The Tyranny of Narratives in Journalism

I ran across Cowen’s talk recently, and I thought of this thread. I don’t have a lot of time now, but here’s a brief description of the thread. My sense is that journalists, and maybe more specifically publishers and editors, require news to occur within a narrative. Indeed, “stories” in the context of journalism is essentially synonymous with a newsworthy event or information. This is the reason I use the word tyranny. Must a narrative framework dominate the approach of journalists? What’s the downside and upside of that? Cowen touches on the downside–and he’s touching on many of the points I want to bring up. (I do want to push back on some of his points, too, though.)

4 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Narratives in Journalism

  1. I didn’t see the video, but what the tweet says is true, and all journalism students learn it in their first newswriting course. Of course, “journalism” covers a lot of ground, and if Rosen is talking strictly about reporting, he’s a hundred percent right. It’s less applicable to writing about sports and features, two other aspects of journalism where strict reporting is not expected. The problem (going back to Neil Postman, as we always seem to) is that when news becomes entertainment, it changes the nature of the reporting.

  2. I definitely believe journalists place more emphasis on storytelling, particularly those with titillating content, as news becomes more like entertainment. However, even if this were not the case, I have a feeling journalists would still place a lot of emphasis on storytelling.

    Stories or narratives not only provide an entertaining and compelling framework for news, but they help organize news or information in a way that helps citizens make sense of it. Indeed, I’m guessing if journalists didn’t rely on a narratives, news consumers would do so; that is, the latter would eventually organize the news into narrative frameworks. Think of your knowledge of current events (or any type of knowledge)–can you think of any that is outside of a narrative?

    1. It sounds like you’re saying the very nature of a journalist is to frame things with storytelling sensibilities, which kind of goes against the “the problem with journalism today…” premise. If it’s the nature of journalism, it’s been inherent since the early days of reporting, which I don’t think is what people are saying.

      Narrative, as in a sequence of events, is necessarily a part of reporting, but this is not how newswriting is taught. Are you familiar with the inverted pyramid? It’s literally lesson one in writing news. At least in the contemporary sense of storytelling, it goes against the approach of storytelling.

      What I am trying to say in my initial comment is that it’s become this way, but this is not how it’s taught. So anyone with formal training in newswriting (which I am not) who reports news with narrative at the forefront has learned to do it in today’s marketplace, because it’s not reporting the way reporting is taught.

    2. It sounds like you’re saying the very nature of a journalist is to frame things with storytelling sensibilities,…

      I wasn’t think in these terms (but maybe this is correct?). Instead, I thought that journalists naturally gravitate towards narrative frameworks because they want to reach a large audience (even if it’s not a financial necessity).

      Compare this to research published in a scientific journal. My sense is that researchers write their report for a much smaller audience, where a compelling narrative need not attract readers.

      Narrative, as in a sequence of events, is necessarily a part of reporting, but this is not how newswriting is taught.

      “Narrative” or “story” in this context involves more than this in my view. In fact, I’d say the sequence is secondary. The more critical component involves drama, which often involve good guys, bad guys, and some conflict or challenge. For example, one common story involves fat cat politicians paying off their friend and screwing the people in the process. In this story, the “people” are the good guys–and they’re losing.

      Are you familiar with the inverted pyramid?

      I think I heard this from you, but I don’t remember anything about it.

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