Toby Dorr: Hello and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby, the show where we talk about the hard things. I’m Toby Dorr. In today’s episode, we’ll get a glimpse into the hard work of bearing witness. Our guest today is Laura Collins, an Emmy award-winning investigative journal. Born in Scotland. She’s worked for some of the UK’s biggest media outlets and reported from around the globe. Today she is the Chief investigative reporter for the Daily Mail, where she regularly contributes the most-read stories to the world’s largest newspaper website. Laura lives in New York City, and through her work has visited almost every state in the us. Laura is often invited to sit down both with people who have survived unthinkable horrors, and the families of others who have not. She is grateful for their trust to have been invited into their lives and for the opportunity to be a born witness to the strength of the human spirit as well. Hi Laura. Thanks so much for joining us. It’s delightful to see you again.
Laura Collins: It’s great to see you too.
Toby Dorr: Thank you so much, Laura. Yeah, it’s been a while. We did meet last May, I think you just had such an interesting perspective on world news that I wanted to be sure and get you back in here to the podcast to talk about some of those. I like to ask all my guests a question that gives us a peek into who you are, and it’s a simple question. What’s your favorite color, and what does that say about you?
Laura Collins: That is a simple question but like many of the most difficult questions they are. They’re simple ones, so I find it really hard to say a favorite anything that may say something about me. I’m not sure what I think. If I have to come for one, I’m going to say a nice strong orange, and I hope that maybe suggests that I am bold and positive in some.
Toby Dorr: I love orange. It’s one of my favorite colors too. So, I think it’s a pretty cool color. Can you tell us about a crossroads in your life that pushed you in a different direction?
Laura Collins: Yes, it’s kind of a personal one, but it, I guess it also became a professional crossroads too. About 11 years ago, I was living in Abu Dhabi with my then-husband and he got offered a job back in London where I just moved from to join him over there and things weren’t really working out in the marriage. It became that sort of crisis moment and I decided not to go with him, and that really was a major crossroads, a major decision I made, and I guess it led. Well, the demise of the marriage, but it also opened up doors in the sense that it led me to the job that I’m in today. If I’d gone back to London, I would’ve probably rocked back into the job that I was in before and maybe the sort of slight rut that I was in before, and instead it really forced me to make some changes and it opened up a whole new world.
Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. The best thing I think about a crossroads is that no matter which direction you go, you’re gonna make a change in some way in your life. And I have found that the most drastic changes have the most drastic results. So, I can totally relate to that. You were on the ground in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd. You covered the civil unrest that followed and then returned for Derek Chauvin’s. You were also in the courtroom for the Kenosha shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse trial. What’s it like to be wrapped up in such intense drama of these major cases?
Laura Collins: Well, it is intense drama. You’re right, and I don’t think journalists are immune to that or that sense of getting caught up in it. It becomes the only thing you want to talk about. It makes you probably a very dull friend or dull partner for a period of time because you’re so obsessed with the minutiae of what’s going on in the courtroom. I think when it comes to reporting it though, you have to be able. To sort of keep a level head. I mean, you can get caught up in the intensity of it all and the detail, but what you mustn’t do is editorialize too much. You’re not there to preempt decisions. You’re not there to second guess a jury. You certainly can never tell. Doesn’t matter how, how many trials you do, you just have no idea what a jury is going to do at the end of the day. So, I think for me, it’s a very satisfying thing because quite often I’m bouncing between stories, you know, different stories all the time, and it’s nice to be sort of embedded in one story for as long as a trial takes. Of course, with the Bill Cosby trial, which I covered, it was more than one trial, so I don’t think anyone expected that we’d be back in the same room doing it all over again. Um, but it’s just, um, it, it, it’s a fascinating thing to be part of. It’s a very satisfying part of things.
Toby Dorr: I think it would be so difficult to not have a personal opinion and, in having a personal opinion not to let that personal opinion show. For instance, when you report on the jury’s decision. And if you had a totally different decision, it’d be kind of hard, I think, to maintain that neutral.
