/The Power of the Story
The Power of the Story:
Narrative Analysis As A Tool For Studying The News
Freedom Forum Ph.D. Fellow
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
529 Hillsborough Street, Apt. G-1
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514
919 933 1288
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The Power of the Story:
Narrative Analysis As A Tool For Studying The News
This paper discusses how narrative analysis -- a branch of rhetorical study
that focuses on story lines and why they resonate -- can best be applied to the
analysis of news reports. The paper surveys several strands of narrative
analysis, including mythic study, which posits that some modern story-lines
resonate powerfully because they evoke the plot-lines of ancient myths. It
describes how each of these strands can provide insights into the power and
resonance of news texts. But it notes that narrative analysis alone often cannot
explain why one story-line in the news resonates more powerfully than another.
A satisfactory explanation of relative news power requires assessment of the
historical and political context in which the news story was written.
Freedom Forum Ph.D. Fellow
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
529 Hillsborough Street, Apt. G-1
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514
919 933 1288
[log in to unmask]
The Power of the Story: Narrative Analysis as a Tool For Studying the News
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions?
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in the introduction toThe Song of Hiawatha
In the summer of 1988, the writer Joan Didion accompanied Democratic
presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his press entourage on a campaign
swing across the United States. Didion's objective was to analyze for the New
York Review of Books how the press reported on Dukakis. She was able to do
so with fresh eyes because she had never before been exposed up close, and
behind the scenes, to the campaign image factory and the reporters' role on the
production line. She could approach her subject almost like an anthropologist
observing a foreign culture. Didion was struck by how the journalists privately
viewed the campaign with cynical realism as a series of phony events and yet
reported most of the contrivances as if they were real. For instance, at nearly
every stop, Dukakis would toss a baseball with one of his aides. These were
photo opportunities staged mainly for the benefit of local TV and still
photographers and were aimed at revising Dukakis' image as staid, aloof, elite
and anything but fun-loving. The national TV crews traveling on his plane came
to call this ritual "tarmac arrival with baseball tossing." At one such
stop, Dukakis obliged the local press with a long baseball session in 110 degree
heat. "Just a regular guy," one TV cameraman remarked, to snickers from press
colleagues. Yet, the hard-boiled press corps, despite its private cynicism,
reported the baseball toss as if it were a spontaneous event, a glimpse of the
real man. U.S. News & World Report suggested that playing ball in dog day heat
could be a sign of toughness. The Washington Post''s senior political
reporter, David Broder, reported, with no evident irony: "There on the tarmac,
with its surface temperature just below the boiling point, the governor loosened
up his arm and got the kinks out of his back by tossing a couple hundred 90-foot
Didion concluded from the news accounts of such campaign pseudo-events that
the Dukakis camp and the reporters had entered into a conspiracy to advance a
particular story line -- that the campaign was real and dramatic, Dukakis was a
genuine, compelling character and a strong candidate who could give George Bush
a run for his money. Not only was the baseball toss a wink and nod
arrangement, but "the narrative is made of of many such understandings, tacit
agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of
obtaining a dramatic story line."  In Didion's view, the Dukakis case
illustrated a broader truth: human beings need to tell stories, but narratives
inevitably distort, stressing certain developments and omitting or downplaying
others in order to follow the plot line. What was omitted in the case of the
1988 presidential campaign was the acknowledgment that electioneering was an
empty charade, divorced from the real world of the electorate.
Didion's essay is a relatively uncomplicated example of narrative analysis, an
old but evolving approach to the study of discourse, including news reports.
Narrative analysis focuses on story-lines, how they are put together, where they
come from, how they communicate and distort. It is a method of study but
in some versions also has strong theoretical implications for the ways in which
people perceive the world and process information. The premises behind most
narrative analyses of news, evident in Didion's article, are as follows: we see
the world through stories, but stories can lie; we need to be conscious of the
power of narrative, and its distortions; we use story lines, including news
stories, to cope with the complicated social and political tensions that affect
us; by reducing complexities to simple narratives, we are better able to cope
-- superficially -- but less enlightened and, at times, more easily manipulated
than if we had resisted narrative simplicities.
Didion's is the simple version. Other scholars might have used the method to
push analysis of the Dukakis story to another level or two. As discussed in
detail below, critic Kenneth Burke's narrative approach places great emphasis on
guilt and scape-goating in the drama of human life. Burke's perspective might
help explain why the George Bush campaign could so readily cast Dukakis as the
fall guy for liberal permissiveness. Another variant, mythic analysis, argues
that the power of narratives depends upon how effectively they evoke the
culture's underlying myths and recurrent story-lines. This approach might help
explain why Dukakis's baseball playing, Regular Guy With A Tough Edge scenario
ultimately fell flat. Our culture celebrates regular guys with a tough edge --
the tougher the better -- as witness the popularity of movie heroes played by
the likes of Bruce Willis, who administer justice with their bare hands when
necessary. But Dukakis could not play the regular guy qua tough guy role
consistently. He may have played catch in blinding heat. But he responded
woodenly when asked in a televised debate what he would do if his wife were
raped and murdered, sounding more like a bureaucrat or automaton than an heroic
avenger. The public tagged him as Zorba the Geek, not Bruce Willis.
