A decade ago, I learned a valuable lesson from then-editor Geneva Overholser, one that I’ve applied to many problems since. “Avoid the falsedichotomy,” she said. It turns out that after this kind of alert, one discovers that the false dichotomy infects every issue important to journalists. It diminishes our conversations, limits our options, and divides us into camps, setting one orthodoxy against another; all of this violates the interests of those we serve.
How often do we see it happen?
- Give readers the news they want. No, give them what they need.
- Graphics are the answer. No, writing is the answer.
- This is a writers’ paper. No, it’s an editors’ paper.
- Investigative journalism. No, civic journalism.
- Longer stories. No, shorter stories.
- Concentrate on writing. No, reporting.
- Improve quality. No, focus on profits.
These debates take on the fervor and parochialism of religious and cultural wars, the journalistic equivalent of pro-choice vs. pro-life, or phonics vs. whole language.
In the end, common territory is rarely found, often because the will to discover it amid the tyranny of the false dichotomy vanishes in the death of listening. The ideology of opposing views overtakes the necessity of having a shared mission.
A false dichotomy of the moment is one that pits narrative against traditional methods of news writing. Attacks on narrative journalism come from a variety of sources: editors who fear fabrication scandals; reporters who can’t pull off the narrative style and would rather “diss” it or dismiss it than learn it, and time-starved readers who say they want their news fast and to the point.
Pro-narrative pugs are also in this fistfight. Among them are Thomas French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller for the St. Petersburg Times, and Don Fry,an affiliate of the Poynter Institute. Both men revile the inverted pyramid; they talk and write about it as if it were the source of all evil in journalism, a form so at odds with natural storytelling that it ties knots in the thread of potential yarn-spinners.
I love these two men as though they are brothers, but when it comes to the French/Fry perspective on the inverted pyramid, I can declare, with all respect and without equivocation, that, to use my father’s favorite euphemism, they are full of donkey dust. Don and Tom, think about what you’re saying—that a particular way of telling a story is evil. What’s next, an attack on the sonnet or a harangue on the haiku? There is no such thing as a bad story form. Perhaps we could all agree that a particular approach is misapplied or that it is poorly executed. But as long as it is kept short, the pyramid serves the purpose of writer, editor and reader, and is experiencing a revival in the new age of online journalism.
This false dichotomy of information and narrative can be framed anew, transformed into a spectrum of useful possibilities from which all good news writing can emerge. As Canadian journalism scholar Stuart Adam describes it, this spectrum extends from the civic to the literary, from providing a list of evacuation shelters to featuring dramatic stories about escapes from the hurricane.
In adapting the literary theory of Louise Rosenblatt to the uses of journalism, I argue that the reading or viewing of news is either informational or experiential. It all relies on language that either points you there or language that puts you there. Most news telling will be informational and explanatory, striving for clarity, directness, comprehensibility, relevance and utility. Writers who work well in this mode have a keen sense of audience, are able to transcend jargon, set a steady pace, eliminate clutter, compile lists, take care with numbers, and also discover and communicate the impact.
Reporting with civic clarity is a journalist’s primary duty, which leaves plenty of room for the telling of “real” stories. And narrative strategies are tried and true: setting scenes, developing characters, effectively using dialogue, and establishing point of view. To create vicarious experiences for readers or viewers, writers transform the famous five W’s and the H. “Who” becomes character. “What” becomes plot. “Where” becomes setting. “When” becomes chronology. “Why” becomes motive. And “How” becomes narrative.
Master storyteller David Finkel of The Washington Post speaks of reporting for detail, reporting for the senses, and reporting cinematically, as if one were holding a camera up to the story to film a documentary. Where will the camera be pointed? At the beads of sweat on the forehead of the witness? At the 12 frowning jurors? At the statue of blind justice on the courthouse steps? Those are the decisions that reporters who take on the narrative style must make as they convey news to their readers and viewers.
To all ye who enter this craft, I say, abandon the false dichotomy of writingand reporting. Good writing and good reporting reinforce each other. Period.
Recently, we in the business have been acting as though the only cheaters in American journalism are the practitioners of narrative. In fact, narrative writers such as Walt Harrington, Tom French, Anne Hull, Mark Bowden, Tom Hallman, Jon Franklin, Isabel Wilkerson, and many others never need to “pipe” a story because of the power of their direct observation. Each of them engages skillfully in the practice of immersion reporting, gaining direct access to events as they unfold and the characters involved. The cheaters are more likely to be reporting from their desks or their heads, or not at all.
To encourage good writing absent this kind of orthodoxy does not mean the journalist lacks standards. Clear lines can be (and should be) drawn between fiction and nonfiction. No reporter should add to a story events or details that did not occur. Nor should a story ever intentionally fool the audience. An implied contract exists between reporter and reader that a reliable version of reality is being rendered with care and honesty. Some might argue that not having a writing orthodoxy is another form of idolatry in disguise, a kind of “pentheism.” So be it. If such open-mindedness must have a name, then I’ll worship at the altar of pragmatism, the spot next to tolerance as among the great virtues. Pragmatic journalists have dozens of tools and forms on their workbenches.
Depending upon the needs of the audience and the importance of the news, the writer can choose to use a neutral voice or a passionate one, a headline-grabbing lede or a blurb, the obit or the “brite,” the pyramid or the nut graf. The clearest news story requires as much craft as the most powerful narrative.
If we focus on the needs of those we serve, instead of debating the methods we use, we’ll all be better off. Embracing the false dichotomy while abandoning our overriding mission is not only foolhardy but shortsighted.
Roy Peter Clark is a writer and teacher of writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the founding director of the National Writers Workshop and author of “Coaching Writers.” Through his writing and coaching, Clark has helped to reinvent the nonfiction newspaper serial. In 1999, his serialized novel was syndicated by The New York Times to 25 newspapers.