Laura Collins: I guess it’s always a challenge because, you know, as a journalist, you’re also a human being who has, as you say, opinions and, and a viewpoint. And sometimes you can’t believe that something goes a certain way. You think, were they watching the same trial as I was? But at the end of the day, as a journalist, it’s not my opinion that I’m reporting. I’m not an opinion article writer. I have done that historically. But if you’re there just to report, you just have to report the facts and keep it pretty straight and not editorialize.
Toby Dorr: So what is the most important thing to you in the telling of a story?
Laura Collins: That’s a really good question. I suppose the setting of the story is the starting point, and in order to do that, you have to, I guess to some extent, you have to do that thing of trying to set your own views aside, your own opinions aside, and your own preconceptions of what that story might be. You, don’t know it until you sit down with someone, like when we sat down together. Until you sit down with a person, you just don’t know what the story is that you’re going to be telling. You might have some notion of it, some situations more than others, but the truth is getting the story is the important bit. And then actually thinking. Now this person has spoken to me, or now I have this set of facts. How do I order these? You know, what’s a priority here? And that will depend on who you work for. The other news of the day, how it maybe relates to it. I mean, I guess the key thing is being sure of your facts as much as you can be – actually having the story nailed down is probably the most important part of that process.
Toby Dorr: So, keeping an open mind, it sounds like, that’s important to you because you may go into a story with one idea of how you’re gonna tell it, and then in interviewing that person, you may discover something that leads you in a different direction.
Laura Collins: Absolutely. And sometimes you have that sense. Totally. And there’s that sense sometimes, and I’ve certainly experienced it where you think, oh, I haven’t got the story. It doesn’t play out the way you expect. And you think for a minute, I’ve not got the story. And then you realize, wait a minute. I’ve actually just got a different story. Maybe it wasn’t the one that I was looking for or thought that I would find, but you have to make a virtue outta, you know, that turn of events as well and, and recognize, well, this is a story. It’s just not the one I expected to be telling.
Toby Dorr: Yeah, and sometimes the story you end up with maybe even bigger and better than what you had a frame of mind to tell. So that would be kind of interesting. It’s kind of almost like you don’t know exactly what you’re gonna do in a day. Some mornings when you wake up, you see where the day takes you.
Laura Collins: I never know.
Toby Dorr: That’s pretty interesting. So recently you covered the Vicki White and the Casey White case. And for those of you who don’t remember, Vicki was the deputy in Alabama that helped an inmate escape. In fact, that case is how we met because you came to my house to interview me about the similarities between Vicki’s story and my story. And I remember both of us with tears in our eyes when we tried to discuss Vicky’s choice to end her life and how devastating it was to both of us. So how do you keep from becoming emotionally attached to the stories you cover? And I don’t imagine you can. So, if you can’t, then how do you deal with that emotion? How do you keep yourself in a healthy place?
Laura Collins: That is another very good question, and I guess the truth is maybe I don’t always keep myself in the most healthy place in that respect because you’re right, you can’t help but get emotionally involved in certain stories. I mean, whether it’s the facts of the story, whether it’s the people that you meet along the way. I mean, you mentioned Vicky White and her story. I mean, there was such a degree of tragedy in that and sadness in her life. And I don’t think you can tell a story properly if you don’t have a degree of compassion and empathy. And if you have that, then you feel it. I mean, I guess you must be able to draw a line to some extent because maybe draw the line between what is emotional engagement that helps you tell a story and what is self-indulgent because the story’s not about you. So, it’s not about how it impacts me. It doesn’t matter if I go home and cry in the evening to get out of my system. You have to be able to set that aside because you’re no use to the person whose story you’re telling, you’re no used to the publication you’re working for if you’re kind of a crumbling mess. I think one of the biggest misconceptions, and I’m kind of glad that you asked this question, is that journalists are cynical creatures. I think most of the best ones really aren’t. I think you need that degree of emotion, and I think a lot of them struggle with it, frankly. I mean, you know, certainly back in the UK drink is a problem with a lot of journalists because you go and have a drink at the end of the day to try and sort of decompress. I think the older I get, perhaps the better I get at dealing with that. And you recognize you need to look after yourself physically and mentally as well. If you’re going to be any use to anyone but you can’t avoid emotional engagement. But you’re right. It is something you need to kind of keep an eye on.
