“Don’t read me the news, tell me the story”: How news makers and storytellers negotiate journalism’s boundaries when preparing and presenting news stories
By Jan Boesman and Irene Costera Meijer
[Citation: Boesman, J., & Costera Meijer, I. (2018). “Don’t read me the news, tell me the story”: How news makers and storytellers negotiate journalism’s boundaries when preparing and presenting news stories. #ISOJ Journal, 8(1), 13-32.]
This study seeks to understand how journalists deal with story/truth-making in their daily news practice, based on in-depth interviews with 67 journalists from Belgium and the Netherlands. The findings revealed a difference between news makers and storytellers and related differences in the way journalists prepare and present news stories. In preparing stories, news makers consider pegs and predefined angles as vital, while storytellers see them as obstacles. In presenting stories, newsmakers defend many of the journalistic conventions challenged by storytellers. The findings are discussed in terms of boundary work and in the light of the ubiquity of online news.
Storytelling has become a buzzword in the news industry. At the same time, it is often seen as standing vis-à-vis journalists’ truth-seeking mission (Groot Kormelink & Costera Meijer, 2015). Scholars have described journalists’ storytelling function—making news meaningful for their audience—as at odds with their role as provider of facts (Hallin, 1986; Maras, 2013). We believe it makes sense to approach this ancient opposition through the relatively new lens of boundary work (Carlson & Lewis, 2015). Following this perspective, we can see journalists, in the various ways they are “storytelling the truth,” amidst a boundary struggle about “what counts as journalism, what is appropriate journalistic behaviour, and what is deviant … questions about how boundaries are constructed, challenged, reinforced, or erased” (Carlson, 2015, p. 2). In the digital age, journalists are forced to make it clear how they differ from other communicators.
While narrative journalism, for instance, has always been a genre that crosses traditional boundaries of journalism (e.g., Harbers & Broersma, 2014), nowadays, it is also seen as a way in which journalism can distinguish itself from blogs, aggregators and short-format news online (Neveu, 2014; Van Krieken & Sanders, 2016). Other storytelling practices may cross boundaries by embracing the online environment, for instance, by adopting participatory approaches which potentially conflict with professional norms and news values.
Whether journalists distinguish themselves from new technologies or embracing them, the question is do their storytelling practices really challenge old habits of journalistic thought about truth and facts. In public discourses of journalism, “truth” is maybe more than ever played out as the core business of legacy media (e.g., Papenfuss, 2017). The possible tension between storytelling and truth-finding might cause tensions in the concrete practice of building news stories—tensions touching the boundaries of the journalistic profession.
While storytelling nowadays is mainly used in its narrow meaning as a journalistic genre—such as “narrative” or “transmedia” journalism—media scholars usually adopt a broader perspective, as they consider all news making as storytelling (Bird & Dardenne, 1988). This paper takes a somewhat middle position, following Schudson (2005, p. 126) that “all news is stories, but some are more storylike than others” because some “remind us of the novel, the joke, the campfire story, gossip, the moral caution, the various fictional and non-fictional but highly structured and purposive forms people typically associate with the word ‘story.’” We prefer this rather vague description of storytelling over more precise definitions, because we want to remain as open as possible to the boundary work of journalists themselves: what they do and say in relation to the supposed tension between story and truth.
A Practice Approach to Storytelling
Carlson (2015) applied Gieryn’s (1983) three generic types of boundary work (expansion, expulsion, and protection of autonomy) to three areas of journalism around which boundary work occurs: professionalism, participants, and practices. While not excluding the first two Ps, this study focuses on practices. A practice approach fits well within a boundary work perspective, as practice theorists reject a priori distinctions such as those between storytelling and truth-finding or even between “news consumption” and “news production” (Couldry, 2004; Domingo, Masip, & Costera Meijer, 2015; Postill, 2010). Practice theory emphasizes the practices that transcend the boundaries between them. It sees journalism as a set of practices that are not exclusively journalistic. Although this paper focuses on journalistic storytelling practices, it is good to keep in mind that storytelling is a practice that exceeds journalism (Raetschz, 2015).
