The following story diagram—or Storygram—annotates an award-winning story to shed light on what makes some of the best science writing so outstanding. The Storygram series is a joint project of The Open Notebook and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. It is supported in part by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. This Storygram is co-published at the CASW Showcase.
Some of the best story ideas originate from an offhand remark. That was the case for Sarah Wild, a South African freelance journalist, during a visit to the University of Pretoria. Just as Wild was wrapping up a conversation with a forensic anthropologist, the researcher mentioned that she kept unidentified human bones in her cabinet. That nugget of information launched a year-long investigation into unnatural deaths; anonymous bodies; and the scientific, cultural, and logistical barriers to identifying those bodies.
For journalists, complex stories such as this one can easily get away from us. The layers expand and multiply, and we start planning an ever-more-ambitious narrative to accommodate it all. If we just keep reporting, we tell ourselves, we might be able to resolve a complicated problem, fix a broken system, or illuminate something grand about the human condition. But as the number of angles (and the word count) balloons, clarity often suffers.
In her award-winning Mail & Guardian story “Bones Specialists Try to Prise Secrets from the Veld Bodies,” Wild avoided that trap by creating a tightly focused structure and sticking to it. She let go of many threads she amassed during the reporting process. She kept out editorial language and meticulously curated her expository passages so that only critical narration remained. After receiving a grant—a tool Wild says was necessary to do the reporting and writing on the level this story required—she organized the piece into a three-part newspaper series.
The first part introduces the problem: 1 in 10 bodies that arrive at a network of mortuaries is unidentified. The second part—and the focus of this Storygram—goes deep into the challenges of identifying “veld bodies,” or anonymous bodies that have been found in the open grasslands of South Africa. Those challenges include decomposition and the limitations of forensic science. But they also include the logistical constraints, human errors, and lack of support that plague a broken network of law enforcement, mortuaries, and government identification systems. The third part of Wild’s series is about the burial process, and what happens when families come looking for their loved ones months or years later.
Despite the emotionally charged nature of this subject, Wild’s tone is strictly neutral. In fact, she doesn’t show up in the first person in this story at all, or overtly make her presence known. She never tells us how to digest what we’ve learned. She doesn’t get crafty when dealing with complex information. Each sentence is deliberate in moving the story forward; there’s zero fluff. The result looks simple, but getting there is anything but. This is an impressive example of what can happen when writers check our egos to prioritize logic and accessibility.
“Bones Specialists Try to Prise Secrets from the Veld Bodies”
By Sarah Wild, Mail & Guardian
Published January 20, 2017
(Reprinted with permission)
If it wasn’t for the smell, no one would know there was a body there. The savannah grass reaches above the waists of passers-by sweating under the Gauteng summer sun.This particular description of the veld helps readers understand why these bodies go unnoticed; it isn’t just scene-setting for the sake of showing readers that a reporter was there.
If the body has been there for a while, the soft tissue of the face will have decomposed. There is often no identification on the body – no ID, no cellphone, no wallet – and the clothes have been shredded into faded, unrecognisable rags by the elements.
There is no data on how many of Gauteng’s 15 000 to 16 500 annual unnatural deaths are found in this way but the occurrence is common enough for these bodies to have their own moniker among the officials who dread having to deal with them: veld bodies.This lede works well for a few reasons: 1) the language is spare but evocative, 2) it sets a tone that this won’t be about a single missing person but about a larger problem of unidentified bodies, and 3) it smoothly incorporates important data and details into the narrative itself.
Identifying them is important. A perpetrator of unnatural death could be at large. Families need to know what happened to loved ones. But it is also a near-impossible task.This nut graf is almost aggressively to the point. This kind of “radical clarity” ensures the reader knows what’s at stake and why they are reading this story.
To confirm someone’s identity so that it will stand up to the scrutiny of the justice system, the police need either fingerprints, a dental match or DNA. Popular television series such as NCIS and Bones show investigators using science to piece together someone’s identity from the flimsiest of evidence. Wild told me that detective shows like these are very popular in South Africa. She’s wisely using elements from popular culture to connect readers to the topic at hand. But real life is not so simple and all too many of Gauteng’s veld bodies remain anonymous.
