Bird and Dardenne are interested in the idea that news is not merely objective reporting of fact, but also a form of storytelling that functions in a mythological way.
In a chapter first published in 1988, Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News, they argue that journalists operate like traditional storytellers, using conventional structures to shape events in to story – and in doing so define the world in particular ways that reflect and reinforce audiences’ notions of reality.
Bird and Dardenne point to Halloran’s comment (1974 pp 14-15) that 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” (1997 p 333), treating discussion of the relationship between news and story with suspicion.
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, are highlighted as having resulted in recriminations and calls for “back to basics” (Murphy 1985, cited by Bird and Dardenne 1997 p 333). Other examples of journalists crossing the line into fiction 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.
The pretense is maintained that every news story springs anew from the facts of the event being recorded, according to Bird and Dardenne.
If it is true that “you can put six reporters in a court and they can sit through six hours of court verbiage and they’ll come out with the same story” (Chibnall 1981, p 86), journalists prefer to see this as a vindication of objective reporting rather than the triumph of formulaic narrative construction.
Rhetorical and structural devices are seen simply as methods to convey information accurately and effectively, and the perceived gulf between fact and fiction is defended ever more strongly. “It is very simple…The writer of fiction must invent. The journalist must not invent” (Hersey 1981, cited by Bird and Dardenne 1997 p 334).
Bird and Dardenne point out that in other disciplines, meanwhile, the study of narrative and story is becoming increasingly important, as “emphasis focuses on texts as cultural constructions” (1997 p 334). Disciplines pointed to are cultural anthropology; the apparently “objective” discipline of physical anthropology where questions are being raised about the cultural conventions that shape such narratives as the scientific account of human evolution; and history, with historians debating the difference between events and stories about events.
Like news, history and anthropology narrate real events, and their practitioners are finding that to understand their narratives, they must examine how they are constructed, including story-telling devices that are an integral part of that construction.
In Bird and Dardenne’s interdisciplinary discussion, they consider the news genre as a “particular kind of symbolic system”. They aim to explore some of the questions arising from the serious consideration of “news as narrative and story”, and hence the troubled relationship between “reality” and “stories about reality”.
At the time Bird and Dardenne were writing, media scholars were already studying the narrative paradigm in order to understand the nature of news (eg Bennett & Edelman 1985). Bird and Dardenne aim to advance that discussion by drawing together converging ideas from several fields of inquiry and relating them to this growing communications literature.
They believe that from this may come a clearer understanding of:
the context in which journalists construct news stories, and how these stories relate to the culture of which they are both a reflection and a representation.
Approaches to the Study of News
Running through most writing on news is the assumption that there are two kinds of news, variously called “hard” versus “soft”, “news” versus “human interest”. According to Bird and Dardenne (1997 p 335), this assumption has held back productive discussion of the narrative qualities of news in two ways:
- It has hindered us from seeing news as a unified body that exhibits clear themes and patterns that have little to with hard/soft or news/human interest splits. It leaves us viewing news within a traditional “transmission model” – essentially from the point of view of the professionals who created this dichotomy. They argue that there is little to suggest that audiences experience the world as so neatly divided.
- This assumption blinds us to the structural qualities of individual stories. It is accepted that hard news is informative and factual, while soft news is diverting. This perception blinds us to the way narrative devices are used in all news writing, maintaining the illusion that the structural devices used in hard news are merely neutral techniques that act as a conduit for events to become information, rather than ways in which a particular kind of narrative text is created.
Bird and Dardenne believe that to understand what “news as narrative” is and does, we must put aside the hard/soft news dichotomy and look at news stories as a whole – both as a “body of work that is a continuing story of human activity”, and as “individual stories that contribute to that continuing one” (1997, p 335).
Considering news as narrative, as described by Bird and Dardenne, does not negate the value of considering news as corresponding with outside reality, as affecting or being affected by society, as being a product of journalists or bureaucratic organisation, but it does introduce another dimension to news, one in which the stories of news “transcend their traditional functions of informing and explaining” (1997 p 335).
The news as narrative approach doesn’t deny that news informs; of course readers readers learn form the news. However, they argue that much of what readers learn 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 [emphasis added]. The facts, names and details change almost daily, but the framework into which they fit – the symbolic system – is more enduring.
And, they argue, it could be that the totality of news as an enduring symbolic system “teaches” audiences more than any of its component parts, no matter whether these parts are intended to inform, irritate, or entertain.
News as Mythological Narrative
News is part of an age-old cultural practice, narrative and story-telling, that seems to be “universal” (Rayfield 1972; Scholes 1982; Turner 1982).
As narrative, news is “orienting” (Park 1944), “communal” (Dewey 1927), and “ritualistic” (Carey 1975).
According to Bird and Dardenne (1997 p 336):
The orderings and creations in narrative are cultural, not natural: news, like history, endows past events with artificial boundaries, “constructing meaningful totalities out of scattered events” (Ricoeur 1981 p 278)
Indeed, journalism is often referred to as the “first draft of history” (Popik, 2009, “First draft of history” (journalism), para.1).
So, argue Bird and Dardenne, rather than considering the “accuracy” of facts and their correspondence with an outside reality, we can consider them as “contributing to the narrative, as elements in a human ordering of elements” (1997, p 336).
A central tenet of Bird and Dardenne’s analysis is that news has mythical qualities.
They argue that one of the most productive ways to see news is to consider it as myth, a standpoint that dissolves the distinction between entertainment and information.
By this they do not mean to say that individual news stories are like individual myths, but that “as a communication process, news can act like myth and folklore” (Bird 1987).
Bascom (1954), in a classic statement on the function of folklore, writes that it serves as:
- a validation of culture,
- wish fulfillment, and
- a force for conformity (cited by Bird and Dardenne 1997 p 336).
While Malinowski (1974, cited by Bird and Dardenne 1997 p 336) considered myth to be a “charter” for human culture.
Through myth and folklore, members of a culture learn values, definitions of right and wrong, and sometimes can experience vicarious thrills, through a body of lore (Bird and Dardenne, 1997, p 336).
Bennett, W.L & Edelman, M, 1985, Toward a new political narrative, Journal of Communication, 35, 156-171.
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.
Chibnall, S, 1981, The production of knowledge by crime reporters, in S Choen & J Young (eds), The manufacture of news: Social problems, deviance and the mass media, pp 263-279, London: Constable.
Halloran, J.D, 1974, Mass media and society: The challenge of research, Leicester: Leicester University Press.
Hersey, J, 1981, The legend on the licence, Yale Review, 70(1), 1-25.
Murphy, J.E, 1985, rattling the journalistic cage: New journalism in old newsrooms, Journal of Communication Inquiry, 8(2), pp 8-15.
Popik B, The Big Apple November 23, 2009, “First draft of history” (journalism), http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/first_draft_of_history_journalism/
Rayfield, J. R, 1972, What is a story?, American Anthropologist, 74, 1085-1106.
Rees Cheney TA, 2001, Writing creative nonfiction, Berkeley (CA): Ten Speed Press.
Scholes, R, 1982, Semiotics and Interpretation, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Turner, V, 1982, Social dramas and stories about them, in From ritual to theatre: The human seriousness of play, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, pp 61-88.
News as myth: What mythical qualities does news have today?
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