeology. The premise was somewhat counterintuitive: the author argued that in places where the economic situation was particularly dire, looters were looting because they had no other way to make money. I started reading other papers on looting and ethics. His cut against a lot of the arguments, and it appealed to my upper middle class liberal sensibilities. How dare we, in the West, sip our Starbucks and pass judgement on what people should and should not do with their own heritage, when they have nothing else to live on? 

I talked to the author of the paper over Skype chat. He was nice and clear and convincing. It was a good conversation. Everything was going well.

Then I emailed some outside sources, as one does. And this was where things started to fall apart.

In talking to out side experts I called up a woman named Dr. Christiana Panella. She was an expert, with lots of papers in the field. And she laughed at me. Not really at me, I guess, but at this whole story, at this man I had interviewed, and at this whole idea.

None of these people who wrote about the ethics of looting had ever actually done research on the ground, she said. It was way more complicated than “starving people sell artifacts to survive.” There are tiers and gangs and a complex economy that surrounds the trade of these antiquities. Some people are poor and sell them for money, but others aren’t, they just sell them for money. It’s complicated, and there’s no way to really write a paper about what drives people to loot, and whether those factors are or aren’t ethical, without going and talking to those people.

“You have a lot of very well known people, researchers who are sort of the symbol of looting studies, but in reality they don’t know local networks of looting,” she told me. These academics assume farmers in these countries are poor, but they aren’t, she says. It’s all far more complicated than that. She sighs. “I start to be a little tired of all this.”

I felt embarrassed. I had come to her with a story that wasn’t well researched, that I didn’t really understand. I had been easily convinced by an argument because it appealed to me, not because I had any evidence to support it.

I wondered how many other stories I had written like that. How many stories do we all write that are like that? We follow a researcher that appeals to us down a road that makes sense to us. We don’t happen to call up the person who will laugh in our faces.

But I also felt thankful. She saved me from writing a story that would have been incomplete at best. I didn’t have the resources to go travel to any of the locations these looting papers talked about: Syria, Nigeria, Peru, Afghanistan. I didn’t have the expertise to gut check any of these claims.

I never wrote the story.

Dr. Panella emailed me a few months ago asking about the story, and I told her that she had convinced me not to write about it. She never replied.

I think of this piece often, as a caution to myself against being too swayed too early. And as a reminder to always look for the person who will laugh at your story.

Image is of Dura-Europos, a border city built above the Euphrates river, that was recently looted and then demolished during the Syrian Civil War. Photo by Arian Zwegers

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16 thoughts on “The Story I Never Wrote

  1. Economic pressures on freelancers make it hard to walk away from a story you’ve invested some time in, because you never get compensated for that. (It’s different for staff writers, who get a paycheck no matter what.) So good for you, Rose, for resisting the impulse to just go ahead with whatever you happened to have. And I applaud your advice to always look for the person who will laugh at (or at least contradict) your story — it’s an excellent reality check, and would make everyone a better reporter. But what if Dr. Panella was as wrong as the first author? What if the real story is somewhere in between, and wouldn’t come out without further digging? THAT is the possibility that keeps me up at night.

  2. Totally! It’s possible she was wrong! It’s probable that they were both wrong in some way. But it made me realize that without being able to actually go there I really couldn’t know who was closer to right.

  3. Just to play devil’s advocate, Rose, if the first author’s arguments about looting resonated with you, then chances are they did with others too. Personally, I would have loved to see you write it up with Dr. Panella’s scathing rebuke. Also, I think you, as a journalist, should NEVER feel embarrassed. Your job is to ask questions, not to know answers. I enjoyed reading this piece though, it’s very thoughtful.

  4. I thought about writing that piece, Geoff. But then I realized that I couldn’t really know who was right without traveling to some of the places they were talking about. And I didn’t have an assignment to do that. So it would have been “she says this” and “he says that” without any real resolution. And I don’t think it would have made me feel good, or helped anybody understand the issue better.

  5. Perhaps the problem was that you accepted Dr. Panella’s expertise without asking the possibly more pertinent question: What differentiates the “expert” from the Royal Museum of Africa (who is deriving a living by taking historical items from a site) from a looter (who is deriving a living by taking historical items from a site)? Perhaps it is just that there is more money and prestige in working for the museum. Wouldn’t that be an interesting direction to take your article.

  6. Perhaps! As I said in other comments, she could have been wrong too! The reason I didn’t write the story is because without traveling and doing on-the-ground research how would I know? I don’t know that I could be confident either way.

  7. The problem is that for a great deal of research, particularly in the social sciences, there is a substantial number of well-informed people who believe that any given theory is mostly garbage, and that the claimed empirical tests of that theory are meaningless. However, these fields are big enough that the pro- and anti- camps rarely have to sort out their différences. Thus, multiple mutually contradictory things can be “true” simultaneously, in a way that is not possible in the natural sciences. The Ptolemy/Copernicus fight had to be settled before astronomy could move on.

  8. What hits me right between the eyes are the similarities between the stories about looting and the stories about wildlife poaching – the ragged peasant peddling artifacts or snaring game to feed his family versus the entrepreneurial sideline for a farmer or a mechanic from the nearest town – the enablers and middle men who are no more driven by poverty than a high street antiques dealer or an ecotourism company director, – and the end users for whom scarcity driven by illegality actually adds value. And both channels dripping with the grease of corruption and the gravy of self enrichment.

  9. No one else seems to have had a problem with how garbled paragraph 2 is? “the author argued that in places where the economic situation was particularly dire, and looters were looting” is missing a verb in the dependent clause, and “His cut against a lot of the arguments” would definitely be less garden-pathy if it said “his argument”.

  10. This is a tough one, but I sympathise with the researcher. I am also an academic researcher who has frequently dealt with journalists, some of whom are friends. I’m sorry to say it, but most of them approach a story with the bare minimum of research ahead of time (they and their editors, I might add). I was told by one that the topic she was looking into seemed like nothing more than internet click bait, so why bother. Had she done her homework, she would have known the topic was studied for many years and was widely published. But she’d done nothing more than a few clicks herself to come to her conclusion. I appreciate that journalists have short deadlines and I certainly do not expect them–or you–to dive in as deeply as a researcher (that’s their job, after all). But a bit more time investment would go along way toward more rewarding exchanges between you/other journalists and researchers. I’m sorry you had to give up the article, but you made the right decision.

  11. I find that the journalistic culture of the massive media in Mexico does not set itself to such high standards and such concerned professional reflection. I have asked various media what I feel are natural follow up questions when various relevant topics come to the public that I feel are presented ill researched and even less reflected upon, as if the deadly deadline permits inaccuracies, logical and systematic misses of information in the race to fill the printed papers and screens. I agree with those who say you ask your questions unknowing of the answers, but still, if they fall too short that the piece is tainted is better to walk away.
    However, there are many topics today that are far more complicated than what they seem in the papers. Luckily, there are other places to place them to offer a more thorough explanation of the subject. You finding this quality of this issue could bring attention to invested researchers who will in time may provide better pictures on the issues. So it is not all loss when our frontiers are made visible by humility and honesty. I thank you for that.

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