DNA breaks down when exposed to sunlight or water. Even if it is there, the police need a direct relative to compare it with. Fingerprints disappear along with a person’s soft tissue and the majority of people on the African continent do not have dental records.Right away, a reader learns why identification is more difficult than it is on TV shows. Wild provides just enough of the science without getting into the weeds.
So the search for identity must begin elsewhere. But where do you start when you can’t even tell whether the body is that of a male or female?
Such a veld body could end up on the stainless steel gurney of Professor Maryna Steyn, a forensic anthropologist and head of anatomical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.Really smooth transition from the nut graf to the first character. Too often, the introduction of the first source comes as a clunky quote. I think this happens because we’re attempting (with good intentions!) to use a source to make a profound statement, neatly synthesize the lead scene, or even establish why that source is vital to the story. But doing so can be jarring for the reader. Instead, Wild’s method maintains the narrative flow while subtly pivoting to Steyn and her work. Here’s a crafting metaphor: Think of it as weaving a new piece of yarn into an existing one instead of gluing the ends of each piece together.
In her laboratory in the bowelsI like the parallelism of the body imagery of the university’s health sciences building, collections of bones lie spread on counters, fanning out in two-dimensional skeletons.Nice language. Illustrative without being overdone. “If there’s a full body, full tissue, the forensic pathologist can handle it and do an autopsy,” she says.Per my note in the previous graf, see how this quote—which is the first time we hear Steyn’s voice—is purposeful in context? Wild is choosing quotes that she can integrate into the fabric of the story rather than building a story around her favorite soundbites. I’m not saying you should totally ignore your plum quotes; just don’t fixate on them. Kill your darlings, right?
A forensic pathologist, employed by the department of health in one of the country’s medico-legal laboratories, performs an autopsy to determine the person’s cause of death.
This can be difficult when a corpse is fully, or even partially, decomposed. A forensic anthropologist starts where the forensic pathologist leaves off and tries to establish from their bones a person’s identity and what happened to them.
“Once it’s skeletonised and decomposed and full of maggots and bits of flesh, it needs to be cleaned, and then from a skeleton we analyse the age, sex, ancestry, trauma,” Steyn says.This quote is a good example of how nouns can make more of an impact than adjectives.
For police even to begin the process of identifying a person, they need to know a body’s sex, age and race.
This is more difficult than it sounds.
Sex is fairly easy in adults because women’s child-bearing pelvises give them away. In children, there is little sex differentiation. It is easier, though, to determine children’s ages from their bones than from those of adults. Because of their rapid skeletal growth in childhood, forensic anthropologists can tell you a child’s age to within a year.
This is useful because South Africa’s forensic anthropologists say they are receiving more children’s bodies than before.This is a deceptively hard-working line. The detail itself serves as an anecdote that connects the lab work to the world beyond the lab, and it also introduces the idea that something must be going wrong to cause an increase in unidentified children’s bodies, which engages the reader. But Wild doesn’t digress by explaining why this might be occurring, and she doesn’t attach any emotion to it. She keeps the story moving.
But adults’ skeletons don’t really change until they are in their autumn years, so an age estimate can span decades.
Race is even trickier. “History is not on our side for this one,” says Professor Ericka L’Abbé, at the University of Pretoria’s Forensic Anthropology Research Centre.Good idea to let an expert source speak to this issue up front. I also like how Wild used the quote as a teaser. She could have had the source say more here, but she wisely spaced out L’Abbé’s thoughts among additional context.
In the past, scientists looked at the skeleton, particularly the skull, to confirm ideas of racial superiority. Although this racist science has been debunked, there is a stigma attached to acknowledging the biological differences between races.Wild meticulously avoids editorializing here. She trusts the power of clearly laid-out facts.
“But there are differences between races and, while they have no social [value] attachment, what we are socially and how we identify ourselves socially is important for our identification. Our culture has affected our biology in that we are segregated socially, culturally, from various groups,” L’Abbé says.
