De Stichting Verhalende Journalistiek organiseert elk jaar een conferentie, True Stories, over narratieve journalistiek. Dit jaar verzorgde ik de inleiding bij een avond getiteld The Narrative Dilemma, over de spanning tussen journalistiek en storytelling. Hier mijn tekst:
I’m a journalist and a writer. I studied at the School for Journalism in Utrecht in the late seventies and since then worked as a radio-reporter for public broadcaster VPRO, staff writer with a national weekly magazine, Haagse Post, as a reporter for a national newspaper called NRC, the I started writing books and became a columnist, also, among others, for NRC and online platform Follow The Money.
In the approximately 40 years I’ve been involved with journalism more things have changed then in its entire history before that, though those years were certainly not without change themselves.
There are many ways to characterise the changes to journalism during this period. Socially speaking: from institution-bound to independent. Politically speaking: from docile to critical. Commercially speaking: from product-oriented to market-oriented. Culturally speaking: from trusted tot distrusted. And, finally, philosophically speaking: from modern to postmodern.
I want to focus on this last transition. This is were narrative journalism comes in, or, as I like to call it, narrativism. This is a vital distinction: contrary to what some critics of my analysis appear to think, it is not about what is called ‘narrative journalism’, it is about a tendency towards narrativism in journalism as a whole.
As I’m sure you’re aware, the commercial viability of traditional newsmedia is under pressure. As I’m sure you’re aware of too, public trust in journalism is declining. And here is the big problem: remedies for the first problem seem to exacerbate the second and solutions to the second problem exacerbate the first. This is the almost impossible balancing act facing the news industry today. Optimise for audience and trust goes down, optimise for trust and audience goes down.
Journalism is an institution founded in the heyday of modernism. Modernism as in: the advent of positivism, empiricism, the conviction that reality can be known objectively through the scientific establishment of facts. Through technology, the telegraph, the rotary press, motorized transport, the power of journalism increased tenfold. It became possible for a newspaper to prop up or bring d0wn governments, to ruin or enrich stockholders, to make or break someones reputation, in a matter of hours. So the trade was regulated, both by law and a professional code of ethics. Things written in a newspaper had to be factual, proven and objective. This raised the status of the journalistic profession and the authority of journalistic institutions, to become what we now know as The Fourth Estate, the Queen of the Earth, no less, the unleashed watchdog of power, crucial pillar of democracy, etcetera.
But modernism was succeeded by postmodernism: the idea that objective knowledge is an illusion, that ‘facts’ are manmade, that they are always the product of perspective and interpretation, that they’re not objective but subjective. Philosophy took what is known as the ‘linguistic turn’: all we really have are words.
Discourse, language, narrative. Stories.
This was an extremely powerfull idea, just like modernism had been, and it transformed our culture.
Historians took it to heart, for example. As the postmodern historian Louis Mink said: ‘Stories are not lived, the are told.’ Simply put: in the fortieth year of the Eighty Year War, there was nobody that said: ‘Thank God we’re halfway there.’
The Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit said: if modernism was the flow of knowledge, postmodernism is the eb: we do not know history, we tell stories about it. The term ‘narrativism’, that I used earlier, was coined by Ankersmit.
Logically journalism, sometimes called the notebook of history, followed suit, and ‘new journalism’ was invented: journalism that discards the notion of objectivity, a departure from the idea of the journalist as an informant, in favour of the journalist as a storyteller. The elevation of the humble journalist from ‘machines, mechanically reproducing reality, voyeurs, never really taking part in society’, as press-historian Elizabeth Farkas phrased it, to a personality with his own vision and voice. Journalism became postmodern too.
I was a dedicated follower of this school, and devoted myself to it as a reporter for Haagse Post, arguably the strongest practitioner of the genre in the Netherlands. The motto for my final thesis came form Hunter S. Thompson, somewhat of a role model.
‘Objective journalism is a hard thing to come by these days,’ he wrote. ‘With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a gross contradiction in terms.’
The succes of New Journalism made it infectious, and traditional journalism started borrowing from it: more reportage, more columns, more interview, more opinion.
There are many ways to categorise journalistic genres – the inverted pyramid (IP)-structure – or as we say in Dutch the 5 W’s (wie, wat, waar, wanneer en waarom) – versus the linear narrative structure (from initiation to result), for example. Another way is ‘thematic’ versus ‘episodic’, a distinction introduced by political scientist Shanto Iyengar. In a thematic piece you look at the issue from different sides, from a distance, and weigh the available information, in an episodic piece you write a about people involved in the issue.
In current journalism, the latter is on the rise and the former is on the decline. Narrative journalism, was embraced as one of the possible remedies for the loss of audience of traditional journalism that we have seen in the past decades. More people, more drama, more real life, more personal experience, more emotion. Less theme, more episode. More storytelling.
There is no doubt that this trend has livened up journalism. But it has risks as well. Just this last saturday Sjoerd de Jong, the ‘ombudsman’ of NRC Handelsblad, the paper I have worked for practically my whole career, mentioned a reader complaining about the excessive use of anecdotal and narrative elements to ‘spice up’ articles, often obligatory, uninspired and not adding relevant information. De Jong acknowledges the complaint: NRC contains a lot of storytelling these days, and maybe too much.
This conference itself is proof that narrative journalism has been on the rise. But is it about narrativism or about journalism? The bonus-lecture of this conference will be held, saturday, by Dan Reed, maker of the film Leaving Neverland.
The most serious and conscientious journalistic broadcaster in the Netherlands, VPRO, recently aired that film. It’s narrative allright, boy, is thát film narrative, but: is it journalism?