The majority of storytelling research is focused on texts and/or its effects on audiences (for instance, by comparing narrative structures with the inverted pyramid structure, e.g. Emde, Klimmt, & Schluetz, 2016; Yaros, 2006, 2011). Inspired by practice theory, this study shifts the emphasis from the study of texts to the ethnographic study of people’s doings and sayings (Couldry, 2004). Thus, storytelling is studied as practice rather than as an end product.
News ethnography has a long history. At first, it was mainly used to study bureaucratic routines within the walls of elite news organizations (e.g., Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978). In his plea for a “second wave of news ethnographies” Cottle (2000) invited news production scholars to rehabilitate journalists’ agency by studying “cultural practices” instead of “administrative routines.” Although its “embodied” nature is at the core of practices, we feel at home with Ahva’s (2016, p. 5) emphasis on the reflexivity aspect of practice—“to avoid the idea that people would merely ‘act out.’” Therefore, we include in our investigations journalists’ reflections about their practices as (discursive) practices and take them as seriously as their performances.
The second wave of newsroom studies is mainly focused on online news making (Domingo & Paterson, 2011; Paterson & Domingo, 2008). The underlying idea is that, amidst the digital revolution, ethnographers must get their shoes dirty to produce first-hand reports of this “universe in construction” (Franquet, 2013, p. 198). Although this study did not specifically focus on online journalism, the digital environment inevitably influenced the storytelling practices of all studied journalists. According to Coddington (2015, p. 38), distinctions between “online” and “traditional” media are no longer useful since virtually all journalists are doing their work online in some form. By exploring storytelling as performative and as discursive practice rather than as end product, this paper aims to investigate the boundary work involved in and beyond the storytelling-versus-reality debate.
This paper combines data from three different studies, in which different methods were applied: newsroom observations, reconstruction interviews, in-depth interviews, and (news) content analysis. This paper is mainly based on the field notes and the interview transcripts. In total, 148 interviews were held with 67 journalists.1
In the first study (carried out from February to May 2013), interviews were held with 33 journalists from four Belgian newspaper newsrooms. From each newsroom, five domestic news beat reporters were followed closely to reconstruct the development of their news stories through semi-structured reconstruction interviews. Reconstructing the “biographies” of news stories (Brüggemann, 2013) makes it possible to focus on recording actions “on specific stories rather than general estimations” (Reich, 2006, p. 501). Our reconstruction interviews consisted of both a narrative and a focused discourse section (see Boesman et al., 2016). In the first section, the field researcher encouraged reporters to retell the news report as it developed, as chronologically as possible. In the second section, the published news report served as a guideline (Boesman, d’Haenens & Van Gorp, 2016). Besides, in-depth interviews were held with these reporters as well as with their editor(s)-in-chief, with one of their news chiefs, and with one of their copy editors. In the second study (carried out from November 2014 to January 2015), interviews were held with 22 journalists from two newspapers belonging to the same media company, one in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. Seventeen were beat reporters (domestic news, politics, economics, foreign affairs and science), three were editors-in-chief, and two were copy editors.
In the third study (carried out from January to June 2017), extensive in-depth interviews were held with 13 journalists from Belgium and the Netherlands, all working for different newsrooms (or as a freelancer). Six of them were broadcast journalists (working for television and/or radio), five were print journalists (working for newspapers and/or magazines), and two were multimedia journalists (making and/or coordinating broadcasts as well as text stories for digital platforms). Although these interviews also involved some reconstructions of concrete news stories, the interviews in this study are better labelled as “expert interviews” (Bogner & Menz, 2009) with experienced storytellers. The involved journalists were selected based on one or more of the following criteria: they have written storytelling handbooks; they are teaching their colleagues about storytelling and/or about making reportages; they have won prizes for narrative and/or investigative journalism; they are mentioned as excellent storytellers by colleague journalists.
