Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.
Storytelling is a central mode of human communication and journalists can be viewed as the primary narrators of public events in contemporary societies. News stories—the product of journalism—constitute a distinct, nonfictional narrative genre. They share with other types of narrative a reliance on storytelling devices as a means of making sense of the world, but differ in their structure, cultural authority, social roles, and relation to reality.
Influenced by what came to be called the “narrative turn” in human and social sciences, scholarly inquiries into narrative qualities of news emerged in the mid-1970s, gained considerable momentum by the early 1990s, and continued to flourish into the new century. Underlying these investigations was a growing recognition of the significance of narrative in understanding news. However, different academic traditions emphasize different dimensions of the relationship between news and narrative. From a literary or linguistic perspective, emphasis is on narrative forms and styles, while assuming that only part of news stories are structured as narratives or have narrative qualities. From a philosophical perspective, the emphasis is on the epistemological status of all news stories as constructions rather than objective representations of reality. From a cultural or folkloric perspective, emphasis is on roles played by news stories in expressing and reaffirming prevailing values, beliefs, and ideologies, particularly through creation and retelling of cultural myths. These three different perspectives are reviewed in turn.
News and Narrative Forms
As a particular news form or writing style, narrative news stories are often described as standing in opposition to the inverted pyramid style (where facts are presented in a descending order of importance), simple chronicles, or the more general “information model” of journalism, which emphasizes factuality over aesthetics or emotion. The information model, which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century and gained prominence in the twentieth, marginalized the once-prevalent narrative style in favor of a fact-centered, “hard news” style. However, narrative journalism has gained renewed popularity in the early twenty-first century, where traditional news outlets are looking for strategies to combat declining readership, and provide added value to available online information. Narrative journalism, which goes beyond a mere rendering of facts, is one such strategy.
A narrow definition of narrative news stories refers to texts that begin with an anecdote rather than a summary lead and proceed to describe events in sequential order rather than presenting information in a descending order of importance. A broader view of narrative forms in news suggests that news stories incorporate narrative devices as wide-ranging as temporal structure, setting, point of view, characterization, personalization, conflict, dialogue, suspense, climax, metaphors, or irony. These varied narrative strategies can be found in different combinations and to different degrees in print or broadcast news texts. They also serve multiple aims, from capturing readers’/viewers’ attention through ideological framing, to establishing journalistic authority. News texts are thus seen as having different degrees of narrativity rather than being narratives or not. Similarly, while narrative style is often associated with soft news, human interest stories, magazine journalism, tabloids, or “new journalism,” researchers have widely demonstrated the presence of narrative elements in hard news and mainstream journalism, including bastions of “information journalism” like The New York Times. One can therefore see different journalistic modes—such as soft versus hard news or tabloids versus broadsheets—as different positions on a “storytelling continuum.”
The narrative work of news is driven by conflicting impulses, analogous to the literary tension between attaining closure and sustaining readers’ interest, or between short stories and novels/serials. On one hand, news is commonly seen as composed of autonomous narrative units—each with a beginning, middle, and end—aimed at uncovering the whole truth and imposing closure on our understanding of depicted events. In this sense, a good news story leaves no loose ends, and news stories can be seen as an incarnation of the short story, though usually offering closure at the beginning of the text—most often in the headline. On the other hand, few news stories start and end within the framework of one news item. In these continuous stories, each news item can be viewed as a chapter in a novel or an episode in a television series. Continuous news stories can be divided into two primary types: those that focus on the question of “what happened?” and those that focus on the question of “what will happen?” While the former deal with revelations about the past, like corruption scandals or unresolved crimes, the latter report about events unfolding in the present, like elections or wars. In both cases, journalists need to employ narrative devices such as suspense, flashbacks, and multiple points of view in order to sustain readers’ interest in the story and achieve narrative coherence.
Unlike authors or screenwriters, journalists rarely withhold information in order to maintain tension, and unlike fictional texts, news stories are shaped by an external reality that helps determine their beginning and end points. Yet some stories are buried by news media before they are fully resolved in the “real world” (such as crimes, disappearances, or injustice stories), while other stories continue to produce headlines long after they were seemingly resolved, including the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana, or even the sinking of the Titanic. Sustained coverage of such stories relies on diverse narrative devices, employed to different ends. Thus, for example, in the case of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, the tabloids kept the story open through soap-opera plot devices, like resuscitating the slain character (the Kennedy-is-alive theme) and conspiracy narratives, whereas retellings of the assassination in the mainstream press relied on narrative strategies that helped assert journalists’ authority as preferred narrators of the story and repair possible failures in the initial coverage. For example, by focusing on their own experiences during the assassination weekend and inserting themselves as major characters in the story, journalists established their presence at the events, although most journalists did not witness the shooting itself.
News and the Construction of Reality
From a philosophical perspective, news as narrative refers to a particular relationship between a news story and the external reality to which it points. Here, news as narrative is not necessarily associated with certain writing styles or literary devices but offers an alternative to the conception of news as a reflection, mirror, or objective representation of reality.
