Capote photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1948

Image via Wikipedia

 

The narrative qualities of news, and what constructing “stories” actually means, is the focus of work by Bird and Dardenne. In a chapter entitled Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of  News, first published in 1988, they discover that while news accounts are traditionally known as stories, which are by definition culturally constructed narratives, little serious study has been made of this area.       

As Halloran points out, journalists “continue to think in terms of freedom of the press, objectivity, fairness, impartiality, balance, the reflection of reality, true representation, readily accepting a clear distinction between fact and opinion”, thereby treating discussion of the relationship between news and story with suspicion (Bird and Dardenne 1997, p 333).      

The border between fiction and non-fiction is an area that interests me greatly, since I  also study creative writing at UTS. In the recently completed subject 57031 Non-fiction Writing, I was exposed to literary journalism; New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s; and the idea of creative non-fiction. We studied Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (1965), his self-described “non-fiction novel” and the precursor to all true-crime writing today.      

The New Journalism style of journalism certainly recognised the narrative qualities of news that Bird and Dardenne refer to. Emerging through writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, the so called ‘New Journalism’ is narrative nonfiction and has been described as a new genre of writing.      

Wolfe writes that in the early 1960s there was a discovery among writers (mainly feature writers and novelists), “that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel” (1975 p 21) and that “all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism” (1975 p 21).       

Wolfe explains how journalists adopted the literary devices of fiction, learning the techniques of social realism used in novels to power their writing (1975, p 46). He describes the four main literary devices employed (1975, p 46):      

1. scene-by-scene construction – telling the story by moving from scene to scene      

2. dialogue – involves the reader more completely than any other device;      

3. third person point of view – technique of presenting every scene through the eyes of  a particular character;      

4. recording of symbolic details – such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of travelling, eating, keeping house that are symbolic of people’s status life.      

But some journalists go too far, not only employing the literary devices of fiction, but straying into the realms of fiction itself. Bird and Dardenne (1997 p 333) highlight that real-life scandals such as the Janet Cooke affair (her article was published in The Washington Post September 28, 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, she subsequently admitted that it was a fabrication) and New Yorker writer Alastair Reid using fictional devices in factual accounts, have resulted in recriminations and calls for “back to basics” (Bird and Dardenne on p 333). They cite Hersey, 1981: “It is very simple…The writer of fiction must invent. The journalist must not invent” (Bird and Dardenne on p 334).      

Other examples of journalists crossing the line into fiction, since the publication of Bird and Dardenne’s work in this area in 1997, include Stephen Glass, reporter for The New Republic magazine, who fictionalised stories before he was found out and fired in 1998 and Jayson Blair, a former American reporter for The New York Times. Blair resigned from the newspaper in May 2003, in the wake of plagiarism and fabrication being discovered within his stories.      

This blurring of the line between fiction and non fiction, recalls Janet Malcolm‘s warning in The Journalist and the Murderer (1991, p 152-153):      

“What is at stake for the reader in the issue of whether or not a writer has   violated the rules of his genre? Contemporary fiction, after all, is full of such trespasses. …why can’t writers of nonfiction fool around in the same way, take similar liberties, conduct their own modernist experiments? Why should one genre enjoy more privileges than the writer in the other?      

The answer is: because the writer of fiction is entitled to more privileges. He is master of his own house and may do what he likes in it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined…But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house – and its name is Actuality – as he found it. He may bring his own furniture and arrange it as he likes (the so-called New Journalism is about the arrangement of furniture), and he may play his radio quietly. But he must not disturb the house’s fundamental structure or tamper with any of its architectural features.      

The writer of nonfiction is under a contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events and characters.”      

Bird and Dardenne argue that despite the blatant use of fictionalised material in various scandals journalists continue to have faith in their ability to find and present facts. News is seen as a neutral conduit for reality, particularly if structured as hard news. This flows from the idea that hard news is informative and factual, while soft news is diverting. But, according to Bird and Dardenne, focusing on a distinction between hard and soft news “blinds us to the way narrative devices are used in all news writing” [emphasis added] (1997, p 335).      

A news as narrative approach, as described by Bird and Dardenne, doesn’t deny that news informs, but argues that what an audience learns may have little to do with the “facts”, “names” and figures” that journalists try to present so accurately. These details, both significant and insignificant contribute to the larger symbolic system of news.  The “facts”, “names” and figures” change almost daily, but the framework into which they fit – the symbolic system –  is more enduring (Bird and Dardenne, 1997, p 335.)      

A central tenet of Bird and Dardenne’s analysis is that news has mythical qualities: it is part of an age-old cultural practice, narrative and story-telling, that is universal (Bird and Dardenne, 1997, p 336). As a communication process, news can act like myth and folklore, they argue. Bird and Dardenne conclude that news stories, like myths, do not “tell it like it is”, but rather, “tell it like it means” (1997, p 337.)      

This leads me to thinking about the following questions: What is news, as a symbolic system, teaching audiences? What specific myths and folklore elements are being acted out, transformed and re-created in the “ritual process” (Bird and Dardenne, 1997 p 333) of news stories today in newspapers, on radio and on television? What examples are there of the mythical qualities of news being played out in today’s journalism?      

REFERENCE LIST:       

Bird SE and Dardenne RW (1997) ‘Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News’, in Berlowitz D (ed) 1997, Social Meanings of News, Sage, pp 333-350.      

Capote Truman, In Cold Blood, Penguin, 1966.      

Cooke Janet, ‘Jimmy’s World’, The Washington Post, September 28, 1980, Page A1.       

Malcolm Janet, The Journalist and the Murder, 1991, Bloomsbury, 1991.       

Popik B, 2009, The Big Apple, November 23, 2009, “First draft of history” (journalism), viewed  6 September 2010, <http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/first_draft_of_history_journalism/&gt;.      

Wolfe Tom, The New Journalism, Picador, 1975.      

BIBLIOGRAPHY:      

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees, Writing creative nonfiction: fiction techniques for crafting great nonfiction, Berkeley (CA): Ten Speed Press, 2001.      

Capote Truman, In Cold Blood, Penguin, 1966.      

Malcolm Janet, The Journalist and the Murder, 1991, Bloomsbury, 1991.       

Gutkind Lee, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, Wiley and Sons, 1997.      

Lounsberry Barbara, The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction, Greenwood Press, 1990.      

Sims Norman, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, OUP, 1990.

Related Articles

Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News – Bird and Dardenne     

57013 Journalism Studies

Advertisements