Narrative journalism, also referred to as literary journalism, is defined as creative nonfiction that contains accurate, well-researched information. It is related to immersion journalism, where a writer follows a subject or theme for a long period of time (weeks or months) and details an individual's experiences from a deeply personal perspective.
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a historic example of narrative journalism in novel form. The book was published in 1965, being therefore the second "nonfiction novel" and helped show journalists the possibility of using creative writing techniques while holding to the guidelines of journalism. The first "non-fiction" novel was "Operación Masacre", written in 1957 by the Argentine writer Rodolfo Walsh.
Though Capote claims to have invented this new form of journalism, the origin of a movement of creative writing in journalism is often thought to have occurred much earlier. Characteristics of narrative journalism can be found in Daniel Defoe's writing in the 18th century, as well as in writings of Mark Twain in the 19th century and James Agee, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in the World War II period.
Capote's contemporary Tom Wolfe also wrote The New Journalism in 1974 and is credited for popularizing discussion on the appropriateness of narrative in journalism. He cites Gay Talese with being the "father" of new journalism, and exemplifies the foundations of narrative journalism in his compilation "The Gay Talese Reader".
Today, many nonfiction novels use narrative journalism to tell their stories. Print publications such as Harper's, The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice are also welcome homes to narrative journalists.
Mainstream newspaper publications are still wary of supporting narrative journalism too much due to time and space constraints, and will often print the occasional narrative in a Sunday features or supplemental magazine.
The definitions of narrative journalism are many and varied. Some prefer to refer to it as literary journalism, or creative non-fiction. Simply put, narrative is the way in which a story is constructed through a particular point of view and arrangement of events. The Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, launched in 2001, aims to provide a centre for the teaching, learning and practice of narrative journalism. The Nieman Foundation defines narrative journalism as more than simply telling stories: it is a complex genre with multiple layers and contexts that, when done well, has the capacity to reform newspapers and make them essential and compelling. Broadly, some critical elements of narrative journalism include the following:
• It contains accurate, well-researched information, and is also interesting to read.
• It looks at intriguing people, human emotions, and real situations. It provides the private story behind the public story.
• It reaches past the ordinary by blending the reportage of facts with the writing style of fiction.
Mark Kramer, former director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, says it is “journalism that doesn’t assume the reader is a robot, that acknowledges the reader knows lots and feels and snickers and gets wild.” Kramer stresses the importance of voice. Readers have their coffee with the newspaper in the morning, he says. They want to understand and even identify with the news voice; but regular news reporting is anonymous and restrained, leaving the reader feeling lonely. When you have an audience made up of so many disparate sorts of people it seems noble to appeal to the lowest common denominator and just talk about the facts. But what happens is depersonalisation of the news voice – narrative journalism aims to put the human voice back at the breakfast table. Kramer defines narrative journalism as writing that contains the following elements:
1. Set scenes;
3. Action that unfolds over time;
4. Voice that has personality;
5. A relationship with the audience; and
6. Destination – a theme, a purpose, and a reason.
Online narrative journalism
One of the earliest and most high profile examples of effective usage of narrative journalism online can be found in the Philadelphia Inquirer's nonfiction serial "Black Hawk Down". The 1997 online newspaper series chronicled the dramatic American raid of Mogadishu and based their stories on interviews with the soldiers who fought in the battle. The story became part illustrated book, part documentary and part radio program and allowed readers to explore the story in depth.
With the availability of free publishing online today, narrative journalism has become a popular form used by writers eager to give their personal perspectives on noteworthy events and public issues.
Salon and Slate are two of the most popular forums for narrative journalism. Other sites devoted to this craft include Creative Nonfiction and Atlantic Unbound, and with the increasing popularity of citizen journalism there exists potential for more to explore on the scene to cater to a variety of niches.
Six Billion, founded in 2003, was an online magazine of narrative journalism that attempted to tackle an issue from 360 degrees. Each issue (themed by one topic such as "Battleground States" or "Veterans of Foreign Wars") featured stories told in text, film/video, photography, sound, illustration, and interactive media.
Issues with narrative journalism
"A narrative does not depart from the cardinal rule: Make nothing up or you'll be out of here and working at the Sunglass Hut so fast it'll make your head spin around. A narrative is a journalistic form that has fallen into considerable disfavor in the wake of our craft's ceaseless, self-flagellating credibility crisis" — Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman
Since so much of narrative journalism is based on a writer reconstructing his or her experiences, many professionals in the news industry find themselves wary of using this technique because it is often harder to verify facts within the story. In a post-Jayson Blair era, those concerned with the ethics of honest reporting and writing are cautious of journalistic storytelling that may be manipulating facts to make the reader more emotionally invested.
Also, narrative journalism has not yet found a definite home in the newsroom because of the nature of news reporting. Long-form writing is something that most journalists are not trained for, and incredible hard-news beat reporters are not necessarily great storytellers.
Narrative journalism cannot be practiced in every setting.
- The Poynter Institute – A school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders.
- Writing History: Capote's novel – A Lawerence Journal World article on the impact of Truman Capote's novel
- Black Hawk Down The Philadelphia Inquirer's serial about the raid on Mogadishu
- Creative Nonfiction
- Atlantic Unbound
- http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/narrative/home.aspx – Harvard's Narrative Journalism program
- Little Bill Clinton The Christian Science Monitor's serial following a year in the life of a young Congolese refugee