Toby Dorr: That makes perfect sense because in order to really tell a story well that people wanna listen to, you have to be able to empathize with the person you’re talking about. So, I do see that it’s really important for a good journalist to be able to have that sympathy and compassion. And empathy in order to tell the story.
Toby Dorr: And you’re right, you can’t have that without being a little bit emotionally involved. So, I imagine some days you’re just exhausted with the emotion from the day.
Laura Collins: Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I just got back from a few days in Florida. I was covering a story that I’d already covered several months ago. It was a horribly sad story. A guy called Jared Brogan who I, I dunno if you’re familiar with the story. He’s a father of four who was, shot in a targeted attack, almost exactly a year ago. And his two-year-old daughter was strapped in the back of the car when her father was ambushed.
Toby Dorr: I do remember that story.
Laura Collins: So, I’m back in, it must have been almost a year ago that I met his widow, Kristen, and I kept in touch with her, and I definitely feel an emotional connection to her. And I must admit, going back and doing the story again, I didn’t want anyone else to go and do it from our publication cuz it feels very much like it’s my story. But I definitely felt that emotional all sounds very self-indulgent because, you know, it, it’s, it’s such a small echo of the, the true sort of tragedy of the case, but I feel for that family, and it is emotionally a genuine thing. So, you know, you do sort of I felt quite tearful at certain points during that, those last few days, which sounds a bit pathetic, but it’s, that’s just the nature of the beast.
Toby Dorr: Well, I know that we’ve kind of developed a friendship after you came here and interviewed me, so, I can see that happening and I think that’s healthy. I was gonna ask you what story you’ve covered that is the one that stuck with you long after it was finished and perhaps it’s the one you just told us about? I’m not sure. But is there another one that you’d like to mention?
Laura Collins: Yeah, I mean that certainly is one. There are a few. There genuinely are a few. Your story actually stuck with me, because it was so wrapped up in so many things, and also just having met you and how open you were and frankly, inspiring from everything that you’ve gone through and what you’ve taken from it. So that stuck. There’s been a few stories. There was the case of Jamie Kloss, the teenager who was abducted. She was in Barron, Wisconsin, this little bit, tiny Wisconsin. And in the middle of the night, a guy came and shot both her parents and abducted her from the house. And she was missing for, I think it was about three months. And really it seemed very unlikely anyone was going to see Jamie again. And then, emerged from a cabin in the woods, sort of walking through the snow with sneakers on her wrong feet because she managed to escape. That stuck with me because again, there was a period of time bonding with her family, I guess, and, and the people who were working the case as well, the law enforcement stuff in that sticks.
Laura Collins: And I think the reason why some stories do particularly stick is because, at the heart of them, there’s an injustice that either somebody’s looking to write or there’s, there’s some wrong that really can’t be righted, and that’s kind of like a barb that sticks with you because you know, no matter what these people do, there’s like somebody has died, somebody’s been killed. There’s no writing that wrong, but there’s as close as you can get to it. So, it just sticks with you know, and the people stick with you.
Toby Dorr: Yeah, I could see that, and a lot of people think that journalists and the newspapers are all about sensationalizing the news, and there are some reporters for whom that is important. And I’ve come to know that you’re not one of those kind of people. Do you ever encounter instances where someone wants you to sensationalize something to make it juicier, or do you ever have to have that?
Laura Collins: Yes, I’m sure over the years, yeah. I mean I’ve been doing this a very long time, as you know, so yes. Over the years, I guess the older you get, the more robust you get in sort of standing firm on things. I think perhaps. And this is no disrespect to any of my current bosses, I should say that for the record, but I think there’s perhaps, a tendency with people who are in an office who’ve not actually had direct dealings with any of the people involved who are not on the ground. It’s easier to go down a sensational path. It’s easier to just see it as just a story or just a headline. But when you’re actively dealing with people, for real, you’re having the conversations, you’re sort of the custodian of their story, then you kind of have a duty of care for them for the story. And I think to some extent maybe sensationalism gets a bad rap. So, to some extent some stories are sensational. But I think the point is they don’t need you to exaggerate, that they don’t need gratuitous sensationalism. Your story was sensational, in the most true sort of sense of the word. It appeals, you know, it, it appeals to the senses, it captures, it brings you in. And the best way I think, to convey something like that is just to tell it straight. If you’re interviewing a person, let them talk. You know, don’t insert yourself, don’t have, you know, that I guess the tendency is people back in the office writing a headline want the sort of the wham bam, and it needs to sell a story as well. But I think the key is, trying to reign back or push back on anything that just feels gratuitous and unnecessary. You know I think that’s the thing. And yeah, over the years I’ve definitely had those experiences.
