Artful Green Dot

A Case Study with Natalie Angier

Posted in Uncategorized by Audrey Tran on May 16, 2009

Last month, I got to hear about the nuts and bolts behind “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” a story from  Natalie Angier, who has been covering science for 30 years.  Angier has written for Discover Magazine, Savvy, The Atlantic, Parade, Fox Television Network, Reader’s Digest,  and the NY Times.  In 1991, she received a Pulitzer Prize after a year of writing articles about biology for the New York Times.   She has also written four books.  This particular piece was written for The New York Times Magazine in 2001.

Article Summary: Angier uses the language of a confession in the body of her article about atheism. However, unlike other confessions that people make for sins and wrongdoings, Angier’s piece doesn’t feel apologetic. “I was extremely pleased with the article,” said Angier, “because I expressed my feelings about being an atheist and I came up with lots of data to make various points, but I wasn’t trying to attack anything.”

The article also analyzed religious belief in America and the search for any evidence supporting a connection between religiosity and moral behavior.

Conception of the story:

Portrait of Natalie Angier, pen on paper, 4 x 4.5 inches

Portrait of Natalie Angier, pen on paper, 4 x 4.5 inches

In George Bush’s acceptance speech on inauguration day in 2001, he asked Americans to pray for “the leaders of both parties and their families too” as a way to cross partisan lines and unite the country after a fierce campaign year.  For Angier, the President’s “hands had reached out for any hands but [hers].”  She is a atheist.

Angier also found herself angry with Democrats, such as Al Gore.

“He was going so far as to cast doubt on evolution,” Angier said.

Angier used this frustration from Bush’s speech to pitch a story to her editor regarding an analysis of atheism in a country that seemed to continually call itself a religious nation.

The Reporting:

Angier started the piece by looking for every possible study or survey regarding religious views in the country.  She said the files of data and statistics she collected were so fat that “you wouldn’t believe how many polls there are in America. It’s something we’re obsessed with.”  Angier said her information came from research centers like Gallup, Harris Research Group, and Pew Research.

She also included her own poll in the article, which she emailed to her colleagues and acquaintances.  Angier openly admits that this information is very unscientific and biased but also explained that she wanted to get a  “reading of people [she] knew because the people [she] [knows] are in concordance with readers of the New York Times.”

Some of the information pulled from this poll surprised Angier.  “I was a little surprised by how many people I didn’t think believed in God said they do believe in God,” said Angier.  She also discovered that her older brother believes in God, which was a fact she placed in the story.

During Angier’s stages of research, she also contacted between two to three dozen experts on religious belief in the U.S.A.  When asked about how many sources she cited in the article, Angier said about a little more than half the people she talked to were quoted by name. This question also sparked a discussion of over reporting. She keeps this in mind while timing her stages of drafting and reporting and is conscious of falling into the likelihood of interviewing  people whose quotes don’t make it to the article.

“One of the things I do try to do, even if I’m not quoting directly, I try to throw their name in there somewhere, just as a sign of respect,” said Angier.

Angier also tends to start the writing process early just because, for her, good writing takes time. As for the amount of time she spends with each sources, Angier said she’ll keep an interviewee on the phone for 45 to 90 minutes.  For the one in-person interview used in this story, Angier spent several hours over a period of a day and a half talking to her source in Colorado Springs.

Overall, there were no problems with the sociologists consulted for this piece.  In General though, Angier said she has experienced patronizing conversations with scientists.  They sometimes ask for her background so that they “know how to direct the information.”

Drafting: Angier spent the same amount time on different parts of this article as most of her others.  On average, she devotes about 75% of her time writing the lead and nut graph; 15% on her kicker; and 10% on everything else.

“The lead counts a lot and that’s where you have the chance to have the most fun,” said Angier.  In addition, Angier said the nut is one of the hardest areas of a draft because it is like “a mini version of writing your whole story, but once you’ve done that your story does really fall from it, as one of my editors put it, like a weighted shade.”

In this story, Angier originally planned to use a lead different from the one published for her story.  She wanted to use her experience visiting a source in Colorado Springs as the scene for her lead, but instead found that an anecdote retelling George Bush’s speech actually worked better.

Like most articles, the title of her piece was determined by an editor, who might have been a copy editor. These people have the job of conjuring titles that not only are appropriate for the piece, but also fit the “deck” or layout of the magazine feature.  This can be problematic Angier said.

“Sometimes they’re pretty good, and sometimes people get angry at me because they think I wrote it,” she said.

Reader Reactions:

As Angier began describing the enormous response in letters that followed he piece, it seemed as if she was about to discuss how this piece generated tons of hate messages.  However readers, who were fellow atheists, had sent Angier just the opposite.  Nearly every letter inspired by the article started the same way—I’m sure this is the only good letter you’ll receive. Between emails, calls, and written notes, Angier directly received between 200 to 250 responses. The editors of the magazine also received quite a few messages and letters, but Angier doesn’t have those figures.

I realized then that we’re not so lonely after all,” Angier said.

She recalls only less than eight letters that could be considered negative.

Advice to Future Journalists: “The most important thing is that the story you’re reporting has to be the most interesting thing you’ve heard in your life and with that you’ll have a great career. And without it you won’t.”

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