Two people making accusations of the most serious criminal offences, for four hours on end. And besides this never-ending, extremely detailed and gruesome indictment, there was no room for even ten minutes of fair hearing of the accused?
Accusations against a real person, (albeit dead, but that shouldn’t matter) of an extremely serious nature, is that legitimate content for a work of storytelling? Not in my view. Just ten minutes for some additional, balancing information, could have elevated this film from hearsay and innuendo – some might even call it victim porn – to real journalism. And it begs the question if a product like this should be featured in a conference about narrative journalism.
Equally embarrassing was the fact that the VPRO, when their decision to air this film was questioned, decided to bookend it with a studiopanel to put it in perspective, and then failed again by putting only supporters of that decision on the panel and not one opponent. In fact not one serious journalist at all, pro ór contra. Here, in a matter of hours, a man’s reputation was destroyed beyond repair, without one word in his defense – exactly what journalism was designed for not to do.
I have no opinion on whether Michael Jackson did these things or not, I’m not invested in it either way, but I am invested in the essential journalistic principle of fair hearing, and in that respect, this was a shamefull exercise. We may all live to see the day that Leaving Neverland turns out to be one gigantic hoax. Perpetrated, for instance, to land a multi-multi-million lawsuit. Although, let me stress that, I am more inclined to think that the maker of this film is sincere and his choices were politically motivated. But that too, is incompatible with journalism! (Update: after listening to Reed for two hours, my impression has changed – more on that later)
That is one of the problems of journalistic narrativism: facts can be correct or incorrect – lots of room for discussion there too, but lets not get into that now – but a narrative is a lot harder to validate.
Not only journalists tell stories. Everybody does, nowadays. Everybody is storyteller and everyone is aware of the power of mass communication & how it can be used to further ambitions and interests.
In the four decades that I’ve been involved in journalism we have seen the meteoritic rise of the PR Industrial Complex. The institutions traditionally under scrutiny of the press, the halls of social, political, economic and cultural power, have raised an army of ‘storytellers’ themselves, people skilled in the art of replacing facts by stories, by narrative. Framing, spinning, priming, agendasetting, lobbying, PR- people that stand between the journalist and his or her subject, and manipulate the outcome in their interest. They acknowledge the media’s appetite for narrative, and provide it. Read Flat Earth News, or Gevaarlijk Spel, about the Dutch situation, on how this industry has almost dwarfed the newsbusiness in size, with, according to some estimates, ten ‘strategic storytellers’ one one real journalist. Even traditional, non-narrative journalism has become narrativistic: through the intervention of the PR Industrial Complex, news is more and more about what people say, and less and less about what people actually do.
An interesting example was Lance Armstrong. He knew that as long as he provided a narrative – a term he used himself regularly – that was more attractive to the media that the truth, they would not attack him. Time after time he upped the ante, the narrative became bigger and more amazing each year, and for the media the prospect of losing this amazingly powerfull story, became more and more abhorrent. (Until one narrative-deaf and facts-obsessed journalist went short on the Armstrong-stock, persisted, and managed to bring it down.)
Another example of course is Donald Trump, a habitual bullshitter that, in a mediaculture focused on facts, rather than on narrative, would not have stood a chance in hell. The Trump-narrative was simply way more lucrative that the Trump-facts. He knows it and exploits it. By providing this outrageous narrative and by taking every opportunity he can to further degrade the public trust in journalism, so the facts that are reported about him, also turn in to fiction and don’t harm him.
In my opinion this calls for more facts-based journalism, rather than more narrativism. Because if the journalist morphes form informant into storyteller, what will happen to that decreasing public trust in journalism? And to it’s vital role as The Fourth Estate, Queen of the Earth, etcetera, etcetera?
Or maybe we should’t talk about trust, but about reliance? As a pillar of democracy, journalism doesn’t only have to be trusted, after all, trust is an emotion, more important perhaps is that it’s to be relied upon, by citizens, to inform their choices. If journalism loses that authority, that status, that power, we have a big problem. That way we could end up with a journalism that has survived this crisis, is possibly even thriving, but not as an authoritative supplier of facts, but as an entertaining supplier of stories.
Also: a thematic piece about, let’s say, poverty, requires a – not necessarily objective – but at least a broad, comprehensive approach, whereas an episodic piece requires a choice: what poor person are we using as an example? The one that copes, or the one that perishes? A victim or a survivor? Male, female, urban or rural, white, black, criminal record, addiction? How to make that choice, without loading the piece with some kind of bias? And what bias was it, commercial, ideological?
In his book Is Anyone Responsible, Shanto Iyengar, whom I mentioned earlier, presents research that the more episodic social and political reporting people consume and the less thematic, the more they are inclined to think that for instance poverty, is the result of personal behavior and not of social circumstances, and that the solution lies in individual choices, not in government policy. In other words: episodic journalism makes us a-political.
So, aren’t we exaggerating the Power of Stories? Does it really provide empowerment, or is it a form of quasi-empowerment? I looked up the word ‘storyteller’ and found synonyms and variations like ‘minstrel’, ‘troubadour’, ‘raconteur’ and ‘bard’. Since then, every time I hear the word storyteller, I see this image of the last page of an Asterix and Obelix-comix book. The adventure had ended, the crisis is conquered, the villagers sit down for some serious feasting, but not before Cacofonix, the village bard, is tied to a big tree, together with his little harp. He doensn’t seem to be taken very seriously.
So ‘narrative journalists’ have a big responsibility: to be good narrators, but also, and perhaps even more so, to be good journalists. To think long and hard on what to them is more important, the noun in the name of their profession, or the adjective.
If I was not above cheap rhetorical ploys, I would say: the survival of journalism lies in the hands of narrative journalists.