Notes were taken for all interviews and most of them were tape-recorded.2 The interviews were transcribed and coded—depending on the aim of the study—in SPSS (study one), Nvivo (study two), Atlas.ti (study three) and manually (all studies). Using a grounded theory–based approach, the analysis consisted of three phases in which the research material was constantly scanned and compared (Böhm, 2004; Corbin & Strauss, 1990). During the open coding phase, we coded all textual passages in interview transcripts and field notes related to the development of news stories (phases, genres, interactions, causes, consequences, and so on). Because boundary work is a discursive struggle in which journalists engage rhetorically (Carlson, 2015; Ferrucci & Vos, 2017), we were especially attentive to word repititions, metaphors and figures of speech (Ryan & Bernard, 2003). The extensive use of memos enabled us to provide meaning to the data. In the axial and selective coding phases, we built categories and looked through the data for evidence or disconfirmation. Finally, we arrived at two overarching “practices” and two overarching “positions,” which will be presented below.
The findings will be presented by means of a double distinction detected; first, between the positions of “news maker” and “storyteller,” and the other between the comprehensive practices of “preparing” and “presenting” the story. Remarkably in all studied newspaper newsrooms, the printed newspaper was still considered more important than what would appear online. Although only a few journalists could be labeled “online journalists,” the omnipresence of online news highly influenced the “traditional” practices of the journalists under scrutiny.
News Makers and Storytellers
First, we discuss the distinction we found between “news maker” and “storyteller.” Although all news makers can be seen as storytellers, journalists may act more as a storyteller, for instance, when working on a reportage. In that case, storyteller is a role journalists adopt, depending on the news genre. However, we found that journalists could also identify with the role of the storyteller. When they took up the identity of storyteller, they draw its boundaries often in opposition to the identity of news maker.
The distinction between news maker (or news hunter) and storyteller was often emphasized by journalists themselves. While some explicitly labeled themselves or colleagues as such, others said that this is something everyone in the newsroom implicitly feels. According to these journalists, the prototypical news maker is an unremitting caller with an extensive address book and with “a nose for news.” Although the news maker is not automatically a poor writer, some of them may be happy there are editors to “prepare a decent meal out of their hunt” (journalist, no. 22). In contrast, a prototypical storyteller is praised for having a “good pen” and/or for having “a sixth sense for the story” (journalist, no. 15). S/he knows how to recognize a story, often in the details of an event, and how to build a story line.
While most journalists in the first two studies could be labelled as news makers, most journalists in the third story could be labeled as storytellers. However, even journalists who see themselves explicitly as storyteller do have experience with “news making” as well. Thus, our data reveal how the news maker and the storyteller are sometimes described as roles, at other times as identities, and/or positions—depending on how journalists set up and experience their boundaries—rather than as specific journalistic professions.
Nevertheless, we argue that news makers and storytellers—experienced as roles, identities or positions—differ in their preparation and presentation practices when making news stories. With regard to their preparation practices, we detected differences in finding and defining stories. Regarding their presentation practices, we discovered different elements of form, style and genre.
Preparing the story: Predefined News vs. Serendipitous Stories
Finding the story: “news” vs. “stories”.
First, we focus on how journalists find or bump into news stories. From our reconstructions of hundreds of news stories, it turned out that news makers usually need an occasion to write about something specific. For instance, the occasion for Belgian journalists to write for several days about science fraud was the dismissal of a medical scientist because he had tampered with data (journalists nos. 1, 2, 9, 19). The dismissal functioned as the news peg on which the broader story of science fraud was hung. A news peg can be described as “a recent event … which is used as a ‘handle’ on which to ‘hang’ their stories” (Gans, 2004, p. 168) or “to anchor them” (Fink & Schudson, 2014, p. 14).