“You can, with a certain probability, say this unknown person, based on these biological characteristics, will more likely align with this group than these others.”
L’Abbé has spearheaded a drive to create a database of “biological distance” for South Africans.Wild gives a lot of thought to the curation of quotes and attributions and how they fit within the flow of the narrative. She first introduced L’Abbé more broadly, as a professor of forensic anthropology. Now we learn what she’s researching and how it could help improve bone identification. Wild practices patience: She lets details about her sources unfold slowly, revealing new information only when it supports the surrounding text. Biological distance is the physical similarity or difference between groups of people who have been separated by time or geography. She says there is biological distance between the skeleton of a white and a black South African, but scientists cannot currently distinguish between different black groups.It’s a smart idea to follow the broad definition of “biological distance” with a specific example of how it’s being utilized.
South Africa is a complex continuum of race and culture. Race is not a discrete factor, with people fitting into neat boxes. “It all comes down to a game of statistics,” L’Abbé says with a sigh.Another strong example of how the quote is part of the narrative flow instead of feeling distinct from it. Wild doesn’t just drop in quotes—she deploys them with purpose. “Currently, we can tell if someone is South African but we can’t really tell if they are not South African.”
This is a problem, considering the assumption that the vast majority of Gauteng’s unidentified dead are foreigners.Here Wild introduces yet another complication of this systemic problem. But instead of getting stuck in the weeds, she uses it as a transition to keep the story flowing from race to nationality (and how those factor into a web of identity).
L’Abbé has been trying to get measurements for Shona, Ndebele and other Zimbabwean groups but she has had little success.
“We have gone to various public hospitals in the country trying to access CT scan data that could assist with this but we have run into problems: while we are asked on every single form in South Africa about our self-identified race, we are not asked it in the hospital setting. It is the only place in which we are not asked it,” she says.You can hear the source’s exasperation. Allowing the source’s frustrations to peek through is more powerful—and less distracting—than if that sentiment came from the narrator.
Additionally, people may not admit to being from another country for fear of being discriminated against.
Complicating the matter further, there is also more to race than biological distance. How a person identifies is not necessarily the same as their physical race. Someone’s bones may show that they have strong African heritage, for example, but they identify as coloured.
Both Steyn and L’Abbé are quick to point out that this form of identification – known as presumptive identification – has its limits. “It doesn’t provide [a definitive] identification, but we’re narrowing down the possible number of people X can be, so rather than being 5 000 people, it might be 500 people,” L’Abbé says.
More research could help to narrow down this number but no one is throwing money at forensic science.In only about 100 words, Wild manages a rollercoaster ride: We hear about the limitations of “presumptive identification,” then she offers a potential solution from science, but then the funding problem comes in. Because she sticks to the facts without assigning moral value to them, there’s no risk of giving the reader whiplash.
“Nobody is interested in the dead,” says Steyn. “Who will be interested to sponsor any research or a project or a lab that is helping to identify the unidentified?
“It’s not something commercial that’s going to bring in any money or that you can advertise as good work that you have done.”
But, even if it was available, all the data in the world would not in itself fix a system with fundamental problems.Smooth transition from the limitations of the forensic science to the logistical problems.
The Hillbrow medico-legal facility in Johannesburg, with its annual intake of about 3 000 bodies, records its cases by hand in a large ledger. Often the writing is illegible and there’s no validation of what the person on duty writes.
Crucial information, such as the police officer’s station phone number and the crime administration system number – the unique number identifying the case – are habituallyThis is a strong and specific word choice. She could have used something like “frequently” or “regularly” but instead used a less passive word that emphasizes human error. left blank.
If you’re enjoying this Storygram, also check out two resources that partly inspired this project: the Nieman Storyboard‘s Annotation Tuesday! series and Holly Stocking’s The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology.
Aside from these obvious possibilities for human error, there are more subtle opportunities for mistakes. An official may say that the man who died is black, of medium build, between the ages of 30 and 35. But there is no agreed definition of what medium build is, what a 30-year-old looks like and even the definition of black. “It’s your perception. It’s not objective; it’s subjective,” says Candice Hansmeyer, a special forensic pathologist at the Hillbrow facility.
