What’s Wrong with the News and Who Cares?
Narrative is what I come up with when I put my niece to bed and she says, “Tell me a story.” I tell her a story, I don’t tell her an article. ~ Janet Rae Brooks, Salt Lake Tribune
My friend Mara who is studying creative writing at Hollins University (VA) tells me that the style of writing I’ve been freelancing to our local newspaper is “narrative journalism.” I knew it was more personal and conversational than traditional reporting, but I didn’t exactly know that’s what I was doing until Mara's comment prompted me to do some research on this genre.
Unlike today’s more accepted standard of objective journalism, narrative journalism is done from a first person perspective. Also known as “literary journalism” because it demands a quality of writing that goes beyond simply reporting, narrative journalism blends reporting with storytelling. It doesn’t overload its readers with facts and figures. The ones it does use are blended in with scene setting, dialogue, and first-hand sensory descriptions.
Nancy Graham Holm, from the Danish School of Journalism, writes in an article titled “Subjectivity: No Longer a Dirty Word,” that narrative journalism is non-fiction writing that “doesn’t try to be objective but does try to be fair.” She explains how information alone doesn’t necessarily inform. “Participation in events and subsequent interpretation are required to break down the psychological barriers of apathy and cynicism. Numinosity – Jung’s term for emotional attention and heightened psychological awareness is necessary for understanding.”
With roots in the oral tradition, narrative journalism can also be entertaining to read. After the 2004 election, I closely followed the results as described by MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann on his blog. For months, I visited Olbermann’s blog every day. Initially, I went because I wanted to understand why the final election results didn’t match the exit polls that determined Kerry had won. Olbermann didn’t just report, he put what was happening in context. The more I read, the more the back story and Olbermann’s witty writing pulled me in. The fact that he posted a few blog entries from a motel room while on vacation and revealed some conversations he had with his co-workers as he reported, made the news more interesting to follow. Good personal narrative is part of what makes blogs so appealing.
Some of the articles I read on narrative journalism pointed to authors like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson for popularizing the style. Others emphasized that the model is much older. “Generations ago, narrative journalism was the rule in reporting and not the exception. Stories (sometimes rather subjectively reported and quite long by today’s standards) in magazine and newspapers led the reader through a gripping tale told entirely from the view and experiences of the author,” says explorewriting.co.uk, a site for writers.
Holm and other proponents of narrative journalism believe that the more we identify with a story, the more impact it has on us. The more we are impacted, the more chance we’ll be motivated to act on what we’ve learned. But even before identification and impact can happen, a piece of writing has to compel us to read or listen.
Americans are known for complaining about how negative the news is, but maybe it’s not the news as much as the way it’s told that’s so discouraging. I believe most people want to be informed, but receiving a litany of disjointed facts that fill up the mind can be overwhelming and, ultimately, un-empowering. Even more frustrating is when a reporter makes an authoritative statement and then, in an effort to be fair, counters it with a contrary view. Presenting two views is a common journalistic practice that when over-used can cancel out all meaning. Point and counterpoint journalism can encourage division by perpetuating the myth that there are only two sides to every story and that people should align themselves with one side or another.
When it comes to getting readers’ attention, news outlets are competitive. While there are many excellent traditional journalists writing today, the companies they work for have been known to resort to marketing trends that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the public. Sensationalized headlines and stories that play on my fears might initially get my attention, but they don’t hold it. I’d rather invest my time reading or listening to a well-rounded story that I can draw my own conclusions from.
As a writer, I like to place myself in the stories I write so that readers can see through my eyes. Details that can be visualized are more memorable than those of statistics. In spite of the trouble I had memorizing dates in high school, History was my favorite subject because the teachers I had were engaging, loved history, and told stories.
Now that more people are getting their news online and traditional news outlets have been forced to make changes, it might be an ideal time for a resurgence of narrative journalism. According to Bill Kirtz in an article entitled “Newsroom Politics: How to Make the Case for Narrative Journalism,” it may already be on the rise. He, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, cites the following sentence as evidence: Susan Love focused on the blue eyes of the man who lay before her on the floor of the Hennepin County courthouse, almost oblivious to the haze of drawn guns, shouting and deputies swirling around them… “It ran on page one of the Star-tribune, above the fold,” Kirtz said.
Now wouldn’t you want to hear the rest of that story?