This paper will provide an overview of narrative analysis by addressing several
broad questions: What are the origins of the technique? How has narrative
analysis evolved? What are its advantages and limitations as a method of study?
The paper will describe how narrative analysis emerged from the study of
rhetoric, how it has been influenced by Aristotle and his followers, by the
rhetorical criticism of Burke, Walter Fisher, and Hayden White, and by such
formalist critics as Vladimir Propp. It will point out some of the strengths
and weaknesses of the work of these scholars.
The paper argues that narrative analysis, despite some shortcomings, can be
extremely useful in helping us understand the power and constraints of news
presentation. This form of analysis is generally most useful when combined with
other approaches, such as historical and political analysis or the study of
newsroom routines. The auxiliary approaches serve to put the news narratives in
context and help explain why some story lines resonate more than others.
Narrative analysis is most effective when the personal insights of the analyst
are acute, as Didion's are.
From whence did narrative analysis come, and how has It evolved?
Aristotle and his followers. Narrative analysis of news texts emerged from the
study of rhetoric, one of the legacies of ancient Greece. The father of
rhetorical study, and of narrative analysis, is Aristotle, who described the
essential elements of narrative (i.e., a beginning, a middle, and an end), the
pattern of narrative in mythic tragedy (hero with fatal flaw, led to own
destruction by that flaw, recognizes shortcomings before death), and the
components of worthy rhetoric. As the American critic Howard Ziff points
out, today's communication scholars stand on Aristotle's shoulders, even though
the Greek philosopher was guilty at times of drawing misleading conclusions
from questionable facts or limited observations. Aristotle's method was to
observe closely, then draw bold generalizations about how things work.
His followers applied his methods to the study of literature and rhetoric for
centuries, but did not branch out into the study of news texts until the
twentieth century. In fact, much of this work has been done only in the past
fifteen years. Much as Aristotle had done with rhetoric and drama, Walter
Lippmann, the first modern news scholar, closely observed the behavior of
journalists and their readers and then generalized from that empirical base.
Lippmann argued in Public Opinion (1922) that news consumers carry pictures in
their heads -- by which he meant story-lines, among other things -- that
frequently differ dramatically from the real world. Lippmann concluded that
news narrative was often propaganda in the guise of neutral description. He
argued that the goal of the objective journalist must be to separate facts from
values, and to inform the public of the special interests behind various claims.
The reporter, he wrote, should be more rationalist than story-teller.
Historian Daniel Boorstin extended Lippmann's line of analysis in The Image
(1961), a scathing account of how news narratives are constructed in a world of
pseudo-reality. Like both Aristotle and Lippmann, Boorstin started with
intense observation of his subject, then drew his generalizations. Boorstin
noted, that Publick Occurrences (1690), which many historians regard as the
first American newspaper, was a monthly, but promised to come out more often "if
any Glut of Occurrences happen."  This reflected the quaint idea that if
news happened, journalists would report it and if news did not happen,
journalists would not report anything. But, as Boorstin pointed out, the
conception of news changed dramatically with the development of mass circulation
papers and radio: the media created and the demand for news daily or hourly.
News stories were no longer simply discovered in the real world. They were
often manufactured by the media to fill the hole around their advertising.
Publicists and self-promoters ginned up events to advance their interests and
the media wove these pseudo-happenings into narratives that purported to be
real, creating bogus dramas and humbug heroes, and spawning an empty world of
celebrity. As a result, Boorstin lamented, the public appetite was whetted
for ever more sensational stories and characters. The public demanded much more
drama than the real world could provide -- "We expect new heroes every season,
a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare
sensation every night." -- so the media redoubled their efforts to create a
story-book substitute to meet those demands. In Boorstin's view, most news
narrative bordered on fiction.
Some scholars have not merely employed Aristotle's general empirical methods,
as did Lippmann and Boorstin, but have taken the categories Aristotle devised
for analyzing rhetoric and applied them to the study of news narrative. Ziff,
for instance, noted that many daily newspaper stories ignore the master's call
for applying serious judgment in discourse on the past. Instead, said Ziff,
"the story is much more likely to reveal a ceremonial or epideictic utterance,
which praises or blames through ritual forms of narration and is intended more
to assure us about the present than sit in judgment on the past." The
nostalgic, upbeat, patriotic news retrospectives on "the good war" in 1995 are a
case in point.
