Right off, let’s admit it’s easy to make fun of television news. If it weren’t, Jon Stewart would be out of a job.

So yes, TV news suffers from delusions of adequacy. But let’s move beyond pop criticism and look at a problem academics have often identified as one of the roots of boob tube evil, the idea that its news tends to be episodic rather than thematic. Or in the words of political scientist Shanto Iyengar, TV tends to tends to present “recurring issues as unrelated events.”

Put another way, TV new stories appear as a single episode unconnected from a thematic whole.

Only if it were still so.

These concerns arise largely from research conducted in the 1980s and the early 1990s, back when the three broadcast television networks dominated the planet, when fat newspaper profit margins walked the Earth, and just before the emergence of two media institutions — talk radio and cable news — that make concerns about a lack of theme appear so very naive.

Indeed, it’s hard to find “news” today that isn’t squeezed into some narrative framework.

I use the word narrative here quite on purpose, mainly because I’ve heard it over and over again in recent weeks as partisans snipe at one another over the airwaves. Stewart blasts Fox News for avoiding stories that fail to fit its “fear-driven narrative.” Sean Hannity warns his talk radio listeners about the dangerous “liberal narrative.”

With both sides focused now on narrative, I come today to praise the episodic.

In science there are two approaches to knowledge. One is deductive reasoning, which begins with a theory and then moves to observations to test it. A lack of support means the theory needs rethinking. The other is method inductive reasoning, which begins with specific observations to arrive at some theory or explanation. If I haven’t put you to sleep yet, the difference really does matter.

News has become more deductive than inductive, more driven by an beginning theme or narrative. And that’s a damn shame.

“Opinion in all its forms,” said radio guy Ira Glass in a recent talk, “is kicking the ass of journalism.”

For those who don’t know, Glass is host of This American Life, an excellent program heard on public radio stations across the country, the kind of show definitely deserving of mention on the web site stuff white people like. But Glass has a point, a painful one. By kicking journalism’s ass, I assumed at first he meant with ratings and readers, the only true measures when it comes right down to it. Now, though, I’m convinced he means something deeper, something more sinister. I think he means the N-word. He means narrative. I also suspect he means getting at the truth, or a version of the truth, in a way mainstream media often fail to do given the constraints of journalistic practice and the artificial way, especially on TV, how stories are often told.

There’s nothing wrong with narrative.  You can read a fascinating, if somewhat academic, discussion of it here. In journalism, by narrative we typically mean a form of storytelling beyond the rat-a-tat of straight news. The Nieman folks at Harvard, for example, do a very nice job of gathering some of the best narrative journalism (see also this web site for a good read).

But these are stories, true stories, told using all the tricks found in good fiction, like plot and character and tension, with nothing invented. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it makes for damn good stories if told with skill and an eye for telling detail.

By narrative in today’s partisan battlefield, each side is painting the other as fitting facts, any facts, to a pre-existing storyline. Some might call it framing, others might call it spin, and cynics might argue it’s always been that way, but never has there been so strong a narrative in sources that demand so much attention. The TV talkers on MSNBC and Fox News come immediately to mind, but let’s not forget talk radio and a handful of web sites with the audience, and the influence, to squeeze the facts into a pre-existing storyline like a size 6 trying to fit into a size 2 dress.

This may be the future: a constellation of news sources, all with their own narrative, scooping facts from the spew of daily events and telling their truth their way. It certainly seems a more profitable approach, at least when it comes to ratings and audience. But along the way we lose a sense of common knowledge and consensus.  A starting point in our national conversation.

So I come to praise the episodic in news, the individual bit of story that stands alone outside some overall narrative about how the world is, or ought to be. Or what some talkmeister believes it should be.

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Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com

7 Comments
  1. Cliff Green

    I, too, praise episodic news. I live in Atlanta, and just last week, WSB-TV (Channel 2) breathlessly opened its 11 p.m. Sunday broadcast with the breaking story of a dead pine tree that had fallen in the southwest section of our city, “just missing an unoccupied rental house by mere feet.”
    Yes! By mere feet!
    They had video of the old tree on the ground, a reporter on the scene and an interview with a man on the street. The conversation went something like this: It could have been worse, couldn’t it? Yes, said the neighbor. The people that used to live here parked their car right where the tree fell. But disaster was averted because, and I quote, “THEY MOVED OUT LAST WEEK.”
    I defy anyone to put this gem of a “news” story into any sort of a narrative.

  2. Frank Povah

    News is now largely a series of vignettes – though I feel such a beautiful word is too flattering – assembled into a hotch-potch of short takes chosen for their capacity to keep viewers watching a particular channel or talking head rather than burden them with anything to tax their brains.

    Case in point. Over the past several months Australia – for better or for worse, one of the USA’s staunchest allies – has seen a woman made Prime Minister and then gone to the polls in a hard-fought election, the result of which is still not finalized but will probably be a hung parliament in the Lower House and a Senate dominated to all intents and purposes by the Australian Greens (the swing to which party was greater than that to the major party sitting in opposition to the Government).

    Over that time NBC (the one with the stylized peacock tail – I still get them mixed up) news has shown one story – and I use the word loosely – from Australia and that just a couple of days ago. It concerned a premmie baby who was thought to be about to die until brought to life by being placed on its mother’s chest. There was the usual comment from the “medical correspondent” who told us that in Australia this is called “kangaroo care” – she was only partly right – and how doctors now believe that human touch is important to human children. Really? Well why wasn’t my great-grandmother’s generation believed when it criticized “modern” theories?

    But I’ve strayed. I’m glad for the parents and all that, but do you get my point?

    PS. There was one redeeming feature in the childbirth story – not once did anyone credit you-know-who, though it seemed touch and go for a second or two there.

  3. Far as I can tell, “narrative” isn’t the culprit. Bias is. News that is episodic can be every bit as biased as news that connects to some theme. And the reverse is also true. I’d say news in context is better than news out of context. But, folks are quite good at fouling the context in these days of extreme partisanship and loose news values. The interactivity of the Internet seems to have spurred an explosion of opinion that seems often to pass as news. As those against narrative control might say, “Narrative doesn’t lie, people do.”

    1. Billy Howard

      Fewer trained journalists= fewer people examining the rhetoric and lies of the radical right. I can see how that works for you.

  4. A moment about local news — local, that which is closest to our lives. Narrative or episodic, this burns me:

    Local stations have mostly ended any pretext of journalism — reporters spending weeks, maybe months, tracking leads, digging into this government, corporate, human interrest problem or that. No money. Doesn’t pay.

    But the stations seem to have plenty o’ dough when it comes to sending up a helicopter to get an overhead of a house where police and neighbors are loitering in the aftermath of a domestic dispute, shooting or personal tragedy. Helicopter, pilot, camera, fuel, airport fees, expensive. And? It isn’t news and except for the empathy that comes with knowing someone has been hurt, I don’t care. I guess the stations MIGHT get a nano-second of shocking video that could be sold to affiliate stations, and about that, they care!

    And someone tell me why local news uses air time to play 911 tapes for tragedies that are done. If officials are reaching out to the public for assistance because maybe there is something in a tape to help SOLVE a crime, then okay. But just for purient interest? That’s disgusting.

    So along with many others, I’ve turned off the local news. Fewer viewers, fewer advertising dollars, less money coming in, fewer reporters or stories of any community importance. Spiral down, down, down.

    Call me when the stations gather their wits and return to at least occasionally producing segments of importance to the communities they’re supposed to serve.

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