A peg assesses an event at its topical value. It helps to explain why certain events are (not) selected by news makers. Gans (2004) observed that pegless stories were almost always the first to be eliminated from an overly long story list. In contemporary newsroom jargon, such stories “float” for a few days in the story budgets, waiting to be picked up or to disappear definitely in the “Bermuda triangle of lost stories” (field notes, December 2, 2014). A peg is closely related to the news values of recency and novelty, and its assumed necessity in news making is an aspect of journalism frequently criticized by academics (e.g., Bird, 2005; Hermann, 2017; Schudson, 1986).
Interestingly, the practice of finding news pegs is also frequently denounced by storytellers, who feel less bound by current events than news makers. Storytellers repeatedly claim that they have “no nose for news” or “no news drive.” Moreover, they explain the success of their stories by being “no news at all.” According to an award-winning Belgian newspaper reporter, the stories for which he received the most positive reader feedback “have nothing to do with current events” (journalist, no. 58). Another reporter, praised as a distinguished writer by his colleagues, calls himself a “truant,” because he skipped the “news school.”
For instance, a bomb attack. That’s news. So, the ordinary journalist goes to the scene to make a reportage. This is what journalists do. They go to the scene and ask questions. That’s news …. And I do the opposite: I try to go to places where no news happened. For instance, my story about the peep shows. There is no news in it. It just intrigued me. And yeah, then it turned out to be a great story. (journalist, no. 67)
In contrast with news makers, storytellers do not seem to get excited about a scoop. It is almost with pride some of them say they have never—“or maybe one time, by accident” (journalist, no. 62)—got the front page of the paper or the opening of the newscast. Because of that, storytellers sometimes describe themselves as “a bad journalist.” Actually, they dislike the term “journalist” and prefer to be called “reporter,” “narrator” or “documentary maker.” From a boundary perspective, their reluctance towards the term journalist can be interpreted as a boundary struggle—aimed at enlarging the discursive space to practice journalism—rather than as a rejection of journalism in general. It can be explained by their association of the term “journalism” with agenda setting “hard news” either based on current events, or on “investigative journalism.” For instance, a Dutch television reporter refused to be called a “war correspondent,” although he has been stationed several times in a war zone. “I just try to tell a million people a nice story every night” (journalist, no. 62).
Storytellers defended their approach by reference to the online news environment. Their boundary work—rejecting traditional news selection criteria—would be necessary to ensure that their stories are distinctive from what everyone can find everywhere on the Internet. Some draw on a marketing vocabulary to argue for “more stories, less news”—as they considered it a way to survive in a saturated news market. As one of them explained:
I am convinced [stories are] the only future of newspapers and magazines … Newspapers must find a new role with the emergence of the Internet … Why should I pay 360 euro per year for a newspaper? Not for news, I believe. Can newspapers still distinguish themselves with news? … [While] these stories have got such an incredible response by readers. (journalist, no. 58)
Defining the story: “Predefining” vs. “reporters’ luck”.
Journalists do not just “find” stories, they construct them as well. In their research, journalists are taking decisions: on what to focus, whom to interview, which perspective to take and what story to tell. In other words, journalists “define” to some extent what the story ought to be. The central question here is at what particular moment the angle for news stories originates. Generally, a story angle can be defined as “the chosen perspective, emphasis, bias or focus from which a news item is told” (Zelizer & Allan, 2010, p. 6). Although most research on story angles considers an angle as a textual or writing concept (e.g., Grunwald & Rupar, 2009), we found that angles may also be invoked in the preceding news production process, for instance during newsroom discussions.
From our reconstructions, it turned out that the story angles of news makers are usually predefined at an early stage of news production. As the outcome of morning meeting discussions, angles are often explicitly defined in the story budgets. In newsroom jargon, chief editors “order” a story and reporters are asked to “deliver” this story. Editors function as the “guardians” of story angles, responsible for fine-tuning “deviating stories” to their predefined angles. When a two-page news story was removed in a centralized newsroom because it “did something different than asked for in the story budget,” the news chief in charge explained the decision as follows: “It was just the story with the facts. There was no ‘but’ in the story, no surprise” (field notes, December 12, 2014). This example may illustrate one of the main functions of predefined angles. They ensure that the story is distinctive enough from other media stories about the same event. More specifically, the editors-in-chief of another newspaper explained the necessity of predefined angles in the light of the omnipresence of news online:
We want to send [our] journalists in a certain direction. We urgently need this with the emergence of online. “The news” as such is already been broken [online]. The added value of a newspaper today lies in its new and unique angles. (journalists, nos. 32, 33).