On the other side is the family searching for a missing person – families who are also prone to human error.
“We have got family members who last saw their loved one years ago and now they have got to try remember, ‘he’s about so tall’, ‘this is what he looks like, she looks like’,” Hansmeyer says. “Hairstyles have changed, skin colours change depending on nutrition, sun exposure.”
That said, a more scientific approach would improve identification, as would a computerised system.Here we’re getting to the bottom of why this is a “broken system” problem, and not just a “we need better forensic science” problem. Even though this is a science story, Wild does not gloss over the practicalities of how scientific tools are implemented. It might also provide an idea of the scale of the problem. If you want to know how many unidentified bodies moved through the Hillbrow facility’s yellow walls, you have to check manually.This lands like a zinger. Throughout this story, Wild builds suspense over a paragraph (or three), saving the most powerful piece of information for last (instead of leading with it).
“They must get all the dockets, they must compare all the dates. It’s tedious, it’s laborious,” says Mothobi Mokheti, who is in charge of information communication technology for the forensic pathology service.I’d like to emphasize again how smoothly Wild introduces her sources. Attributions can be clunky and distracting; Wild avoids that by letting the quote follow directly behind the text to maintain logical flow. Then she gives the name, followed by an accessible description of what that person does—not necessarily a formal title. It reads more naturally that way.
This team of oneA cheeky, subtle way of implying that IT is woefully understaffed. is developing and piloting a mortuary management system for the South Gauteng forensic pathology service, which includes eight facilities.
The pilot scheme involves working with forensic officers and managers in the Hillbrow laboratory to capture bodies’ data and develop the system to address forensic officials’ needs.
“The second phase is to put the missing persons section on the system,” he says.
Currently, mortuaries – even ones in the same administrative cluster – do not share easily accessible databases. The police have their own database, but that can only be used by members of the service.
“We absolutely need a database and we need to have someone who works on it with a whole lot of dedication,” says Steyn, who has worked in South African forensics for more than two decades.
“If we could put all the data together for all the morgues, and all the case studies we do [at universities], and at least have that available and try and match the missing persons against that list, I think it would be a great contribution. Just by doing a few basic things right, we’ll be able to identify quite a few people … [But] all of these case reports that we write, they are of no use unless there is someone to follow it up.”As we approach the end of the story, this quote basically sums up the ultimate problem: We already have some promising science and data, but don’t have the money and human support and basic technology that allow for it to be useful to us. I like that Wild did this via a quote instead of her own exposition. It’s also nice to come back to the first character we met in this story.
For the very difficult cases, such as decomposed veld bodies, academics and officials are pinning their hopes on advances in science. In the past few decades, there have been remarkable improvements in identification standards, software and tools, and they hope this will continue.After taking us through the various facets of the broken system, readers might feel pretty down on possible solutions. So Wild ends on a hopeful note while focusing on the promise of scientific advancement.
“I hope that, in 10 years’ time, how we are looking at ancestry will look like old technology,” L’Abbé says. “I hope the next generation of researchers will take it so much further than we are able to do, and that in time we will improve identification.
“Until then, I will store [the bones of my unclaimed and unidentified cases] in the cupboard. Until someone comes for them.”This is a lovely kicker because it’s personal and full of humanity. We see a bit of the scientist’s interiority: This is what motivates her work even though it’s often frustrating.
This is the second story in a three-part series made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism.
(Editors’ note: See CASW Showcase’s earlier interview with Sarah Wild here. Jen Schwartz interviews her about this story below.)
A Conversation with Sarah Wild
Jen Schwartz: Your reporting background is quite broad. What drew you to this story in the first place?
Sarah Wild: Being a science journalist in South Africa means that you don’t really specialize. While I’ve got a background in astronomy, for the most part the stories I write are about what interest me. Also, press releases aren’t really where we find stories in South Africa. So in conjunction with going through life being curious, I started doing this thing I call “research tours,” where I go to a university communications office and say, “OK, you can have a week of my time, show me what you have.” You don’t find ideas sitting at home.