Kenneth Burke. Other students of rhetoric have pushed far beyond Aristotle and
come up with highly original explanations of the role of discourse, including
news narrative, in human life. One such thinker is the late Kenneth Burke (for
years a professor at Bennington College), who described the human condition in
terms of drama. In Burke's account, people make sense of a chaotic world by
imposing dramatic structures upon their experience. People, unlike animals,
have the power to reject the status quo symbolically through the use of
language. That sets up a kind of universal plot-line for our lives. Human
society is inevitably hierarchical, with an uneven distribution of power, and
people can either accept or reject the hierarchy and their place in it. When
they reject the hierarchy, or fail to live up to expectations as to their place
in it, they feel guilt, which is a pervasive human experience. Guilt leads to
conflict and social division, so there is always pressure to do away with guilt
and/or achieve redemption through acts of "purification." Purification can be
achieved either through self-martyrdom ("mortification," as seen in Gary
Gilmore's "let's do it!" departure) or through what Burke calls "victimage" --
the use of a scapegoat to purge the sins of others (secular variants on the
According to Burke, this universal, recurrent drama of rejection, guilt and
purification is evident in many forms of discourse. He called for analyzing
that discourse in terms of drama and described and isolated five rhetorical
elements: act (what happened), scene (conditions in which it happened), agent
(who acted), agency (for whom he or she acted), and purpose (why the act
Burke was one of the most brilliant rhetorical critics of the twentieth
century. One might take issue with his account of the origins of guilt on
several grounds, among them religious (original sin), Freudian (guilt comes from
Oedipus and other complexes rooted in the family), and moral (there are moral
imperatives and guilt results from their breach). But, whatever guilt's
origins, it does seem to play out in recurrent human narratives of punishment,
remorse, and expiation. These are among the most basic news themes. These
days, for example, it is a dull news week in Washington if President Clinton has
not managed to apologize for something.
By using Burke's five elements, one can assess rhetorical strategies of, say,
political actors, and rhetorical sympathies in news reports. For instance,
rhetoric scholar David Birdsell argues that Sen. Edward Kennedy stressed the
element of scene in his July, 1969 speech accounting for the death of Mary Jo
Kopechne in his car at Chappaquidick. Kennedy stressed circumstances that he
said were beyond his control and which prevented him from rescuing her from the
submerged car. He cast himself as a victim. But a skeptical press
stressed the element of actor -- evidence that Kennedy was indeed
Walter Fisher. The notion of using narrative analysis in rhetorical and news
text criticism gained momentum in the mid-1980s with the writing of Walter
Fisher, who maintains that narrative study is a cognitive theory rather than a
mere method. Fisher posits a narrative paradigm in which story-telling is an
essential human practice and narrative thinking indelible, even in our most
rational forms of analysis and communication. He notes that, from the time of
Greece's golden age, thinkers have separated narrative (stories of different
sorts) from science. But in his narrative paradigm there is virtually no
legitimate division between the two. As Fisher puts it in Human Communication
as Narrative, "Rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative
beings -- their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a
coherent story, their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether or
not the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true
in their lives... The world as we know it is a set of stories that must be
chosen among in order for us to live life in a process of continual recreation."
 There is an echo of Thomas Kuhn on scientific revolutions in his analysis
and of Lippmann on news as well.
Fisher's definition of the narrative paradigm ("a theory of symbolic actions --
words and/or deeds -- that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create
or interpret them") is so broad that it creates serious analytical problems.
As Robert C. Rowland points out, this definition includes virtually all
discourse and thus loses explanatory power because it is "tautologically
true." If one accepts Fisher's definition, one loses the ability to
distinguish between a political speech (or by extension a news story) that
relies on statistics and experts, and one that makes its points by telling the
story of one person. There would be no differences between, say, a conservative
think tank's statistical indictment of a Communist political system and
Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon, the story of one victim, according to
Rowland. He maintains that preserving such distinctions is crucial: "a
treatment of narrative as encompassing more than storytelling would be
misleading. Without a plot and characters, the rhetoric cannot serve the
functions generally fulfilled in storytelling and thus should not be considered
Rhetoric scholar William F. Lewis took into account Rowland's critique of
Fisher and still managed to apply Fisher's insights. Lewis, like Rowland,
maintained that there is a positivist, scientific, rational world paradigm which
differs fundamentally from the narrative paradigm. This is most obvious in the
realm of logic and reasoning, for the narrative paradigm's logic lies in
consistency within the narrative's own terms. Lewis argued that Ronald Reagan --
of heroes in the State of the Union audience, "city on a hill," national
myth-evoking fame -- operated within the narrative paradigm. Those who shared
the paradigm evaluated Reagan in terms of consistency within the President's own
story lines (narrative fidelity). They viewed Reagan as the outsider-savior
come to Washington to preserve an old-fashioned America. If a Reagan utterance
(e.g., that Einstein could not understand a 1040 form) were consistent with that
general myth, his public accepted it. Those who sought to rebut such falsehoods
factually -- citing errors and statistics -- got nowhere because they were
operating from the rational world paradigm, not the narrative paradigm. The
politician who seemed best able to challenge Reagan on his own terms was New
York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who, in a celebrated 1984 Democratic convention keynote
address, created a competing narrative (two cities divided) rather than carping
over factual details.