Toby Dorr: Well, I think you know the sensational headlines sell stuff, but the stories that stick in people’s minds and that resonate and that they think about for days after reading ’em are the ones that are more empathetic and compassionate and show the human side of the issues. So, I think that’s great.
Laura Collins: I agree totally.
Toby Dorr: So, in 2009 you wrote a bestselling biography of Kate Moss and you just finished a collection of short stories and a novella entitled The Art of Leaving. And you’re also working on a new novel. Writing news stories is pretty much a public endeavor. You’re actually out in the field talking to other people and being an author, I found is really a lot more private and isolated. So how have you found that transition? Is it a natural thing or is it putting on a whole different hat?
Laura Collins: It’s definitely a transition. You’re right. I’m not sure. I mean, it’s a process and I suppose I’m sort of learning my way through it. You know, it seems strange as somebody who’s written professionally for the past, like 20-something years, to feel like a novice in writing is an odd thing. But you’re right, there is that aspect of it – it is a much more private endeavor. I mean I don’t think when I’m writing articles, I’m not thinking this is going to be read by. I mean, we have millions of people who read our assignments. I don’t think that because I think that would probably be a paralyzing thing if you suddenly thought about that.
Toby Dorr: Right.
Laura Collins: You know you’d freak out. But when you come to doing something like a novel or short stories or the novella, it’s weird. It’s, there’s basically a layer of myself that you don’t see in my journalism because it’s not appropriate, for it to be there. But there’s a different sort of exposure with writing fiction. It feels far. Personal in a way. There’s like, I’m not telling somebody else’s story. I know it’s, a fictitious story, but there’s kind of me on the page in a different way, and I find that a little bit daunting.
Toby Dorr: Yes. I could relate to that.
Laura Collins: It’s a very personal endeavor, isn’t it?
Laura Collins: But you’re doing it for public consumption. At least you hope for public consumption. You know, you want somebody to read it one day, but there is a different anxiety about what will that reception be when somebody does read it. It’s interesting. I mean I’m enjoying it. Yeah. I’m enjoying it. I’m loving it. But, um, it’s definitely, you know, the beginning of a very long journey as they say.
Toby Dorr: I found writing to be very healing and very introspective and very, insightful to myself, and I think that you know, perhaps writing a news story. Not quite so much cuz you’re really focused on a story. I think it’d be an interesting transition. I can’t wait to read your book, so I’m really excited about that when it comes out. We’ll be sure and let everybody know. You’ve traveled the world as a reporter. What’s one place you’d like to return to and why?
Laura Collins: That’s a tricky one. You’re good at difficult questions, by the way. So, thinking about that, can I have two places I’d like to return to?
Toby Dorr: Sure. Absolutely.
Laura Collins: Okay. So globally I was lucky enough to be to have gone to both Bhutan and Japan, and I would love to go back to both of those places one day because they’re so profoundly different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. And I mean, they’re beautiful and both places are beautiful in very different ways, but they were just sort of breathtaking places and fascinating. And it felt like, you know, one trip was just, you know, Dipping your toe on the surface. I would love to spend time there, but you know, there’s also so much, I’ve seen a lot of America, but there are still some bits I’ve not seen. So, there are also so many places that I’d like to, I’ve yet to see that it feels like I can’t start going back to places I’ve already been when there’s so much of the world I’ve not yet seen.
