This week I’ll concentrate on a single post. Rather, a series of updates compiled under one title: FINDING OSCAR In Our Investigations.

The story of a refugee from Guatamela, allegedly orphaned by war but too young to remember the atrocity he survived.  Also the story of bringing the perpetrators of a horrific war crime to justice, and how tedious this process can be when these perpetrators have sought asylum in the United States under pretense of being victims of war in their immigration applications.  While reading it, one thing stuck in my head was how this story was worthy of film treatment, yet how the nuts and bolts of the entire investigation, which would typically be downplayed in film, were just as important.  The descriptions of the rapes, tortures and murders were difficult reading. It is impossible not to feel wrathful at how calmly some mass murderers go about their business under protection of ‘law’.

But first, the organization:


The essentials are highlighted. The number of updates since last visit is mentioned along with total number of posts. The slideshow of images summarizing Oscar’s story is  included, but I missed it the first time because of the minute font.

Commendable though this is, I find the following organization more convenient to the eye:


It divides sections up into chapters like propublica, but also provides the summary of each. Propublica on the other hand, presents everything like a long short story. Not reading it all in one go will make it difficult to keep track.

Also, this one makes it less about Oscar and more about what happened at Dos Erres.  This is advantageous because the reader will not think the content is digressing when political and investigative nuances are elaborated.  Propublica makes up for this by including a page of faces to help us keep track of a constantly expanding character list. What_happened_at_Dos_Erres


“The call from Guatamela put Oscar on edge.”  – The first sentence is straight out of a short story.  And the crucial email where Oscar learns the truth, sent by the prosecutor begins “You don’t know me…”  Effective use of narrative….but  propublica also provides the actual email as a separate URL. The content is not in fictional style and reading it disrupts narrative flow. (The fact that Propublica needed a separate page  to explain its narrative technique and to create a roadmap for the reader suggests they are aware of the limitations of this style. )

But when the article links to actual US embassy cables exchanged when monitoring the Dos Erres incident, this is not disruptive. Because the article simultaneously tells us what to watch out for in the cables – the drab, apathetic language which is in stark contrast to the horror unfolding.n The UN report from where most of the historical context was pulled, is also presented.  Although, presenting it earlier than it was would have been more effective. I kept wondering whether half of the information was from wikipedia.

US-EMBASSY-CABLESFurthermore, every time a new character is introduced in the narrative, there is a link on the side with their picture, to previous reportage of their role, which may or may not be independent of their role in Oscar’s saga.  I’d say this was good use of the blank space along both margins of the text, except it isn’t.

There were sentences in the narrative that should have been quoted in larger font, not because they were memorable but also to assist in creating a roadmap for the reader.  E.g :

“Murderers tend to confess more readily on television than in real-life. Especially veteran commandos versed in stealth and psychological warfare.”

In a movie, a wronged character would seek vigilante justice, since the law would not permit a naturalized citizen to be extradited for crimes they committed in a different country.  Here, the prosecuting team goes about its business trying to find loopholes in immigration law.

Overall, propublica does well striking a balance between fictional techniques and reportage. All the characters, even the inhuman ones are fleshed out well.   But the story could have used more multimedia. Video links and photographs of the incident. For instance, I spent quite some time sidetracked searching for the ‘Kaibiles and their psychopathic tendencies. Simply placing a couple of photographs of this commando regiment (and there are enough around that aren’t copyrighted) would have resulted me not wasting time.

The article lost out some in trying to be ‘balanced’ in regard to its characters. A short story must always focus on a select number of characters. This is what distinguishes it from a novel. In trying to compress too many characters into limited space, and trying to do justice to them all isn’t realistic. Sara Romero, the lead prosecutor  specially, I felt, could have used more elaboration. Since her unwavering efforts and indomitable will to overcome all obstacles were central in apprehending the criminals.

Dos Erros is not yet a closed chapter. A couple of key perpetrators of the incident, high up in the chain of command still elude the prosecutors. They are out there now, hiding like rats in a hole, counting their days…

I would like to end this post with an iconic, if gruesome image of the well where all the victims were killed and dumped.

propublica_nerdblog                                                                                                                                   May their souls rest in peace…


  1. This is an excellent example of really analyzing every aspect of a story. I think you did a great job elaborating on points a reader may not have even thought about. It would be nice if your photos could be a little bit bigger, and if you could include a few more hyperlinks to specific information you reference.

  2. Wow! This looks like hard work. It is very obvious in your post that you spent a long time understanding and analyzing the website. Only advice would be to maybe try inserting the pictures in a way that they don’t get in the way of your writing. Well done! Ciao!

  3. kwheeling says:

    Good use of links – its a complicated post and they really helped me follow along.

  4. robbinshl says:

    I agree with your point about how certain sentences should have been pulled out of the narrative and emphasized with larger font. Using the italics works in your blog post, and it would have worked well in the structure of the original piece.

    Nice analysis.

    My one caution relates to this sentence: “Overall, propublica does well striking a balance between fictional techniques and reportage.” It sounds a bit like they are making up parts of the story or fictionalizing it. I don’t think that’s what you are saying here… I think you are focusing on the techniques, but I would really nail that point home.

  5. I’m not familiar with propublica, so reading your analysis of how they reported this story is very informative – definitely a different approach and you do a good job breaking down the particulars.

  6. David Shultz says:

    I enjoyed your analysis of their narrative style and your critique of their use (or lack thereof) of multimedia.

  7. markzastrow says:

    Liked your look at the way they structured their story, constructing a sort of reference library for their reporting. I agree that it’s a bit overwhelming. Not sure what the solution is in presenting this type of reporting, but I appreciated your take on it.

  8. I liked your voice in this piece. Specifically, without reading the article itself, I got a feeling for its layout and narrative texture through your analysis of the structure.

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