Module JG260

Narrative Journalism

Module author

Linda Kay

Concordia University

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define narrative journalism and explain this journalistic genre that combines fiction and non-fiction writing;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically and explain what its positive and negative aspects are.
Study point 1
Reading extract Narrative Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Narrative Journalism is important zu know

The concept of narrative journalism is a storytelling device by an author that offers the reader more than the simple basics of facts and figures that are offered in the inverted pyramid style that is a hallmark of everyday journalism. 

Also known as creative non-fiction, this form involves a good deal more research that can include having the author spending an extended period on the subject or theme. The end result will describe both the scenes and people involved in much more detailed fashion, while using the author's voice to move the story along.

Anecdotes that would merely be mentioned as part of a general news story are fleshed out in order to give flavor to scenes within the work. That creates a level of suspense that the everyday writer doesn't have the time (or perhaps the inclination) to fashion.

Narrative Journalism dates back to the 18th Century with works such as Daniel Defoe, and continuing through other legendary figures such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. 

Nearly 50 years ago, Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about the brutal murders of the Clutter family in Kansas became the basis for In Cold Blood, which was made into a motion picture two years after its publication. Capote's method of spending a great deal of time in Kansas and his ability to connect with the two killers was an example of immersion journalism.

Other authors that helped expand the popularity of this genre included Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, while publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire and Rolling Stone offered aspiring writers in this field a wider array of opportunities to display their talents.

More recently, the development of online components for the concept have seen the creation of such journalistic vehicles as Slate and Salon. While both offer a clear political slant to their reporting, the in-depth approach that can be embraced through the virtually endless space on the internet allows for more detailed analysis of the issues that are investigated.

Given the space constraints of hard-copy entities, the online version of newspapers have offered more examples of this type. The first prominent example came with the Philadelphia Inquirer's 1997 look at the American raid of Mogadishu in Somalia four years earlier. Entitled, "Black Hawk Down," the story eventually became, like In Cold Blood, a full-length feature film.

Despite the contrast from its everyday cousin, narrative journalism in some aspects does require a similar approach if the end result is to have any impact. Most notably, the need to start with a strong opening while also offering accurate information is paramount.

While a reporter injecting himself into a story is not always recommended, the use of such techniques is not a deal-breaker when attempting to produce top-level work. Such an approach allows the writer to then use a first-person narrative that is often frowned upon by typical journalistic standards.

There is a danger of taking too long to produce such a feature, which could result in the timeliness of the work to diminish. However, there is one easy way for a writer to realize that their work is done, and that is when no new information can be discovered through the people involved.

Some of the main criticisms of the genre deals with the fact that over the course of compiling the information and subsequent writing, the opinions and/or biases of the author can seep into the telling of the story. Such an approach is contrary to standard journalistic practices that emphasize sticking to the facts. 

This can also be true in the making of documentary features that employ this technique. Many times, misleading film or footage can be interspersed during the discussion of an issue, which not only damages the role of context within the film, but also undercuts the credibility of the creators.

This form of journalism is relevant for the everyday journalist of today because it can free individuals from being forced to compress a worthwhile story within the restrictive format of newspapers and the gatekeepers who run them. Stories that deserve a full telling have more potential to be told due to the greater availability of online options, a fact that makes it even more certain that this genre will continue to have an impact in the years ahead.