Hayden White. Another highly influential scholar in narrative study is Hayden
White, who, among other things, was a philosopher of history. White did not go
as far as Fisher in claiming that human beings think only in narrative. He did,
however, make a sweeping contention in his own right: that writers of
non-fiction narrative manufacture meaning by using story elements (e.g., epic,
romantic, tragic, farcical) to transform mere sequences of events into
recognizable, understandable form. The meaning of the narrative is embedded in
its form, as well as in the facts that are conveyed. White also maintained that
narratives inevitably assert moral authority because they embody the moral order
that has shaped the historian. Narratives are essentially metaphorical and
symbolic, in that they present carefully selected images which tell us how we
should feel about the subject of the story. Various morality plays could be
manufactured from the same set of facts. The non-fiction writer's challenge is
to find the most appropriate story line to teach what it means to be moral and
to assess the moral significance of human undertakings.
White focused on historical writing, but, in a 1988 Journal of Communication
article, media scholars James Ettema and Theodore Glasser applied his
approach to news narrative -- namely, investigative journalism which, as they
put it, "defends traditional virtue by telling stories of terrible vice." The
value of justice is brought out by outraging readers with cases of great
injustice. As an example, Ettema and Glasser analyzed a 1978 Pulitzer Prize
winning series on rapes in a county jail by the Washington Post's Loretta
Tofani. Tofani learned that rapes were going on, but could not interest her
editors because she had few details on who the victims were. Only when she
established that some of them were underage, jailed for minor offenses, or later
acquitted was she able to sell the story because she had defined the victims as
innocent. She had constructed a story of outrageous injustice that gave the
rapes meaning, and she told it through case studies that stressed the victims'
own accounts. Tofani, like all narrators, selected details that reinforced her
moral message, downplaying or omitting facts that did not fit (e.g., bad actors
who got raped, but might be thought to "deserve" it). In this kind of coverage,
according to Ettema and Glasser, individual stories are stressed at the expense
of underlying social issues. The function of the narratives is to reinforce our
commonly held values asking probing questions about the system.
Formalists and structuralists. Working with a very different focus than White,
Ettema and Glasser, were the formalists and structuralists, studied the internal
structure of narratives, and looked for common patterns in that structure.
Claude Levi-Strauss made an intensive study of myths and fairy tales, and found
the basic pattern of binary opposition -- raw and cooked, wild and tame, too
hot, too cold, just right. The notion of opposites has been used by media
scholars to help explain why journalists, in their quest for the balanced story,
look for the other side, rather than multiple sides. Perhaps more
influential than Levi-Strauss in media analysis was folklorist Vladimir Propp,
who studied scores of Russian fairy tales and uncovered recurrent patterns in
their plots and characters, publishing initial results in 1928. His method
involved a close study of narrative plot lines, which he diagramed and reduced
to essentials, and of the characters, whom he categorized by type and function.
He found, for instance, that there are just a few recurrent characters --e.g.
hero, helper, princess, false hero, donor -- and plot lines, the most frequent
being: hero goes on quest, faces misfortune, overcomes villain with help of
magic agent provided by donor, wins princess. These ancient tales have an
abiding appeal. Later narrative study by Sarah Ruth Kozloff and others pointed
out how modern TV tales (whether in series, commercials, or news stories) employ
similar plots and stock characters, like the ads in which the heroine overcomes
a misfortune (e.g. bad breath) with the help of a magic agent (Lavoris) and wins
Kozloff noted that Propp's analysis was essentially formalistic -- it focused
on the structure of narratives and was more useful in assessing how a given
broadcast story line is assembled than in explaining where the story line came
from, or why one narrative superseded another in the news. However, Kozloff
noted that formalist narrative study spawned the more far-reaching approach of
mythic analysis. In this framework, he scholar attempts to explain the
resonance of a news story by pointing out underlying myths that the story
evokes. Mythic analysis entails comparing the plot structure of a contemporary
text with the plots of mythic archetypes, as charted by scholars. When the new
text echoes the mythic text, scholars note the parallels, citing textual
evidence. For instance, some scholars argue that hostage stories resonate
powerfully in the news because they evoke an ancient captivity myth, . Told
over and over in different forms, this myth features a victim (often a damsel in
distress), a captor, a hero, and a dramatic rescue. The captivity myth is
thought to tap into our deepest anxieties about freedom, autonomy, and
Study of news power. One of the most intriguing questions in media analysis is
why one story line resonates most strongly or supersedes another. The problem
with the analytic frameworks of Burke, Fisher, White, and mythic analysis is
that they often cannot account for why one particular news narrative prevails.