Toby Dorr: That’s true. That’s true. You know, my husband lived for six months in Japan and he talks about how totally different everything is there and he loved it, so I can relate to that. And one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit is Scotland and which is where you’re from. We just watched a documentary last night on Edenborough Castle and it’s just fascinating.
Laura Collins: Well, that’s my hometown.
Toby Dorr: Really Edinborough? Wow. That’s pretty cool. My husband and I, it took us about, I don’t know, 10 minutes of research to try to figure out what in the. Fifth of fourth was, you know, it was so interesting. Yeah. What’s a firth and what’s the fourth?
Laura Collins: Now you’re asking. Um, but yeah, I mean obviously I’m biased, but I would recommend a trip to Scotland if you can. If you can do it. Which I mean, why not? I was there just after Christmas, so.
Toby Dorr: Yeah, Chris has been to Scotland, my husband, and he was showing me on the map where King’s port is, what is it? King? What is the one across the bay from Edinburg King. King Horn. King Horn.
Laura Collins: Oh,
Toby Dorr: His dad’s mother was a Kinghorn, so when he was in Scotland, he went there and was talking to the people in Kinghorn because that’s where his family was from, and that was their name, which I thought was really interesting.
Laura Collins: Do you know. It’s, and you know, that’s something that I really noticed traveling around America. The number of Scottish names there are all over places. Scott’s definitely get about the place. There’s lots of connections.
Toby Dorr: Yes it does. It certainly does. So, what’s one question you wish I’d asked you and how would you have answered it? Is there something you’d like to share with us?
Laura Collins: Do you know, it’s funny because I always ask that question at the end of interviews.
Toby Dorr: Oh, really?
Laura Collins: It’s hard to answer. Because it’s, because it’s that classic thing that you just, there’s always something that you can’t think of. I have to say, I think you’ve been exceptionally thorough. I think we touched on what is perhaps the most important aspect of, or what I think is the most important aspect of being a reporter, of being a journalist. But I guess the one thing that I would just maybe reiterate is I think, or maybe I didn’t quite say it was the importance of compassion. And maybe that sounds a little bit sort of, worthy, but I think it’s an overlook. Aspects, and I think people think about the news as hard-hitting and rushing around the place. And my goodness, there’s, there’s never a shortage of pretty difficult stories to read and consider, and right now is no exception. But I think within what is often a very challenging environment and often leading you to encounter perhaps not terribly pleasant people and certainly not terribly pleasant situations, I think holding onto compassion is a really good sort of anchor. And I think that’s like one point that I would just like to iterate.
Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. You know, and when I read your bio, it said that you said that you feel like your job is bearing witness and telling stories, other people’s stories, and I don’t think you could be very good at that without compassion. So, I think it’s just critical, and I love how you throw compassion into your work. You know, honestly, I’ve been interviewed by several journalists who weren’t compassionate at all, and it makes such a difference. I think the story comes out differently. It comes out more useful and important to the people who are listening to it because I think they get the real story when you when your motto is to bear witness and tell people’s stories.
Toby Dorr: I just think it’s a beautiful thing. I am so grateful for you coming into my life and being willing to be on my podcast, and I am sure that we’ll be talking a lot more in the future. So, thanks so much, Laura.
Laura Collins: You’re so welcome. I’m so thrilled to be asked.
Toby Dorr: Good, thank you. One of the things that I like to be sure everyone knows is so important, and that is that none of us is our worst mistake. We all have so much more to offer the world, and those so-called mistakes are blessed opportunities to learn and grow. Next week, we’ll continue to bring you inspiring stories by people who’ve identified a need for change and are working to make a difference in the world. Subscribe to our Patreon channel Fierce Conversations for special access of behind-the-scenes info, go to patreon.com/fierce conversations, or click on the link in the show notes. Ten percent of the Patreon proceeds are dedicated to providing workbooks to women in prison. The show notes also provide a link to purchase my book, Living with Conviction, and a link to get more information about Laura and her work.
Toby Dorr: In my memoir, Living with Conviction, I recount a conversation I had in prison where my friend Lisa told me- in here we can talk about all the hard things. In fact, I think we must. And so, we shall. This is Fierce Conversations with Toby. Until next time…