A magnitude 6.3 earthquake ripped through the heart of the central Italian mountain town of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people. To the horror of much of the scientific community, seven scientists and engineers were later charged with manslaughter, accused of misleading the public and creating a false sense of security after a series of small earthquakes had shaken residents’ nerves in the months and days before the big quake.
Writer David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired and Matter and the author, most recently, of The End of Money, spent six days in Italy following the initial guilty verdict. In his feature, “The Aftershocks,” which ran in Matter on August 24, 2014, he renders the victims’ families’ heartbreak, the science of risk communication, and the dangers of putting science on trial. (On November 10, 2014, an appeals court overturned the convictions of six of the seven men.) Here, Wolman tells Amanda Mascarelli the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did the story come about?
My initial idea for the story came from seeing what most people did when the charges were first announced—those 100-word news briefs in various publications. It was just one of those small things you see in passing that makes you stop and think. I had the initial, “Oh, that’s ridiculous” outrage that most people did when they first heard of the thing: that knee-jerk response of, “Galileo! This is awful.”
I thought, “This would be an incredible deep dive—obviously there’s so much more to this than just little 100-word news briefs.” Then I did what a lot of people in our field do [when science intersects with breaking news], which is assume that someone else is going to be on the monster feature about it.
In December 2012 (about seven weeks after the verdict), I sent my editor a link to a news piece about the conviction, with the following message: “Did you hear about this? Feels like this is ripe for a deep dive—so much so that I’d think someone was on it already. Yet I can’t find it.” He agreed and I immediately got going on a pitch for the meeting later that month.
Can you tell me about the pitch process?
The story was initially for Wired. My editor there, Mark Robinson, is second to none. But after a number of drafts, some alternate ideas from other editors, and a word count that went from X to X-minus-a-lot, it just wasn’t going to work. I don’t usually mind trimming, or even major pruning. At a certain point, though, it starts to feel a little like cutting off your own foot. Anyway, we had a mutual, professional, and respectful parting of the ways.
At about the same time, I was negotiating a contract to write a few stories for Matter. Word-count limitations don’t exist in cyberspace, which is nice. Longer stories aren’t necessarily better, obviously, but I felt like I had a second chance to explore some of the bigger ideas I had initially hoped to tackle. Thankfully, the Matter folks had heard of the earthquake trial and were interested in doing the story.
How did you start reporting the story?
It started with a conversation with one of the seven scientists. I just got in touch with him. And then I contacted a big geoscience guy in Southern California, Tom Jordan, whose name was coming up in a lot of short news items about the story. I talked with him about how to build my reporting plans and about what [was] being missed.
Also, early on I was corresponding with [Giampaolo] Giuliani, the self-described earthquake whisperer. Some media reports had suggested that he had predicted the earthquake. That is ridiculous, of course, but he was central to this story because the now-infamous meeting of the seven experts was convened primarily to correct misinformation that was infecting the community, courtesy of Giuliani. I made plans to spend time with him. I went into it with bias for sure, but I wanted to make sure I gave him a fair shake and every possible opportunity to explain to me what he was doing and convince me that the entire scientific community had it backwards.
I spent two nights at his house, listening to his whole thing, and spending time with his family. He was very kind and hospitable and trying hard—but also, as the story shows, full of it. I thought the time with Giuliani would distinguish my story from anything else you’d seen out there.
You include some heartbreaking details, such as the scene in which the journalist, Parisse, tells his children to go back to sleep after they’ve been woken by a tremor, and three hours later they perish in the quake. How did you connect with Parisse, and how did you obtain such intimate, vivid details about the tragedy that struck his family?
Giuliani introduced me to Parisse. That was certainly one of the top five hardest interviews I’ve ever done, as far as anguish is concerned. Parisse didn’t necessarily believe in Giuliani’s home-cooked silliness about predictions. But Giuliani wanted me to meet levelheaded local people who believed the scientists were culpable.
One way I extract the details is to always keep the word scenes in the forefront of my mind when I’m reporting. So you’re just asking people for those cinematic details. If a source serves one up, you stop and say, “OK, that’s what it looked like. What about the smell? Who else was there?” You try and build the scene up from just two sentences worth of detail to four sentences worth of detail in your notebook at least, even if you’re going to jettison some of that material later. And then when you spend enough time going back and forth with all of these people, you just end up getting it. It’s just that over-report, over-report, over-report practice.
Did you struggle with retaining a sense of balance or getting too invested in one side or the other?
I absolutely did and still do sympathize with the victims in the community. With Parisse telling his kids to go back to bed—you just couldn’t write something sadder if you tried. But there’s just such a huge distance to travel from that sentiment all the way to the idea that these scientists should be convicted of manslaughter. To see the charges and conviction and initial sentence as incorrect does not have to exist in your mind and heart to the exclusion of sympathy for what these people went through. It is galactically, profoundly, divinely unfair what happened to them.