In order to attempt such an explanation, other types of analysis must be brought
to bear. These include study of the historical context in which the news is
reported and assessment of the news routines, newsroom culture and broader
political environment in which the story was conceived and produced.
Historical context. To begin to understand the significance of the historical
perspective, consider again the example of hostage stories. In a 1979 Journal
of American Culture article, communication scholars John Lawrence and Bernard
Timberg analyzed the relative news impact of 1970s hostage dramas, These
included the Entebbe affair, in which Israelis rescued airline hostages
(including many Jews) held by German terrorists in Uganda, and the Mogadishu
incident, in which West German commandos rescued airline hostages held in
Somalia. The authors began by applying mythic narrative analysis to news
coverage of hostage situations -- noting how the Entebbe and Mogadishu hostage
rescue stories evoked the captivity myth, which helped explain why the stories
each drew a lot of coverage. But the authors went on to point out that the
mythic explanation was incomplete. It could not account for why the Israeli
commando rescue resonated far more as a news story than did the West German
rescue, even through the latter was carried out flawlessly, with no hostage or
commando casualties, while the Israeli mission resulted in deaths of hostages
and a commando. To explain the greater news power of Entebbe, one had to add an
historical element: given our memories of the Holocaust, a narrative in which
Jews rescue Jews from German terrorists will pack more news punch than a
narrative in which Germans (stereotyped as aggressors) rescue mainly non-Jewish
passengers from terrorists.
News routines. In addition to the historical context there is the business and
professional context in which news narratives are spun. Robert Darnton, a New
York Times reporter turned scholar, is among those arguing that the routines and
culture of news rooms often shape the form of news narratives, and their
subsequent news power, more strongly than any other single factor. Among
the influences on content and structure of news narratives are positive and
negative reinforcement by editors, and praise and derision from peers. Coverage
can also be affected by the tradition of news writing on similar subjects,
which comes down to the contemporary journalists in morgue clips they study
before writing the day's story: "the cult of the dead gives life to the
quick." At times, the narrative that dominates in news play is the one
that conforms most closely to newsroom traditions.
Beyond the news morgue, according to Darnton, there are established patterns
for telling stories -- reflected in nursery rhymes, fairy tails, and myths --
that influence news narratives "as if they were metamorphoses of Ur-stories that
have been lost in the depths of time." Darnton cites examples of how police
beat reporters probe for the color and facts that will let them tell new stories
in old ways, with stock sentiment and familiar characters. In other words, it
is a routine of the news business for reporters to model specific stories on
story archetypes, including myths. News routines and the power of myth come
together to shape the news, and the stories that evoke the archetypes in the
most telling way are likely to get more play than the ones that do so feebly or
not at all.
Darnton's piece is useful, but it also highlights some problems in explaining
why one news narrative dominates over another. First, as one can see from the
preceding paragraph, it is sometimes difficult to separate the impact of news
routine from the power of myth and archetype in giving a news narrative its
punch. Precise attribution of cause and effect can be very difficult. Second,
as Gaye Tuchman points out, Darnton assumes that news narratives are tools that
transform events into news stories but he does not offer a method for analyzing
the transformation. Tuchman suggests a method: identify the framing devices
that provide the context to put facts into coherent patterns. When there is no
framing device, there is no narrative. The more compelling the framing device,
the more resonant the news narrative. As Tuchman defines them (rather vaguely),
framing devices are principles of organization that "define what an event is and
which amorphous happenings are part of the event." That leaves open the
question of who or what is responsible for these principles of organization --
i.e., who makes the frame? -- which brings me to my next topic: the role of
political power in shaping news narratives and the news play they receive.
Political power. Some scholars argue that the political power structure in a
society, more than anything else, determines which news narratives resonate and
which do not. Others do not go so far, but argue that prevailing news
narratives tend to perpetuate the status quo and that the resonance of a
particular news story often can only be understood within a political context.
Michael Schudson, for example, has argued that narrative conventions can
influence public perception by limiting what is said and included, to the
benefit of the powers that be. The narrative form is an implicit part of the
message, according to Schudson. For instance, there is a narrative convention
in twentieth century news coverage of focusing on the policies of individual
politicians, rather than on the established political institutions within which
the politicians are working. Those institutions might place huge limitations on
what a politician can realistically accomplish, but the implied message of the
person-and-policy narrative is that the underlying institutions are not part of
the story. Thus, the news routines entail accepting the institutional
status quo. As Schudson put it, "The power of the media lies ... in the way the
world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration,
and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any
conversation at all."