I was at the University of Pretoria, and Ericka L’Abbé, a forensic anthropologist quoted in the story, was one of the people I was going to meet. The reason I went there is because she is working on a database on biological distance in the bones—which is how your bones differ from other people, and how that’s related to race. I didn’t have a specific agenda but we got chatting and she mentioned in quite an offhand fashion about these collections of bones that she’s kept from cases she’s been given by the police. And these bones were unidentified, and everyone knew about it. Well I didn’t know about it! I was really shocked that their loved ones didn’t know they were in a box in a university. And she said, “Yeah, just phone the police and ask them.”
JS: But I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as just calling the police.
SW: No. The other part of what made me want to do this story is that I have a particular bugbear when government spokespeople who are paid with taxpayer money don’t do their job, such as responding to my emails as a journalist. I’m used to most people wanting to talk to me; when they didn’t in this case, that spurred on my interest as well. We do have a thing called the Promotion of Access to Information Act, but you have to know exactly what document you’re looking for, and I didn’t know. So I kept at it: I set up calendar reminders to email the officials every week or every two weeks. That continued for about eight months to a year. And I think the only reason they did respond is that one of the university researchers kind of pointed out to them that I was unlikely to stop trying.
On top of that, I couldn’t sell this story. No [media outlet] was interesting in paying for the kind of legwork it required, or willing to give it the space it needed. The only reason this story was possible was because of a journalism grant.
JS: Given the ambivalence you encountered and how difficult it was to get answers and support, what kept you on it?
SW: People die all the time and it’s tragic and life’s full of things going wrong. But there’s something so gut-wrenching about families just not knowing where a loved one went. It’s suspected that many [of the unidentified bodies] who die are foreigners. So people living in another country suddenly stop hearing from their brother or lover or son, and they spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened and if that person is going to come home to them. I couldn’t shake that feeling.
JS: The tone of the story, though, is not sentimental. Journalists sometimes veer into emotional territory when covering a topic like this, but that style of writing is hard to pull off, among other issues. You stuck to laying out the facts in a linear way instead of, say, following one family’s story by jumping back and forth in time. Why choose this structure?
SW: Two things: You’re right that it’s very difficult to do that emotional writing well. I also shy away from trying to manipulate my reader. When I’m reading those heavily emotional narratives, I find myself feeling manipulated, and I don’t like that.
Part of the reason I have an aversion to using emotional pull in my own work is that I’m very interested in systems stories. There’s a lot less space these days for stories about how systems are broken. And when they are done, [journalists] tend to do it through an individual and trace their story through the system. But no individual’s experience is the same, and that’s particularly true in this case when someone goes missing. I wanted to show that a system was broken, as opposed to an individual life.
JS: Do you feel like readers today are impatient with digesting nuance?
SW: There’s this extreme desire for simplicity. The “detective mystery” style of story we see falls into that. It’s, this happens because of that, and there’s this direct causal line. But the stories that are difficult to tell, like this one, are stories of complexity. And that’s what systems stories are. It’s never cut and dried.
JS: Your writing shows great restraint. For example, you drop this line about how more kids’ bodies are showing up, using it as a practical follow-up to the fact that forensic scientists can age younger bones more easily than older bones. It’s wholly depersonalized. A reader might wonder, “Wait, what is causing a rise in unidentified dead children?” But you didn’t go there. Was that tight focus intentional?
SW: Telling a story like this, I felt like I needed to keep my elbows in, as if navigating through a crowd. There are so many ways to get caught or stuck or hung up. When you bring in children, it would have made it instantly more emotional. It would have focused people’s attention on children rather than on the system. I would have had to go into what about South African society is causing that. There are reasons, but it’s a different series of stories on its own about child abuse and children going missing. It’s difficult to say this, but I didn’t want to go down that path because it would have veered the story away from all of the unidentified dead.
I also didn’t want to insert myself in the story. I was trying to keep it short and tight, and if at any point I’d gone into a digression about how I thought about this, I would have lost my reader. To take a moment out of your narrative to explain what your reader should be feeling is assuming you know what they are feeling. I don’t know if my reader is sad or angry or ruefully resigned.
