Mark Kramer is a journalist and a scholar. He is the writer-in-residence and the director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University. Kramer was recently in Iceland, where he delivered a lecture at the University of Iceland on the subject of narrative journalism. The Grapevine sat down with Kramer for a few questions.
/// Would you describe the concept of ‘narrative journalism to us in a few words?
Mark Kramer: The best definition is probably to be found on my website, where it has been thought through, but I am willing to stumble around a bit. The journalism part means it should be factual, and the standard of factuality should be very high, since we are dealing with matters of public trust. Journalism is only useful to the extent that the public trusts. The more so when journalism includes storytelling, and narrative journalism is storytelling journalism. It is journalism that includes as much as possible about what happened, not just the official facts, but also emotions, context, whether taboo or otherwise. It includes all the things, at its bests, that would go into a private judgment of a situation that you might make and share with your partner. So, it opens a vast field of journalistic practise that was previously walled off, and it requires a lot of integrity and skills to do it at that kind of level. It invites in complexities that are avoided by the stilted form of journalism that we are used to. Narrative journalism sets scenes with characters, described with the social and status life of the characters communicated. It also often includes the voice of a storyteller about which the storyteller has made some decisions as to what kind of character should tell the story.
/// How would you contrast narrative journalism to conventional journalism? What are the pros and cons?
– Well, a conventional story about a fire sticks to a few civic facts. It says the address of the fire, what time it happened, it may say how many pieces of fire apparatus answered the call, it may even say how many minutes passed before they arrived, it may say how long it took to put out the fire and how many firemen it took. These are all numerable, measurable facts and they are all attributed, which is not a bad idea, ‘according to Assistant Fire Chief, Charles J. McGillicutty’. But it doesn’t necessarily present a visual picture. It certainly does not often make the readers smell smoke, or hear the crackle of wood burning, or the crying of somebody who has suddenly been forced out of their apartment and it doesn’t include the laughter of the children who don’t understand what is happening. It is a civic story. It is a story about a fire as an administrative-metropolitan problem. I don’t want to criticise that, especially in cities where there are a number of fires every day. It is perfectly useful to citizens to have a list of them in a short account, and it is probably not very useful, very often, to explore the emotional ravages and advantages of a fire. But it is possible that it is interesting to that sometimes, and that story would be very different if it would be done on the fireman’s emotion then if it reported on the fire victim’s emotions or the neighbour’s emotion. Once you decide that a journalist can be more than simply a civic instrument, a complicated world of decisions opens up that comes right down to the question, ‘what is news now?’
/// So, that has to be the next question then, what is news now?
– To my way of thinking, the human condition is, and has always been, news. The retreat into civic information has been a brilliant civic invention. It has been good for democracy, insofar that it is open and candid. If it is trusted and it is not open and candid, it is not good for democracy. But, nowadays, cities in most countries are aggregations of many ethnicities and there are many sources of authority, and there are many senses of what is good and what is bad. It is not enough for journalists simply to be loyal sentinels on the walls of the city, reporting on danger from afar and congratulating sources of internal social cohesion because the world is too complicated for that. And besides that, most readers are getting most of their information from other sources than daily print journalism now. They are getting it from TV news, from radio news in the car They are getting it from the Internet. The breaking civic headlines come in from other sources than newspapers, so there may be room for newspapers to play to their strength, which is sophisticated staff, a little more time, a little more space than broadcast journalism has. But to do so they have to acknowledge the complexities of the questions raised by broadening coverage, so an administrative change has to be made so newspapers can include more narrative journalism. And it has to be from the top. There has to be space for it and an understanding of news that has to be more sophisticated.
/// At what point would you say this school of journalism started?
– Historically? Goodness. If you are a scholar of Mark Twain you can find an article he wrote after interviewing and hanging out with the survivors of a shipwreck as a young journalist in Hawaii that is straight journalism. You can find personal essays of Montaigne that are arguably narrative journalism and diaries of Samuel Pepys that are arguably narrative journalism. It goes way back, but the idea of mixing a description of an actual scene with the presence of a narrator that acknowledges that he is a full human personality, not merely a civil servant in a sentinel’s outfit. This is an idea that goes way back. But they started to coalesce as a movement, probably in magazines and book pieces in the 1960s, some of which were collected by Tom Wolfe in his 1972 anthology called The New Journalism. And at the front of that book is a glorious essay by him pretty much explaining the uses and the significance of it in a way that doesn’t need much revision. That led to an increased consciousness. Many writers read that book and said ‘Aha, so that is a good name –or a bad name – but at least it is a name for what we are doing. The interest in evaluating things for oneself comes from a change in civic trust or the endowment of civic power. Just the fact that people felt they could look at a complex situation and evaluate it for themselves in print and in public comes from a diffusion of authority that is very modern. It stems in part from an increased acknowledgement of what communication theorists call ‘the backstage life of public figures’. If politicians have real private emotions and not just pious civic emotions, if they have not just scandalous girlfriends, but actual moods and angers and manipulation and frailties that influence their decisions, why stick to the formal argument if the whole presence of a person explains things better? And from where do Americans suddenly know all about backstage life? They know about it from TV. Not from TV news, which is woefully restricted in what it talks about and how it talks about it, maybe because it is just so damn powerful, but from the rest of TV, from sitcoms where the father is a foolish man and the dog passes gas and soap operas where powerful captains of industry have lovers of several genders on the side. The complex backstage life, once it is acknowledged as an element of explanation, suddenly is conspicuously lacking from newspapers that have been steady in how they explain things.
/// The subject matter of narrative journalists is very varied though.
– Yes, conventional journalism, because of this official voice and because of its focus on civic information for citizens, citizen being the civic identity of a real person who also has many other identities too. Once you broaden the journalism to inform more aspects of someone’s life than just the civic identity, the number of subjects expands. Conventional journalism is mostly about disturbances in what is normal. A fire in an area where buildings don’t usually burn, a robbery in a bank that doesn’t usually get robbed. But there is another story in the bank. How on earth can someone endure being a bank teller for 23 years? Wouldn’t that make a good story? And how would you go about collecting that story? Would a reporter go and be a bank teller, maybe not for 23 years, but two or three days? Gain the trust of the bank teller to earn permission to explore that part of their lives? It is a lovely story to tell. The paradox of handling money, such a powerful item, routinely without any personal attachment, there is a little story there. It would take a good writer to make it work, and an interesting choice of subject, but it could work.
Narrative journalism is especially good for exploring routine lives that can symbolise installed social problems, for example, racism. Racism is not like a bank robbery or a fire. It is not something that happens once in a while, living in the poor part of town happens every day, having all of one’s neighbours also being black happens every day, going to a food store where the prices are 20 percent more expensive and the quality is not the same happens every day, going to a public school that turns out to be entirely minority, this is a routine event. There has been some beautiful writing exploring these installed social phenomena in newspapers that is just not possible without the tools of narrative journalism. It is one of its most powerful uses.
You can learn more about Mark Kramer and the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at: www.narrativedigest.org and www.nieman.harvard.edu/narrative.