If you read a 100-word news item about this story, you’re like “Oh, crazy Italian justice system, example number 97.” That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is how we all might have these cognitive blind spots, more than we might like to admit. And to try to put yourself in Parisse’s shoes. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do with these kinds of stories—to get down to that level of human connection, and not just showcasing some ridiculous behavior?
Can you walk me through the goals that you had in mind as you wrote?
I wanted readers to see this as a tragedy in triplicate—the anguish of the community, of course, but also what the scientists went through, and the affront to reason itself. But I also needed to steer clear of op-ed-ish whining. On that point, I credit my editor at Wired. It was his idea to explore the question of whether there are preprogrammed aspects of cognition that might make all of us susceptible to the kind of thinking that led so many people in L’Aquila and the judge to conclude that the seven men were somehow culpable.
Another was to detail just how much damage can be inflicted by the noxious ideas of a single charlatan. Finally, I was obsessed with this one line from Parisse. He said that as a journalist he could write more articles, but their impact would be minimal and ephemeral [and that], “With the justice system, you have a chance for a more lasting truth.” At the risk of sounding highfalutin, I wanted to use this story to show that writing—deeply reported and sympathetic writing—could do exactly what Parisse says it can’t. I didn’t and don’t have delusions about ever establishing the truth. But maybe I could glimpse something close to it.
What was your process for outlining the story and figuring out how to structure it?
I made an outline and went over it with my editor. The final version barely resembles that initial sketch, but outlining was still useful. It helped me not only organize the material, but also determine how best to relay information to readers who—goddamn, is this easy to forget—come to the story with exactly zero background knowledge about the events and issues at hand. Outlining helped me sort out the cast of characters. There are a lot of people involved in this tragedy, all with very compelling stories. I had to be selective, though, so as not to get lost in The Swamp of Too Many Names. It also helped me zero in on the scenes to use and the scenes to ditch.
One of the many structural challenges was deciding how much of a summary of events (if any)—including the trial and conviction—to deliver at the top of the piece before rewinding for the tick-tock and later analysis. In the end, we opted for a slow unspooling. I can’t remember precisely why; [I think] once we saw it this way we liked it, whereas short summaries up top read so breathless and hurried. It was also difficult to figure out where to locate the detailed explanation of Giuliani’s role in the drama. I think segregating him out was the right call.
But there were other tricky decisions as well. For example, some early drafts—and there were many!—opened with the Parisse family’s tragedy the night of the earthquake. I think it could have worked well opening with Parisse, maybe even better. But that kind of victim-centric lede is more familiar. Not necessarily formulaic, but familiar. We wanted readers to see events through the eyes of the scientists.
Another example: Where to place discussion about how we think about and communicate risk? I liked the idea of leading after a section break with the bit about the 1951 CIA report about whether the Soviets might invade Yugoslavia. I could imagine myself reading that in a story about a 2009 earthquake in Italy and thinking, Huh? How could this possibly connect? OK, I’ll read some more to find out. This was obviously a strategy for drawing readers into the discussion, and I’m pleased with how it plays.
Were there any issues with secrecy, given that the case was being appealed? Did the prosecutor, Picuti, talk to you?
I was sensitive to [possible secrecy and off-the-record issues] during the interviews. But there were no instances in which people said that their lawyers advised them not to speak with me. De Bernardinis (the one of the seven who was not acquitted) didn’t talk to me, probably on the advice of his lawyer, but he’s the only one.
Did you have to sift through gobs of legal documents?
In the Italian court, the judge’s explanation of the verdict is called the “motivations.” It was 900 pages. I had incredible help from my translator and fixer, and we skimmed our way through it. Tons of it was redundant but we did translate a lot of it.
Having it translated was valuable. For instance, time and time again, the prosecutor and everyone else kept saying, “This isn’t science on trial. We know you can’t predict earthquakes.” The great thing about the verdict document is that you can see exactly where they are putting science on trial. That was important to me.
In November of this year, an appeals court overturned the manslaughter conviction of all but one of the scientists. How do you feel about the outcome?
I was delighted. After the ruling, [Giulio] Selvaggi [one of the seven men initially convicted] tagged me in a tweet with a picture of a clock. When he and the other men were first charged, Selvaggi removed the two wall clocks in his office, placed them on a bookshelf, and set them to 3:32 a.m. This was the time when the earthquake struck L’Aquila and, as Selvaggi saw it, the time when reality as he knew it suddenly ceased. Now he has restarted those clocks.
I don’t know the ins and outs of the Italian justice system well enough to opine about De Bernardinis’s sentence. But because he was part of the Civil Protection Department, not a scientific advisor to it, coupled with his baldly incorrect statement to a television reporter, his culpability is certainly plausible. He can have his two years. But the rest of them, I’m happy. It was a good week for reason.
Amanda Mascarelli is a science journalist and editor based in Denver, Colorado. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Nature, Audubon, Science News for Students, and numerous other publications. She is a contributor to Bracing for Impact, a collaborative environmental-reporting project. Follow her on Twitter at @A_Mascarelli.