One arguable weakness in Shudson's approach is the difficulty of sorting out
what forces are limiting the accepted story line. To what extent do the
powerful forces limit the narrative? To what extent do narratives --
conventional patterns of human thought -- limit the powerful? W. L. Bennett and
Murray Edelman tackled these difficult questions in a 1983 Journal of
Communication article, arguing that stereotypic narratives traditionally used by
news media gloss over social conflicts, inequalities and painful
ambiguities. The authors maintain that these narratives are a form of
escapism that distracts the public and helps the elite maintain control. One
example is triumphal narratives, as in celebration of U.S. victory in Grenada.
Another is either-or narratives, which, by reflecting the prevailing ideology,
transform complex situations into black and white problems (welfare queen story
suggests the poor are corrupt or lazy, El Salvador election story suggests
democracy has come, when ruling super rich continue in power). These either-or
dichotomies lead the opposition to argue the politically disadvantageous
opposite side of a grossly over-simplified set of alternative views. The rulers
maintain their interests, and news narratives help them do so.
To sum up, the approaches of Burke, Fisher, White, and those who focus on
mythic narrative are generally not sufficient to explain why a particular news
narrative dominates over another. To attempt such an explanation, one has to
add other approaches -- study of news routines a la Darnton; assessment of the
political context along the lines of Schudson, Bennett and Edelman; and/or
consideration of the historical background, as exemplified by the Lawrence and
The limitations and strong points of narrative analysis
Having surveyed the origins, evolution and some techniques of narrative
analysis, we turn to the limitations and advantages of this method of study. It
has several limitations. First, some news reports are far more suitable than
others for narrative analysis. The approach is a better analytic tool for
coverage that contains an obvious plot line and vivid characters -- for
instance, Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn's confrontation with the Air Force over
adultery charges against her -- than for reports that are dry, statistical or
analytical (anything from trade with Canada to trends in advance factory orders
to news analysis of the arms control process). It is, of course, possible to
discern story lines and characters in such dry reports -- especially if a group
of them on the same subject are assessed collectively. But other modes of
analysis (e.g., simple framing or content analysis) will likely yield greater
insight. Second, the effectiveness of narrative analysis depends a great deal
on the acuity, analytical power and writing ability of the researcher.
Quantitative studies are carried by the experimental design and the significance
(statistical and otherwise) of the results. Qualitative studies like narrative
analysis obviously rely more on the subjective skills of the scholar, for they
call upon him or her to make an argument and offer an interpretation, rather
than prove a theorem. The narrative analyst's results do not have to be
reapplicable, but they must be plausible and persuasive, hence the need for
Third, there is a seeming paradox in narrative analysis. Consider Didion's
assessment of the 1988 campaign narratives. Her story line, or meta-narrative,
was that story lines inherently distort, that narratives are suspect. If so,
why is not her own narrative also suspect? There may be no escaping such
circularity, which Didion seems to regard as one of life's inherent quandaries.
Of course, the positivist who counts and measures is in a quandary as well,
because counting and measuring will never provide proof that the empirical
paradigm is the correct one. Perhaps in the end we are all in Plato's cave
together, looking at those shadows on the wall and struggling to make sense of
the world despite its inevitable contradictions.
If we accept those contradictions, narrative analysis is a powerful tool. It
can lead us to insights on the limitations of a particular story line, and on
the way we tend to simplify the world. It is adaptable and can be used for the
study of fiction, oral traditions, jokes and urban legends, advertising, public
relations campaigns and news presentation. It is compatible with many other
approaches -- historical study, study of political power as reflected in media,
assessments of news room routines, etc. -- and, as we have seen, often works
best in combination with one or more of these. It can be done rather simply, at
least in some studies. Didion's method was quite uncomplicated. First, she
identified and described the narrative of the 1988 campaign. Then she stepped
outside the frame of that narrative to see what was missing. (Some narratives
are easier for a writer to step outside of than others. The earnest young
political reporter on the campaign trail in 1988 would have been hard-pressed
even to attempt what the less-invested Didion managed to do so well.) Narrative
analysis is stimulating, giving the researcher a sense of discovery and, at its
best, leading to perceptions that often seem richer (if less generalizable) than
those generated by numerical content analysis. Human beings need to tell
stories. Indeed, we seem to have difficulty living without them. Stories help
make the world explicable and comprehensible. Applied thoughtfully, narrative
analysis can enable media scholars to do the same for the stories we find all
 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha (New York: Grosser &
 Joan Didion, "Insider Baseball," in After Henry (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1992), 47-86. This is a reprint of the New York Review of Books essay.