In this case, predefining might be considered a boundary practice whereby journalists distinguish their work from all kinds of aggregation news online (Coddington, 2015). It is precisely because news makers start most of their stories from other (online) news media (as empirically shown by Boesman, d’Haenens & Van Gorp, 2014), that they feel the need to emphasize the—not always so clear—boundaries between the way they use other news media as a source (by adding “a unique angle”) and the way aggregators do.
With regard to storytelling, one should expect story angles are even more important. Accordingly, storytelling handbooks emphasize the importance of having a baseline and/or a scenario before gathering story material (Blundell, 1988; Hunter et al., 2011; Verheyden, Rumes, & Fluit, 2014). Journalists who fail to prepare would:
waste time and energy discovering that there is no story after all, or that it is only a shadow of what they dreamed it would be …. Before flying out the door, a reporter should consider the range of his story, its central message, the approach that appears to best fit the tale, and even the tone he should take as a storyteller. (Blundell, 1998, p. 70)
However, in practice there seems to be a remarkable difference between audio visual and written storytelling. With regard to preparing practices, the broadcast storyteller has more in common with the news maker in newspaper newsrooms than with the print storytellers. For audiovisual storytellers, forethought is important, due to the constraints of the medium. A newspaper journalist with a television background explains it as follows:
If I cover a story for television, I have to know beforehand which shots to take … What if I want to do a story about you and it appears you are addicted to pizza? As a television journalist, I have to know that in advance, so that we can take shots of you holding a pizza. While as a print journalist I do not have to worry about that. I can process it afterwards in my story. (journalist, no. 55)
Surprisingly, as it turned out, the practice of “predefining” is not merely less dominant among storytellers working for printed media, they often explicitly distance themselves from the idea of formulating an angle or baseline in the preparation process. The following commentary of a Belgian reporter is exemplary for the way print storytellers usually prepare their stories: “I never think of anything in advance. When I go on assignment, I’m guided by my gut feeling … I arrive without any idea” (journalist, no. 59). Broadly speaking, the reasoning of these storytellers is that the best stories are found by not preparing at all. In this context, journalists talk about “reporter’s luck,” “gold nuggets” or “catching pearls.” A Dutch foreign affairs reporter:
When a journalist arrives somewhere for the first time, there is always the same fear: Jesus, how can I make a story out of this? Because the drama is not obvious … [But] if you are too prepared, you cannot be surprised anymore … You must leave as much as possible to chance … Do not board up your whole trip with appointments. Then you are writing a premeditated story. While it is nicer to talk to people spontaneously … the moment you talk with them, there is a lot going on. You encounter very unexpected things, the craziest things. (journalist, no. 65)
Whereas news makers often mold sources’ explanations into predefined stories, storytellers tend to be more open to what sources say. Experienced storytellers even emphasize they dislike what they call “the journalistic interview”—which they associate with “roasting,” “grilling” or “hitting” people. A Belgian general reporter noticed he did not have “interviews with sources”—like ordinary journalists—but rather “conversations with people” (journalist, no. 58).
Presenting the Story: Objectivity vs. Transparency
In this part, we discuss the results referring to journalistic conventions regarding form, style, and genre. Boundary work appears to be mainly about the writing or assembly stage of news production; for instance, the use of the inverted pyramid, the five Ws, balanced reporting, genre distinction, and literary and cinematic techniques.