According to the narrative view, facts do not speak for themselves and reporting news necessarily involves selection processes: deciding which information to include in the available time or space, how to present it, in which order, under which headline, and where to position the story in a newscast, newspaper, or webpage. These multiple selections render news inevitably partial, with each story being one among many possible narratives of the depicted events. Similarly, each newscast, newspaper, or webpage offers one among numerous possible narratives about the world on a given day. Proponents of the narrative view of news also argue that these selections are inescapably dependent on the perspective or biases of reporters and editors, who are positioned as narrators with particular voices and points of view, rather than as objective observers of an immutable reality awaiting to be discovered.
In its extreme version, a narrative view of news can blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, arguing that all representations of reality are narrative constructions of equal epistemological status. However, while one may accept the assumptions that there is always more than one valid way to tell a news story and that there is no one true story that needs to be discovered, it does not follow that there is an infinite number of possible narratives or that all narratives are equally valid. News narratives, unlike fictional narratives, can still be seen as constrained by facts and by the actual events, and can still be judged as more or less faithful to an external reality. Yet, even in its softer versions, the notion of news as narrative is in tension with accepted views of journalism and journalism’s own sense of self. Interestingly, while journalists commonly refer to news as stories, they tend to vehemently reject the suggestion that they themselves are storytellers or that their stories are anything but a reflection of reality.
Finally, philosophical debates over news as narrative relate to questions of form and style discussed earlier. The inverted pyramid style, for example, is historically associated with notions of factuality and objectivity, whereas proponents of narrative journalism reject “informational” styles not only as less aesthetically pleasing but also as obscuring the particular point of view from which all news stories are ultimately written.
News and Myth
From a cultural perspective, news media do not merely convey information but also participate in the construction, maintenance, and dissemination of cultural myths. Myths are defined in this context as culturally significant narratives that express foundational values, beliefs, and ideologies. A myth, in this sense, is not a false story or the opposite of truth, but a story that represents a given culture’s view of the world. This view is produced and reinforced daily by news media.
Some mythic archetypes—like the hero myth—are particularly prevalent in news coverage. The myth of the hero follows a recurrent pattern, in which the hero, who is usually born into humble circumstances, embarks on a difficult journey, encounters great challenges, wins a decisive victory, and returns home triumphant. Sport heroes are one popular subgenre of the hero myth in contemporary news media. For example, the story about the triumphant journey of swimmer Michael Phelps in the 2008 Olympic Games captured front pages of U.S. newspapers for over a week. Captivity and rescue narratives are another prominent sub-category of the hero myth in the news, such as the much-disputed story of the capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003 (a story which later turned out to be less heroic than was initially portrayed by the press), or the heroic Vietnam War captivity story of John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. The 2008 presidential campaign also demonstrated the mutability of cultural myths, and the role played by news media in expressing and shaping these changes. Thus, the narrative created for Democratic candidate Barack Obama was also based on a heroic journey of a gifted individual, but his triumph was not that of a war hero. Rather, the mythic narrative emphasized Obama’s success in overcoming racial barriers and renewing hope, thereby reflecting shifting definitions of heroism and the qualities and tests required for the presidency.
Mythic qualities of news have been explored extensively. Some researchers have focused on news as a particular kind of symbolic system, arguing that when viewed from a narrative-mythic perspective, what readers/viewers learn from news is not necessarily facts of a particular story, but the larger symbolic system into which facts and details fit. For example, audiences rarely remember the details of specific crime stories, but each story fits into a larger narrative about good, evil, deviance, and underlying cultural norms and values. Others have focused on particular news stories with mythic elements, arguing that journalists regularly invoke mythic archetypes in formulating current news stories (like the hero archetype, or the use of the flood myth in news coverage of hurricanes), or that certain culturally important stories (such as the Kennedy example above) are mythologized and “kept alive” by journalists.
There is a fundamental tension between notions of news and myth. In order to attain and retain status as a cultural myth, stories should be told and retold, whereas news deals with new and different events. Fitting new stories into a broader symbolic system, invoking mythic archetypes in contemporary stories, or keeping stories “open” and unresolved, can all be seen as strategies of mitigating this inherent tension. They all allow journalists to retell a culture’s foundational stories through a framework of newsworthy stories.
A narrative view of news greatly enriches our understanding of journalism’s different forms and styles, its commonalities with other cultural storytellers, its relationship with the broader cultural system, and its social roles beyond information transmission. However, when taken to an extreme, this approach can also obscure differences between journalism and other modes of cultural production, and in particular journalism’s unique relation to truth and facts. Attending to narrative qualities of news does not necessarily negate the value of facts and truth in journalistic practices, theories, and ideals. The challenge is to find ways of accounting for the complexity and countervailing impulses of journalism, without treating it as either the same as or completely different from other storytelling modes.