Pamela Colloff Gives Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture In Journalism
Pamela Colloff is a journalist, not a scientist. But when the re-examination of a decades-old murder case involved bloodstain spatter analysis and Colloff had questions she couldn’t answer, she did what she had to do. She drove to a rural Oklahoma police department, signed up for a 40-hour course and became a bloodstain expert herself.
Dedication to detail is part of what makes her particular brand of journalism come alive, said Colloff, the keynote speaker in this year’s Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture in Journalism, held Nov. 13 in the Belo Center for New Media.
“I think I have to find those details before I feel ready to write because it's the details which really make something come alive and make people care about those characters,” Colloff said. “And it takes time and so much digging to find them.”
Colloff is currently a writer for ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Her credits include 20 years with Texas Monthly magazine, where she rose to prominence for her narrative storytelling with long-form features like “Innocence Lost,” a profile on Anthony Graves. Graves, a wrongly convicted inmate on death row, was released after 18 years in part because of Colloff’s article.
Colloff said she grew interested in writing articles on the criminal justice system because of a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann called “Trial by Fire,” which examined the case of a convicted and imprisoned arsonist and investigations into his innocence.
“Seeing that model, that you could have a story that in that case brought about change while also writing beautifully, as well as writing a story that might pull someone in who was not otherwise interested in the issue, was really interesting to me,” Colloff said. “That’s how I started looking for some of these cases.”
A graduate of Brown University who originally majored in English, Colloff said she was a “failed fiction writer” who was “terrible” at creative writing. Narrative journalism gave her a different opportunity to use her particular skills while making an impact.
“The fun of journalism is that you’re given the story, you’re given the characters, you’re given the plot,” Colloff said. “Your job is to figure out how to tell that story. When I wrote the story about Anthony Graves I finally thought, ‘What am I doing? I have this incredible platform at Texas Monthly–why am I just telling good yarns? I need to be doing more with these skills.’”
When she graduated from college in the early 1990s, Colloff met with a high-profile magazine editor who she said predicted the death of magazines in three years.
But even as newsrooms across the country cut staffs and continue to emphasize digital viewership, Colloff said she still believes in the power of a well-told story.
“I don't know what the future is. Who knows?” Colloff said. “Things are changing so fast. One of the things I find encouraging is that I can't remember a better time to be a nonfiction consumer---there's so much out there. I don't know the form it will take or the financial model, but I think our interest in and need for narrative has never been stronger.”