News makers attach great importance to traditional journalistic conventions, such as the inverted pyramid, the five Ws and balanced reporting. According to a politics beat reporter, one should always include a counterword within the same news story. “More than ever, in a 24-hour news flow you don’t have to wait with a counterword until the next story. Even in a scoop we always try to bring the other party’s perspective” (journalist, no. 46). A copy editor of a Belgian newspaper described himself as “a journalistic guardian” of “the rules … such as balanced reporting … and of the journalistic reflex… [namely the question] do we really bring ‘the news’?” (journalist, no. 30). Conventions such as the inverted pyramid have to ensure that “the news” is always put at the beginning of a news story.
A news chief of a Belgian newspaper denounced the blurring of journalistic genres. “Actually, there are only three news genres: the news report, the reportage and the interview. And maybe also the background story, but truly every good news report should be a background story as well” (journalist, no. 7). The news chief’s boundary work involves the upkeep of the distinction between “factual journalism” and “opinion journalism.” Somewhat surprisingly, considering his critical attitude towards the blurring of genres, he did not see a contradiction between factual journalism and good storytelling. On the contrary, “the more factual news stories are written, the more pleasant they are to read.” While storytelling is often associated with jazzing the facts up, he believed the best storytelling is a “factual” approach in which audiences are taken seriously.
The prototypical storyteller is bound to challenge many of the conventions news makers defend. For instance, the five Ws. “They are taught in journalism schools,” said a general reporter of a Belgian newspaper, “but they are unsuitable for a pleasant read [because] they make your text extremely boring” (journalist, no. 59). For a Dutch television reporter, the five Ws were one of the main reasons why he no longer wanted to work for the evening news.
I always had to throw away too much fun stuff … because it was very who-what-where. While I was much more interested in why … Why is that? … [His slogan is] “Don’t read me the news, tell me the story.” I wanted to know: What’s all this about? What is the story behind [the news]? (journalist, no. 62)
While news makers emphasize news stories must start with “the news,” storytellers prefer to start from synoptic details. A general reporter from a Belgian newspaper:
Every encounter has two or three special details. If you put them below each other, and fill in between, you have three beautiful parts. Then the who-what-where-when-convention doesn’t matter. … Your first sentence is the one on which you hang your story. A detail that characterizes the bigger picture. (journalist, no. 59)
While storytellers don’t like the inverted pyramid, this convention is still dominant in newspaper newsrooms. When copy editors need to shorten news stories, they often routinely cut the last paragraph. To the frustration of the following reporter:
It was a conscious choice to start and end with that. But my piece was 40 lines too long, so they cut the last paragraph. I was angry about that. I thought: Goddamn, you can do better copy editing than just wasting the end. There were enough other sentences that could be cut. (journalist, no. 25)
Another bone of contention in the newsroom has to do with storytellers’ use of literary and cinematic techniques, such as plot lines, cliffhangers, beautiful sentences or nature depictions. A Dutch foreign affairs correspondent, by example, likes to intertwine the weather conditions with substantial elements of his stories. When former president Barack Obama made a poor show during a debate in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, the journalist’s report made it appear as if “nature” predicted it.
And suddenly, there was a wind. As though nature, or the Gods … had a hunch. Yes, it seemed like a sign, a bad omen for Obama. That’s how I described it. That’s nice to read, no? You create a kind of atmosphere. … But an ombudsman told me: “Actually you can’t do that.” You know, it is very strange journalism. I mean: you can’t get a response … from the Gods. You can’t ask them what they really thought. (journalist, no. 65)
For storytellers, balanced reporting has not the same sacred status as for news makers. A television reporter from the Netherlands described balanced reporting as “very lazy journalism” and as “a frame that suggests that you are able to tell everything.” Instead, she prefers to provide space for “neglected perspectives” (journalist, no. 60). Storytellers tend to overstep the classic guiding principles of impartiality and representativeness. A Dutch documentary maker added that “our primary aim is [creating] unforgettable characters and not a precise statistical reflection [of society]” (journalist, no. 63). Instead of being detached observers, storytellers are often actors in their own stories. Sometimes subtle, by showing a tripod or a microphone, as the following television reporter explains:
I always try to show that we are present with cameras … I never make a kind of closed universe. … I think it would be very good if journalism makes the making-of more part of its story. Not to personalize it, or turn it into an ego document, but to show the constraints under which a news story is made. (journalist, no. 60)
Being present as a narrator often conflicts with traditional genre boundaries. A Dutch freelance reporter complains that his “personal” stories are sometimes rejected because they do not fit in one of the available sections of the newspaper or magazine.
