September 13, 2007

News Master Narratives as Rhetoric

Jay Rosen began his blogging career with an excellent examination of the master narrative in journalism. I have also dealt with it in various ways, most notably in my argument that the press should “tell a different story” of politics (blog essay here; academic essay here). Do a site search on Rhetorica for “master narrative” and you’ll discover that I’ve mentioned it often.

Rosen posted a new essay about how coming up with a new master narrative changes the reporting of on-going events and allows journalists to discover new (politically useful) stories.

This is particularly interesting from a rhetorical perspective because it so glaringly points out that news is a mental construct that may be deconstructed and re-constructed based on numerous values. In a sense quite uncomfortable for objectivist thinkers, there is no news outside of a constructed master narrative. And these narratives are always interested.

To construct (or blindly/mindlessly adopt) a master narrative is to make an argument (but, then, I believe all human communication is rhetorical, therefore an argument, so take that FWIW). What if good journalism is about examining a news situation from a number of master narratives? An interesting question for a reporter to ask a source would then be: “What’s the story here?” And rather than simply jot the quote and move on to find the balance quote, the reporter might begin to follow the response as a narrative frame and think about it in relation to other narrative frames as differently constructed and differently experienced bits of a complex reality.

Yes. I know. There’s hardly time to do a barely-adequate job much less go sniffing the thin atmosphere of rhetorical theory as applied to the under-theorized practice of journalism. Yet…yet… perhaps all it takes is to read what Rosen has to say and then, simply, look for other possible stories–realizing all the while that these are constructions to help discover (construct) truth and not necessarily truth in themselves.

7 Responses

  1. Sven 

    I don’t think I really got the concept of master narrative until I read this shrill and tendentious screed. Fabulous.

  2. Sven… Interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it all. Right now I have a faculty senate meeting. Or, should I say: “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”


  3. Tim 


    Barbara O’Brien’s analysis of the righties’ id would work a lot better for me if there wasn’t so much scientific evidence that archetypes and mythos play an important role in every human psyche.

    I’d even go so far as to say Barbara’s post is an example of a pathetic appeal to the lefties’ id – a master narrative about righties based on pathos.

    It would also help if the favorite epithets of lefties for their ideological opponents didn’t include calling them fascists, brownshirts, Nazis, little-Eichmanns, Hitler, ….

    Sweet irony that Sven once backhandedly accused me of being a fascist.

  4. Tim… You’re exactly right re: mythos and the pathetic appeal. But I enjoyed it in the sense Sven suggested it to me: As a route to understanding what master narrative is. It does so on both counts–an interesting irony 🙂 That the writer doesn’t see his own MN makes it rather entertaining.

  5. OK, I’m glad you enjoyed the academic experience, Andy.

    I thought O’Brien’s communications by metaphor Star Trek analogy had an interesting similarity to Rosen’s, “Lindsay is correct that in both the J-school and newsroom worlds, reasoning-by-bromide is normal behavior.”

  6. Tim… I’d argue that there’s very little difference between the bromide and the narrative–a bromide being a shorthand for a narrative. Notice that the Star Trek example seems to work the same way. A narrative leads to an analogy that leads to a metaphor that becomes a cultural idiom (and, perhaps, a commonplace and bromide). In a sense, we all reason and communicate in this way to some extent.

  7. Agree. I learned something about bromides today I thought I’d share.

    Are You a Bromide?
    Or, The Sulphitic Theory Expounded and Exemplified …
    By Gelett Burgess

    Also at Project Gutenberg.