But in distancing myself so as not to manipulate the narrative, it created another issue. I don’t in any way regret that I did this story, but it was very emotionally difficult. Being in the mortuary and watching those autopsies and watching the pauper’s burials with the baby’s coffins … Eish, to use a South African word. It was hard core. As journalists, we need to talk more about what these types of stories do to us and our mental health. And the kind of care we need to give to ourselves during and afterward.
JS: You mention the history of problematic race science in this story. You didn’t linger on it, but you didn’t shy away from it either. How did you embrace complexity without fixating on it?
SW: South Africa is incredibly complex in terms of race and there is a great awareness. But the interesting thing in reporting on it is that you don’t mention someone’s race unless it has direct bearing on the story. As a white South African, I try to be aware of the context and biases I’m bringing to my reporting, and trying to constantly check that. I just completed my master’s thesis and my topic of interest is race science. So I’m interested in these assumptions and value judgements that we make based on race that don’t have a basis in reality.
In South Africa, if you’re going to write about risk and disease and genetic predisposition to disease or pharmacogenetics—which I do—you’re doing harm if you don’t acknowledge that there are differences between races. You’re not creating a value judgment or a hierarchy, but it’s realizing if you’re an Indian man in South Africa, you have a higher risk of diabetes. That’s information that it’s my job to impart.
JS: In exploring some of the systemic issues, you focused on logistical problems and human error. How did you decide how deep to get into the forensic science itself?
SW: I specifically wrote to my audience. I’ve worked at the Mail and Guardian, so I know that the readers don’t like their science too heavy. You’d write a very different story if it were for a science publication, but I didn’t want this to be for a niche audience. I think people are interested in science, but they need it in a way that is relevant and accessible to them. We watch a lot of detective shows here! It brings a hectic topic home to people and opens the door to the science behind it. Because the science also is an issue—that there’s this idea of science being able to fix everything, and that it isn’t a complex, value-laden and sometimes flawed system that can fix the world without people.
JS: When we’re covering these complex systems as journalists, deciding on an angle (and sticking to it!) can be overwhelming. There’s often an instinct to pursue an ambitious narrative. How do you choose a path forward when there’s so much to consider?
SW: You’ll paralyze yourself if you want to write a magnum opus on an issue that’s so complex that no one can solve the problem. You’ll feel overwhelmed and end up doing nothing, or not doing your best work. I’ve done the thing where I saved up my reporting to write the big piece. Then I finished and I was never satisfied with it because of all the things I didn’t do.
With this [unidentified bones] story, I first wrote a few straight-up-and-down news stories around forensics and building forensic capacity in Africa. I picked away at it over a couple of months. I have another story brewing that I’ve been interested in for a number of years. It happens gradually. I’m hyperaware of the topic, so when I see stories that fit into it, I go and report them, doing a basic news story or a constrained feature. And in taking notes and business cards and doing it piece by piece, I’m sitting and thinking about the story coming together. It may not happen for another year or two, and I have no idea how it will be funded. But I’m taking a deep breath, knowing that I’ll get there eventually.
Sarah Wild is an award-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics, and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn’t work, so she read for an MSc in bioethics and health law (Wits University), with a special focus on race science and the philosophy of science. She has been a science editor at both Business Day and the Mail & Guardian. Wild has written about astronomy, particle physics, and everything in between, and she’s published two books about science in South Africa: Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa’s Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars and Innovation: Shaping South Africa through Science. Her series of stories about unidentified bodies in South Africa won the 2017 AAAS/Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award in the Small Newspaper category. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahemilywild.
Jen Schwartz is a senior editor of features at Scientific American who specializes in the intersection of science and society. She has worked as an editor or reporter at Popular Science, GQ, New York, Outside, Self, and The Boston Globe, where she wrote and produced stories across a wide range of topics including technology, health, environment, climate, economics, politics, culture, and social sciences. She is a veteran researcher skilled in fact-checking and investigative reporting. She holds a B.S. in journalism with a minor in environmental science from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @jenlschwartz.