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May 16, 2024, 12:06 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“Impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would”: How Rachel Aviv wrote that New Yorker story on Lucy Letby

“So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that [Lucy] Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.”

Before reading Rachel Aviv’s most recent piece for The New Yorker, I might have described the Lucy Letby case as well-covered.

In August 2023, the former neonatal nurse became only the fourth woman in U.K. history to receive a whole-life prison sentence, after being convicted of killing seven babies and attempting to kill another six. The gut-wrenching case has generated hundreds and hundreds of news stories, including excruciating testimony from parents whose babies died. Little of the coverage, however, questioned the sturdiness of the case against Letby as Aviv’s piece does.

Letby’s trial, which experienced journalists described as “harrowing,” “extremely difficult,” and “incredibly complex” to cover, lasted 10 months. It included press restrictions “rarely seen” outside cases involving national security in the country.

Some of the court-ordered restrictions involved an unusual amount of anonymity granted to victims and witnesses. (A group of news organizations — including the BBC, The Guardian, Sky News, and the Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers — jointly contested a subset of the anonymity applications, arguing for more transparency and noting some requests were not well-supported. They were overruled by the trial judge.) But England also has strict contempt-of-court laws that prevent publication of material the court determines could affect the legal proceedings.

For her 13,000-plus-word story “A British Nurse Was Found Guilty of Killing Seven Babies. Did She Do It?”, New Yorker staff writer Aviv drew on text messages, police interviews, internal hospital records, and interviews with Letby’s hospital colleagues and experts.

The New Yorker blocked people in the U.K. from reading the article on its website, due to a court order restricting coverage. (A New Yorker spokesperson declined to answer additional questions about the order and the magazine’s response, citing legal reasons.) The article remains available in print, in The New Yorker’s app, and via some third-party services such as the library app Libby.

In her piece, Aviv concludes “there has been almost no room for critical reflection” about the case in England. A leading medical journal removed a comment from a doctor who warned against a “fixed view of certainty that justice has been done” in the Letby case “for legal reasons” while leaving “at least six” other editorials and comments “which did not question Letby’s guilt” on the site, Aviv reported. Other people have received notes from police threatening consequences including imprisonment over online posts and links shared on Twitter.

Because another trial involving Letby starts up in June, these press restrictions have continued after the verdicts.

What does that look like in practice? Well, good luck finding a U.K. publication covering Aviv’s blockbuster piece. News coverage about Letby’s appeal over “wrongly refused applications” can read strangely thin as well. For example, The Guardian wrote about the request but reports “the media is not permitted to publish the details of these arguments at this stage because Letby faces a retrial in June on one count of attempted murder.”

The restrictions on the case have baffled some Americans. Why can the Daily Mail publish a column stating Letby “has thrown open the door to Hell and the stench of evil overwhelms us all” or The Guardian call the former nurse “one of the most notorious female murderers of the last century,” as Aviv points out, but the doctor’s comment about a “fixed view of certainty” is taken down? Over on Reddit, the r/lucyletby community is roiling as moderators in the U.K. chastise Americans for posting links to Aviv’s article. (Rule No. 3 of the Lucy Letby subreddit bans “conspiracy theories” and states “verdicts in Lucy Letby’s trial are fact and are law unless and until an appeal is granted.”) The rowdy comment section of The New Yorker’s Instagram has drawn comparisons to the War of 1812.

I emailed with Aviv about her reporting. Our conversation, below, has been lightly edited.

Sarah Scire: When did you initially become interested in the story? What questions did you have?

Rachel Aviv: Cleuci de Oliveira, an incredible researcher I work with, pointed me to the Letby case last spring, when the trial was still underway. We were both struck by the fact that the case seemed to hinge almost entirely upon the belief that there had been too many deaths to have occurred by coincidence.

The case made me curious about the way that our statistical intuitions play out in criminal investigations and trials — specifically, the kinds of unexamined beliefs we have about the nature of chance, and our tendency to attribute causality to random events. I was struck by the parallels between the Letby case and the case of Lucia de Berk, a nurse in the Netherlands who was wrongly convicted of murder in 2004, largely because of an association between her shift patterns and the deaths on her ward. Her case is now seen as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Dutch history.

Scire: Your reporting often rests on an extraordinary synthesis of written materials. In this case, you drew on 7,000 pages of court transcripts (which included police interviews and text messages) as well as internal hospital records and interviews. In other pieces for The New Yorker, as well as in your book Strangers to Ourselves, you’ve quoted from diaries, poetry, and correspondence. I’ve always wanted to ask: how do you go about convincing someone to let you read their diary?