A common argument is … well, what is this about? Is it something for the science section, because it is about medical things? Or for the economy section, because it is about money? … Actually, everyone may be interested in the topic. The problem is my approach. That makes it difficult. … It always has to be objective and on the background and that kind of things. It is the mixing of the personal with the general that makes it difficult. (journalist, no. 57)
By claiming “everyone may be interested in the story,” he introduces an audience perspective to classify the news instead of traditional genre conventions.
Discussion and Conclusion
While much storytelling research focuses on texts, this paper aimed to study how journalists deal with the assumed professional boundaries between storytelling and truth-finding in their daily practice. However, a main finding of this study was that journalists’ discursive boundary work often circled around the practices of storytelling and news making—within which truth-finding functions differently. While all journalists make news stories, some consider themselves or others—whether or not depending on the circumstances—more news makers than storytellers or vice versa.
This paper argued that news making and storytelling are professional patterns of speech, which differ in two ways: First, in the way journalists present their stories, but also in the way they prepare their stories. With regard to story presentation, for instance, news makers prefer an inverted pyramid structure, while storytellers will discuss their work in terms of a linear or reversed narrative structure. Both storytellers and news makers actively deal with the boundaries of journalism. They will even sometimes discount themselves or others as “proper” journalists or doing real journalism. Defending or criticizing the inverted pyramid structure and the five Ws can be seen as a way to defend or open up the boundaries of journalism, since such daily work practices are linked with journalism’s seemingly exclusive knowledge claims (cf. Anderson, 2009). In following both conventions, journalists “establish discursive authority over the material they present as to be a ‘true’ account of what happened” (Hanitschz & Hoxha, 2014, p. 5). While the news makers protect these boundaries, the storytellers try to expand them (cf. Carlson, 2015; Gieryn, 1983), for instance, by rejecting traditional news selection criteria or by embracing literary techniques.
While these differences in presentation practices may not be that surprising, the observed differences in preparation practices are more remarkable. Because storytelling handbooks (e.g. Blundell, 1988; Hunter et al., 2011; Verheyden, Fluit, & Rumes, 2014) emphasize the importance of forethought and planning, we expected this practice to be an important issue for storytellers. However, in everyday reality, most storytellers in our studies loosely prepare their stories. More specifically, “predefining” is seen as diametrically opposed to “good storytelling.” It is precisely the lack of such preparation practices that storytellers point out as enabling them to “catch pearls” or to push “reporters’ luck”—by which journalists mean bumping into people or details leading to nice stories.
In contrast, news makers showed and expressed themselves as unfaithful angle-seekers. Due to their adherence to classic journalistic conventions, the stories of news makers get a more “factual” impression than those of storytellers (cf. Ytreberg, 2001). However, these “objective” stories are often the result of a quest for facts or quotes which fit the predefined angle. While storytellers “bump into people,” news makers select sources from within their preconceived angles. Shoemaker and Reese (1996) noticed that a predefined story angle provides reporters a theme around which to build a story. Reporters work most efficiently when they know what their interview sources will say. This sounds counterintuitive, but it helps to explain why reporters rely on familiar sources—they can predict in advance who will give them the information needed to flesh out their angle (pp. 115-116).
