In a classic use of the journalist’s show-don’t-tell rule, Douglas Starr starts his feature in the December 9 New Yorker on false confessions by describing the training session he took in the Reid Technique. A lazier reporter would provide a second-hand description of the technique, which is blamed in a large number of false confessions, and the research that supports or challenges it. Or he might watch video or interview participants in such an interrogation, to recreate and describe the scene. Starr does use these methods later in the story. But his first-hand account of how it’s actually taught puts the lie to claims by the technique’s promoters that it’s thoroughly reliable and careful.
The training-session scene is just one of the devices Starr uses to show, rather than just tell, readers why so many confessions turn out false, and why so many wrongful convictions hinge on false confessions. The story is one of the clearest I’ve read in explaining why cops can develop tunnel vision about a particular suspect, as they use the Reid Technique first to decide he’s lying and next to push him to confess. It serves as a great example of something else, too: the benefits of brining a science-reporting background, which Starr has with distinction, to crime reporting. Starr has written extensively on scientific evidence, and problems with it, in criminal justice.
Starr goes on to describe an alternative method, used widely in Britain, that runs counter to American police training and its “culture of confrontation.” It’s fascinating stuff — contrasting Reid’s reliance on body language and trick questions with another method’s focus on drawing out a full explanation from a suspect, and thus hanging the guilty with contradictions rather than relying on outright confessions.
Here’s Starr on Fresh Air explaining the story at length, and going into interesting related angles. For my money, though, nothing beats the power of a well-crafted narrative. The New Yorker restricts online access to the story to subscribers. It’s well worth buying the magazine on the newsstand if, for some inexplicable reason, you don’t already subscribe.