Aviv: When my book came out, someone asked me this question at a reading (“how do you convince someone to let you read their journals?”), and I answered, “I just ask,” and Patrick Radden Keefe, who was there, joked that my answer sounded very suspicious, as if I were withholding the real story, so now I’m trying to think of a better way to respond. People have definitely said no when I’ve asked. I usually try to give a lot of context about why I’d like to read the journals, how I will use them, what larger purpose it will serve — with the hope that there is an intersection between what I see as the purpose (for instance, describing the texture of a particular hard-to-articulate experience) and what the person I’m writing about hopes to convey in sharing their story.

But it was a very different situation here: the way I ended up getting all those transcripts was by spending a lot of money. In the U.K., it is extraordinarily expensive to obtain transcripts — a transcription of one day in court costs roughly $100, and it requires the judge’s approval. It took about half a year to get the judge’s approval. I was told that even appeals lawyers tend not to request their clients’ full transcripts, because of the cost.

Scire: Are there any organizing tools or techniques you tend to use — constructing timelines, a particular notetaking scheme, etc. — when sifting through piles of material?

Aviv: This is probably getting into too much mundane detail, but the word processor I use is Scrivener. I have one Scrivener file with all my notes and another for my outline. In the outline file, I have a number of different documents that (tentatively) represent different sections and topics within the piece. Then I’ll go through all my notes, in this case about 300,000 words, and copy-paste each relevant fact or line into the appropriate section. That process takes several days. That way, when I start writing the first section, the material has already been narrowed down.

The organizational process for this particular story was more complicated, because for each baby I had a different document. Then, when it came time to write a paragraph about any particular baby, I, theoretically, had access to the relevant details and timeline without searching through all 300,000 words.

Scire: What lessons do you see for journalists in this story? You write, for example, that many news outlets published excerpts of notes found in Letby’s home and a chart shared by police linking the nurse to two dozen “suspicious” events without much in the way of analysis or context.

Aviv: Something I think about a lot is the choice of where to begin: Do you begin with the doctors questioning mysterious deaths on their unit? Do you begin with the seemingly incriminating notes at Letby’s home? Or do you begin a little earlier, with staff on the unit feeling overstretched and overwhelmed? So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.

When I read through her texts, they read to me as very human and ordinary and nondescript, and I found it eerie to see how the certain lines, when placed under a particular headline, were presented as proof of the machinations of a twisted mind.

Scire: Within a week of the original trial ending, the investigating police department announced they’d made a documentary about the case. Your description of the emotionally charged soundtrack and promise of “exclusive access” reminded me of a highly produced video shared by the New York Police Department depicting arrests that a number of journalists were barred from witnessing themselves. What should the news industry make of this phenomenon of — and I’m not exactly sure how to put this — but almost competing with sources to provide information to the public?

Aviv: Your question is making me think about one image in particular in that police documentary: there was a still of the diagram that was central to the case. On one axis was a list of all the suspicious episodes in the case. On the other axis was a list of all the nurses who worked on the unit, with X’s next to each suspicious event that occurred when they were on shift. But this diagram actually had an error: for one of the suspicious events, it showed Letby working a night shift, when she was actually working a day shift, so there should not have been an X by her name. Even after this discrepancy had been addressed at trial, the police still used that diagram. This is just one example of why the work product of the communications team for a police force should not be presented and treated as if it were journalism.

Scire: Multiple rounds of careful editing and dedicated fact-checkers are, unfortunately, quite rare in journalism. Any edits or feedback from New Yorker colleagues you can share that improved the piece?

Aviv: Well the first important piece of feedback from my editor, Willing Davidson, was to actually do the story. I had originally proposed it to him last summer, but then I kept coming up with different ideas for stories, in part because it was impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would (i.e. to have access to the defendant and her lawyers), and I worried that disqualified me from writing it. But whenever I started to explore other somewhat adjacent story ideas, it would only reaffirm my concerns about this case, and Willing guided me back to it. Once I turned in a draft, he prompted me (among many other things) to broaden the scope of the piece, so that it was a lot more thoughtful about the NHS’s troubles and the way that people’s loyalty to the institution may have contributed to some of the dynamics in the case.

There are so many ways in which the fact-checkers, Nina Mesfin and Daniel Ajootian, improved the piece, but even on a social level it is very nice, after being immersed in a subject alone for many months, to be assigned companions who become equally invested in the same minutiae.

Scire: After months of reporting and 13,500-ish published words, what questions are you left with?

Aviv: What will happen in her case — she has applied for permission to appeal — and whether the public opinion about her guilt might become less fixed. So far the media coverage in the U.K. has treated Letby’s guilt as a foregone conclusion.

Read Rachel Aviv’s piece here or in the May 20, 2024 print issue of The New Yorker.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     May 16, 2024, 12:06 p.m.
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