 Ibid. ,61.
 Ibid. ,62.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 64.
 Although Didion does not state this directly, I suspect that the media
portrayal of Dukakis was motivated strongly be a desire for a close contest
between the Democrat and Republican George Bush. Political coverage is boring
and seems useless and absurd unless the contest is close . Reporters have been
known to stretch reality in order to construct a contest. Thus, in 1972, the
reporters assigned full-time to Democrat George McGovern insisted to the end
that he had a chance -- even when all national polls showed he would lose big.
Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus,( New York: Straight Arrow, 1973.) The 1996
Republican primaries are another case in point. Because of his money advantage
and the scheduling of primaries close together early in the season, Bob Dole was
the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. Indeed, no Republican front-runner
had lost his party's nomination in recent memory. Yet the media kept insisting
that far weaker rivals posed a serious challenge, anointing one of them after
another as giant-killers as each collapsed in succession over a one-month
period,. Christopher Hanson, "On the Campaign Trail: Lost in Never Never Land,"
Columbia Journalism, May/June 1996, 41-44.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid. 47, 49, 50.
 Sara Ruth Kozloff, "Narrative Theory and Television", in Channels of
Discourse, Ed. Robert Allen (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press,
 Peter K. Manning and Betsy Cullum-Swan, "Narrative, Content, and Semiotic
Analysis," in Handbook of Qualitative Research eds Norman Denzin and Yvonna S.
Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage Publications, 1991).
 W.L. Bennett and Murray Edelman, "Toward a New Political Narrative,"
Journal of Communication, (Autumn 1985) :1-22.
 It is questionable whether Dukakis's managers understood the power of the
symbols they were playing with and trying to counteract. Would a regular guy be
so stupid as to play ball in 110 degree heat? Would footage of the candidate
participating in the national pass time -- in white shirt, tie and black dress
shoes -- immunize him from charges that he let rapist Willie Horton free out
work release to rape again?
 Aristotle, The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle (New York: Random
 Howard Ziff, "The Uses of Rhetoric: On Rereading Aristotle," History and
Theory 23 (1984) 112.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, (Free Press: New York, 1997) xi-xvi,
3-22, 53-84, 201-225.
 Daniel Boorstin, The Image, (New York: Atheneum ,1961).
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 7-76.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ziff, Ibid. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle described the epideictic speech as
one used in ceremonies to glorify the present. He did not regard it as a high
form of rhetoric.
 Media scholar Bruce Grombeck notes that narrative, as Aristotle discussed
it, refers not only to a new, unfolding story, but to previous knowledge and
concepts that the audience is assumed to have. Familiarity is as important as
suspense. Thus, narrators know and evoke the mythic consciousness of the
audience and tap "universalized sequences-of-action which can arouse fear and
pity." Case studies indicate that, in chasing news, reporters probe for facts
that help them flesh out story lines that tap into universalized, familiar
dramatic sequences. See Bruce Grombeck, "Narrative, Enactment, and Television
Programming." Southern Speech Communication Journal 48, 2 (Spring 1993) 229-243.
 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York: Random House,
1957), Attitudes Toward History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), A Rhetoric of
Motives (New York: Prentice Hall, 1950).
 See David Birdsell, "Ronald Reagan on Lebanon and Grenada: Flexibility and
Interpretation in the Application of Kenneth Burke's Pentad," Quarterly Journal
of Speech 73 (August 1987): 267-279.
 The press reaction to Kennedy's actions is summarized in Peter Collier and
David Horowitz, The Kennedys (New York Summit Books, 1984.) In a vein similar
to Birdsell , W. L. Bennett has interpreted how reality in the courtroom is
cast in dramatic terms. For instance the defense attorney, and the courtroom
journalist sympathetic to the accused, might focus on scene -- how the overall
situation forced the defendant to act the way he or she did, how the accused
was, in fact, a victim. The prosecutor will focus on agency, arguing that the
accused was a responsible agent who must pay for crimes. As Bennett notes, data
are limited on how audiences -- in this case jurors -- process conflicting
narratives in their reasoning. More study is needed. See W. L. Bennett,
"Storytelling in Criminal Trials: A Model of Social Judgment," Quarterly Journal
of Speech 64 (1978) 1-22.
 Walter R. Fisher, Human Communication as Narrative (Columbia, S.C.:
University of South Carolina Press, 1987) 57.
