Reporting Advice from Annelise Jolley: Winner of the 2022 Dart Award

Dart Award winner, Annelise Jolley, offers advice on covering trauma.

Exemplary reporting on traumatic events requires skills that can take years of experience to master.

Annelise Jolley, winner of this year's Dart Award, displayed her expertise in "A Feast for Lost Souls", a piece she wrote for The Atavist which tells the story of a woman-led collective of trackers searching for the remains of their loved ones — The Disappeared of Mexico — and how these survivors live with loss through incredible action.

Here, Jolley provides insights for other journalists on the complexities of covering trauma. On December 1st, her work will be honored at the annual Dart Awards at Columbia University. The a ceremony is free and open to the public. Find out more details, and register for the event here.

How did you find this story? 

I first learned about the recipe book (Recetario para la Memoria) created by Las Rastreadoras in January of 2021. I had subscribed to an email newsletter that sent weekly round-ups of news from across Mexico, and the newsletter featured a short blurb about the recipe book. As a journalist who writes about food and Mexico I was immediately intrigued. Beyond the subject matter, I was moved by the way the women in the collective resisted violence and injustice with the tools they had: their kitchens, their family recipes, their love for those who were missing.

What was the process of pitching the story like?

I spent a month or two doing some pre-reporting work, which meant reading everything I could about Las Rastreadoras, researching the issue of forced disappearance in Sinaloa, and talking with Zahara over the phone. Because Zahara had documented the collective for years and helped produce the recipe book, she was a natural point of contact. I pitched this story exclusively to The Atavist. I’ve admired the magazine for years and I thought it would honor the depth and scope of the story. I knew it would be a long reporting and writing process, and hoped The Atavist would have the resources and editorial timeline to support it, given their cadence of featuring a single longform story each month. With the editorial team, we decided to create a multimedia project rather than simply a written article in order to include Zahara’s photo and video work.

What advice do you have for aspiring long-form narrative writers? 

Subscribe to newsletters about subjects that interest you (truly!). That’s a practical piece of advice that follows the larger idea of following your curiosity and obsessions. Longform stories can take ages to research, report, write, and publish, so it absolutely helps to be fully invested in the subject matter. 

I’m a self-taught journalist and have learned invaluable tips and insider tricks from listening to craft podcasts, particularly Longform. It’s a gold mine of education and has connected me to many of my favorite journalists. On that note, read writers you admire. I love reading literary journalism and follow a handful of writers closely; I read everything they write and try to study what’s working in their pieces and why. I recommend finding a few writers whose subject matter and voice you admire, and allowing their work to teach and inspire your own.

What was your process when collaborating with Zahara? 

I live in San Diego and Zahara lives in Mexico City, so we spent a lot of time talking on the phone and over Zoom prior to reporting the story together in person. I couldn’t have written this story without her. Because she’s spent years establishing genuine and respectful relationships with these women, she was able to connect me and expedite the trust-building process. She also acted as a fixer by coordinating many of the reporting logistics.

When we were in Sinaloa, Zahara and her assistant would spend the first few hours of the day shooting photo and video footage in the women’s homes. The women would prepare a dish from the recipe book so that Zahara could capture the cooking process. Meanwhile, I would take notes, observe, and ask the occasional question. Then we’d switch places and I’d sit down with the women for an in-depth interview. The reporting time included sharing meals, which has a way of creating intimacy and trust. 

Zahara and I had decided beforehand who the central characters would be, and I knew what themes she planned to draw out visually. I took this into account while reporting as well as during the writing process. In the end, the visual elements offer an up-close look at each woman and her particular grief and love, while the writing attempts to capture the whole sweep of the story: the context of forced disappearance, the collective’s creative resistance, and their call for others to remember the missing.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered while reporting the piece, and how did you overcome them? 

The biggest challenge for me was how to acknowledge and honor the women’s grief during the reporting process — particularly across cultures and in Spanish, which is my second language. I only had a handful of days in Mexico and wasn’t able to spend weeks or months building relationships. I did my best to enter each conversation with a candid acknowledgement of how difficult the subject matter was. I explained how I hoped to capture their missing loved ones’ lives rather than just the facts of their disappearances. It felt essential that we did not portray the missing only by the way they had died.

During the reporting I was pregnant, which served as both a point of connection to these mothers but also a distancing factor, as I couldn’t fathom the experience of losing children like many of them had. Ultimately, I could only express my vision for the story — my own and Zahara’s desire to capture their ongoing care for disappeared loved ones, and their creative resistance in the face of violence, corruption, and erasure. Other articles featuring Las Rastreadoras had focused on the collective’s search for bodies, but I was interested in depicting how the collective turned cooking into a language of love and resistance.

What steps did you take, during interviews, to give your sources agency?

I knew I could fill in details about deaths and disappearances from other sources, so I allowed each woman to speak as much or as little as she chose about her particular loss. Some wanted to talk about the day a son or husband disappeared in great detail. Others wanted to talk about who their son had been in life, and what cooking his favorite dish meant to them. 

Thanks to Zahara’s existing relationships with the women in the collective, we were able to report from homes and kitchens. The women graciously hosted us and cooked for us, and I think this experience of sharing meals — especially meals that represented their missing loved ones — added a sense of mutuality and agency to the process.

What did you learn during reporting?

Food is a universal language. Grief looks for a container. Humans need rituals to mourn the lost. Transparency is essential to ethical reporting and storytelling.


> Read Jolley's full piece here

> RSVP to the Dart Awards ceremony here