Story location:

September 8, 2003

PressThink Basics: The Master Narrative in Journalism

Borrowed from Lit Crit, the term "master narrative" has come into use in journalism here and there. What is it? The story that generates all the other stories. I'll explain.

Press think has terms of art, and one of them is “master narrative,” borrowed from literary critics. I use it to describe a part of the press that too easily eludes attention: the big story, sometimes the back story, often a fragment of a narrative, that generates all the other stories, which are smaller pieces.

Individual reports we can summarize, index, and criticize, especially today with the explosion of citizen critics on the Web. But there is no reliable index to replicating patterns in news coverage. Your local newscaster may tell you, “here’s a list of stories we’re working on for NewsFour at 11:00,” but there is nowhere listed the story forms from which this repetitive content flows. A given work of journalism will have an author’s byline, but in some measure the author is always “journalism” itself and its peculiar habits of mind. You can’t interview that guy.

In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear nonpartisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning— who’s going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on. Reporters call this the horse race, one of the rare occasions on which they have aptly named their own master narrative and recognized it as a story machine— almost an appliance for cooking news….

Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively non-partisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resembles myths as anthropologists understand them.

Were “winning” to somehow get removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?

To understand better the mind of the mainstream press, pay close attention to that phrase, “the story” when listening to journalists talk about their work. The story is not only what a daily reporter gets, it is journalism’s way of “getting” the world, of naming, packaging, and punctuating events. The Enron Story refers not to news accounts about the company Enron, but to an episode in corporate criminality that largely eluded the press when it happened but afterwards became big news.

“I don’t think the story is going anywhere,” which you might hear from any Friday-night panelist on PBS, suggests faltering locomotion, a train of events about to peter out. Of course it refers equally to editorial attention; the prediction is that the story will stop generating news. American journalists often say “the story” when what they mean is the event itself, and if you’re interested in the newsroom’s master narratives one place to look is in between those two.

Another is tribal rituals, and political journalism is rife with those. The press pack, such a visible feature of big time campaigning in America, would find it confusing to be without a figure known as the front-runner, key to the imaginary of a “race” to the finish. That the front-runner deserves privileged attention originates in the fat narrative of winning, which in addition to producing lots of stories keeps at bay other masters that might be served.

Realism tells us that elections are supposed to be contests among partisans struggling to beat the other guy and gain power. This is not what’s wrong with them; it’s essential and good. Elections are equally supposed to be forums in which competing ideas, priorities and visions for the nation come forward in the struggle to gain office. That’s essential too, and no less good. Elections are, in a third telling, entry points for our participation in politics. Hard to say that’s not essential. Hard to say it isn’t good.

Any of these suppositions could become the master narrative for campaign reporting in a given setting, (and there are many more possible, as many as there are settings) but the longer “winning the race” hangs around, the more natural the thing seems— not an editorial invention at all but more like reality itself. Want to find ideology in journalism? In America, you look at points like this.

Yet I repeat: to choose winning as master narrative is a defensible move, non sinister. Its logic has over time settled, the way sediments settle and become earth. Journalists walk that earth. But they are not the only ones— candidates, contributors, consultants, pollsters join them. That’s significant since these people tend to be regular sources for journalists— and one way you negotiate with sources is by agreeing on a common narrative, (W for Winning) the way musicians might settle on the key of F.

Master narrative may have started in academic dialect. But it has crept into the language of workaday journalists as they reflect on their way of doing things. This I take as sign of a useful idea.

Canadian journalist Robert Fulford (a columnist for the National Post) writes: “A master narrative that we find convincing and persuasive differs from other stories in an important way: it swallows us. It is not a play we can see performed, or a painting we can view, or a city we can visit. A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it.”

Because journalists do “live” within their narratives, they often don’t see them. William Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The master narrative is a reason why some stories that should get in, don’t get in.” This alone is reason to criticize the press under the title above. Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for the Washington Post who covered presidential campaigns, wrote this in 1992:

Political stories don’t just ‘happen’ the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct. They are components of a journalistic master narrative built around two principle story lines: the search for the candidates’ character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horserace, full of ploys and surprises, tenacity and treachery, rising action and falling action, winners and losers.

Taylor’s use of “construct” intrigues me for two reasons. Journalists, he’s saying, help create the universe from which they draw news, which is a truthful but disruptive observation. How to report the news—accurately, fairly, comprehensively—is something we know how to teach in journalism school. How to construct the public arena (accurately, fairly, comprehensively? do these terms even make sense?) is not. It’s pretty clear where the authority to report the news comes from; it’s not clear where the authority to construct the world lies, or could lie.

This ghostly matter—of a master narrative instructing the news machine—is not debated in newsrooms the way the day’s top stories are. It is not examined at conferences. The ombudsmen do not write columns about it. The pundits don’t kick it around. Officially, it is not in the job description of the American press, and no one gets hired for a bigger salary in Philadelphia by being a good constructor of the civic universe in Scranton.

Still the construction work goes on, and only a language of criticism can hold the laborers accountable. A second telling thing about Taylor’s active verb “construct” is that it’s borrowed (whether he knew it or not) from post-modernism. The term master narrative arrives via the same route. A key source for it is Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 work The Postmodern Condition, a classic among those who study that condition.

Now there are many literate people hostile to postmodernism and its vocabulary, but journalists are among the most vocal. The trendy postmodern academic is a much ridiculed figure in press commentary; terms like “deconstruction” are laugh triggers among the working press. Were someone to suggest for graduate students in journalism a crackling tour of postmodern thought, the reaction would likely be incredulity, panic or revolt.

Even so, the idea that news stories are “artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct,” these words of a reporter raised within the tribe, are a classic bit of postmodern thinking because they de-naturalize the news. In fact, journalists are among the most casual postmodernizers around, since they can always be counted on for observations like this, from Richard S. Dunham of Business Week: “Still, in politics, perception is reality, and the public remains convinced that Bush is rooted deeply in the political center.” Yes, that’s postmodern lite. Yes, it’s banal. This is my point about casual proponents in the press

Finally, what I like most about the notion of a master narrative is that in some circumstances it provides leverage against intellectual habit in the press. You can use it not only to recognize but to change things, as I tried to do in some of my own work on behalf of public journalism. One way to reform journalism is to find a group of people who do it and want a different master narrative generating the stuff they do.

At the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer, Editor Mike Burbach once undertook a “reorganization” by asking his staff: “What is the master narrative of Columbus?” This was addressed to the local imagination of journalists in his employ. “It’s a fascinating exercise,” Burbach later said. “Some people answer the question from 50,000 feet and some from 5,000 feet, but there are definitely common themes. It’s turned out to be a very useful question.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 8, 2003 2:43 PM