 Robert C. Rowland, "Narrative Modes of Discourse or Paradigm?",
Communication Monographs 54 (September 1987) 264-275. Tautology reference is on
 Ibid., 267. One way out of the tautological trap would be to use Rowland's
distinction and to acknowledge that discursive and narrative elements co-exist
in many news accounts. Even a New York Times takeout on dioxin filled with
statistics and experts has a story line, plot and characters -- just as some
novels have discursive elements (the taxonomy of the whale in Moby Dick, the
philosophy of history sections of War and Peace.) In evaluating news texts, the
critic would have to make a judgment as to whether the approach to a story was
primarily based on narrative or on discursive strategies. He or she might then
argue that pieces that are primarily narratives are episodic, give short shrift
to underlying causes of the problems they illustrate, and thus mislead the
 William F. Lewis, "Telling America's Story: Narrative Form and the Reagan
Presidency," Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 280-302.
 Hayden White, "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical
Theory," History and Theory 23 (1984) 1-33.
 James Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, "Narrative Form and Moral Force: The
Realization of Innocence and Guilt Through Investigative Journalism," Journal of
Communication 38 (Summer 1988) 8-26.
 On a critical note, one must ask whether all narratives in fact convey
moral authority, as White implies. How about an account of a football game? You
might argue that it is a moral narrative if it highlights characters, flaws,
heroes, but not all game narratives do. How about a cynically uncritical
insider news piece on campaign strategy? You might conclude a la Didion that
those stories accept and convey the authority of the political order. Whether
this constitutes moral authority is open to dispute. How about the narrative of
German history propounded by Hitler during his rise to power? Clearly one must
be cautious in equating narrative with moral authority. Of course, if one
defines moral authority simply as a tool of social control, then one can argue
that those in power co-opt moral authority, at times via use of narratives that
bolster the status quo.
 See, for instance, Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (New York:
Harper & Row, 1969.)
 W.L. Bennett and Murray Edelman, "Toward a New Political Narrative,"
Journal of Communication (Autumn 1985) 156-171.
 Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1970.)
 Sarah Ruth Kozloff, "Narrative Theory and Television", in Channels of
Discourse Ed. Robert C. Allen (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1987.) Kozloff's article also includes a useful explication of persuasive power
of narratives. They play upon our assumption that, when events occur in
sequence, the last event is caused by the preceding event. Such an assumption
of causation is dubious in the real world, but even more so in narratives that
manipulate time sequences to tell a story -- and, often, to sell a product or
 See, for instance, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, The American
Monomyth, Latham, MD.: University Press of America, 1988).
 John Shelton Lawrence and Bernard Timberg, "News and Mythic Selectivity:
Mayaguez, Entebbe, Mogadishu," Journal of American Culture (Summer, 1979) 2:2
 Robert Darnton, "Writing News and Telling Stories," Daedalus 104 (2), 1975
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 189.
 Gaye Tuchman, "Telling Stories", Journal of Communication (Autumn 1976)
 See, for instance, Stuart Hall, "The Rediscovery of 'Ideology': Return of
the Suppressed in Media Studies", in Culture, Society and the Media (New York:
Routledge, 1982). Hall argues that the impact of the power structure over time
is to constrain the way in which people think. News media narratives and other
cultural texts limit thinking about the way things are and the way they might
be. Thus, they reinforce a version of common sense that perpetuates social
inequalities. As Marx once put it, "the tradition of all the dead generations
weighs like a stone on the brain of the living."
 Michael Schudson, "The Politics of Narrative Form: The Emergence of News
Conventions in Print and Television," Daedalus 111 (4) (982): 97-112.
 Ibid., 98. His comment indicates that narrative analysis can have a good
deal in common with agenda-setting (establishing terms of debate) and framing
(tacitly enunciating certain views, marginalizing others).
 W.L. Bennett and Murray Edelman, "Toward a New Political Narrative,"
Journal of Communication (Autumn 1985) 156-171.
 What of narratives that do not, on the surface, appear to have ideological
implications -- disasters, air crashes, sports triumphs, miraculous rescues
(QUAKE BABY SAVED!)? Bennett and Edelman see them as part of a barrage of
disconnected news drama that distracts the audience from the fact that their lot
is not improving much in the long run: "the rapid succession of threat, hope,
fear, triumph and defeat that daily news stories depict blurs awareness of
inequalities in well-being that persist over long periods of time... Regardless
of the specifics of the individual narratives, the story presented is one of
constant change and therefore of constant hope." (161) Bennett and Edelman make
a plausible case, with telling examples, but more supporting evidence would help
 Historian Boorstin, by the way, was a master at this kind of
cross-disciplinary analysis. His account in The Image of how the Charles
Lindbergh narrative resonated so powerfully -- and how the news coverage
undercut the aviator's status as an authentic hero and nearly destroyed him --
is a tour de force. It seamlessly combines the study of news routine with
sociology, mythic analysis, biography and history to provide an explanation of
extraordinary depth and pathos. Boorstin deserves to be credited far more often
than he is in media study today.