For storytellers, truth-finding seems to be a difficult quest of which the outcome cannot be predicted, while for news makers it is rather a hypothesis-confirming practice. In explaining the different discourses around preparation practices of news makers and storytellers, two elements have to be stressed. First, there is the element of time. News makers are usually more concerned with covering current events. Working with short deadlines, the practice of predefining help to focus and “speed up the reporting process by determining from the beginning what is relevant to a given story and what is not” (Hermann, 2017, p. 7). A second explanation might be that news makers are usually “beat reporters” while storytellers are usually “general reporters.” Beat reporters are more dependent on institutional sources for their newsgathering. Because public relation professionals are trained to deal with journalists, predefined angles might be very useful to avoid powerful sources take (over) the lead in the story. Storytellers are less often “experts” in a certain domain and deal more often with what academics usually call “ordinary people” (although storytellers would rather say “extraordinary” people). Dealing with stories of everyday life usually demands an open attitude and a listening ear, instead of the more defensive stance fitting a critical position.
Interestingly, both strategies of making news stories are seen as a response to the emergence of online news. Although “online journalism” was not the primary concern of most journalists in our studies (see also Tameling, 2015; Usher, 2014), the “ubiquity of news online” was referred to by news makers as well as storytellers to legitimize their distinct practices. Since news makers are usually covering events that are “in the news,” they feel the need to make their stories different from what’s already widespread on the Internet. In other words, the assumed necessity of news pegs partly explains the practice of predefining. While some level of predetermination has always been part of journalism (see Altheide & Rasmussen, 1976), the journalists in our study considered it a valuable practice to strengthen the boundaries between journalism and, for instance, aggregation. Storytellers have no need to predefine their stories because these stories are usually less linked to current events. However, they use a similar “because of the Internet”—reasoning to argue why news media need more of their kind of stories. Like the news makers’ claim to provide “unique angles” to the news, the storytellers claim to offer “unique stories” (preferably not in the news at all).
Some limits of the study must be emphasized. First, there is the focus on newspaper journalists. Although some of them had experience with broadcast media as well, only six journalists from the total sample (all from the third study) were working for audiovisual media at the time of the study. Remarkably, the preparing practices of audiovisual storytellers—in particular the practice of predefining—showed more similarities with the practices of newspaper news makers than with the practices of newspaper storytellers. Future research could include more audiovisual journalists to figure out whether the differences detected are persistent and how to explain them more clearly. Secondly, the focus of this study was still on “professional” journalists, most of them working in a traditional newsroom environment. However, a true practice perspective should additionally consider the storytelling practices of journalists not working in legacy journalism and even of non-professionals. Such a study can shed light on the question whether boundary work on storytelling conventions is shared with digital native journalism and participatory journalism, for instance because online-only working journalists do their job within a different news market.
Besides extending the study to broadcast and online-only and non-professional journalists, other studies could take an audience perspective. While there is already a lot of research about how audiences engage with presentation differences of news stories (for example, comparing the inverted pyramid structure with a linear or reversed structure), there exists little research about journalists’ audience presuppositions that guide their preparing practices (but see Anderson, 2011; Matthews, 2008; Robinson & Nechushtai, 2017). Considering the rationale behind predefining practices, researchers could investigate if newspaper audiences really are “already informed by the Internet” about the basic facts of a story.
- The higher number of interviews is explained by the fact that 20 journalists were interviewed several times. Not included are the numerous unplanned informal conversations in the newsroom. The latter will be referred to as “field notes, date.” Quotes of planned interviews will be followed by numbers instead of journalists’ names.
- Twenty-five of the 145 interviews were not tape recorded, namely the interviews with the editors-in-chief and the news chiefs (because of confidentiality reasons) and all the interviews in the second study (because of arrangements made with the editors-in-chief of the studied newsrooms).
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Jan Boesman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. After working as a sports writer, he prepared a PhD thesis on news production and framing (University of Leuven, Belgium, 2016). His research has been published in journals such as Journalism, Journalism Studies and Communication Methods and Measures.
Irene Costera Meijer is a professor of Journalism Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is the principal investigator of the research project (2013-2018) The New News Consumer: User-Based Innovation to Meet Paradigmatic Change in News Use and Media Habits. Her projects share a user/audience-centered approach regarding news, in which she coined “Valuable Journalism”.