Fall 2000

‘Just Write What Happened.’

Imposing a narrative structure doesn’t always work.

By William F. Woo
Many years ago, in his book “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann distinguished truth from journalism. His conclusion was not a happy one for journalists, …if journalists imagine that all they need for an effective narrative is to apply to their reporting the sequence and elements of ‘storytelling,’ they are mistaken.and it remains particularly difficult—and cautionary—for those who would write in the narrative form.

The function of truth, Lippmann said, was to bring hidden facts to light and set them in relation to one another to produce “a picture of reality upon which men can act.” By “act,” I infer him to mean making the political, economic, social and personal decisions that are a part of the lives of free people. Without having such a picture of reality provided, these decisions cannot be made with any confidence.

The function of journalism, Lippmann went on, was that of “signalizing events.” Here, the dictionary leads me to conclude he had in mind making events known clearly or drawing attention to them. In a simpler way, I think of Lippmann’s signalizing as the ways in which journalists take care of who, what, when and where.

When I said that Lippmann’s formulation was an unhappy one for journalists, I wasn’t implying that journalists assert a special claim on the truth. Good reporters and editors understand that the whole truth is always beyond them and that even fragments of truths are not easy to capture and represent accurately. But good journalists, too, are unsatisfied with merely “signalizing” who, what, when and where. They want to explain the why and the how and the implications of the event and to provide background, context and detail. In other words, they want to do much more.

That is, even though the absolute truth is beyond them, good journalists want to organize and present the facts so readers can apprehend a reliable picture of reality. The journalist says, “These facts and the way I set them down tell you what went on when the school board met last night, or when two cars collided on Route 21, or when the plant shut down and moved to Asia. You can depend on it.”

Many reporters and editors know about Lippmann, the journalist-philosopher, but unless they worked long ago for the Kansas City Times they probably have not even heard of an Assistant City Editor named Ray Lyle who trained a generation of reporters. Lyle was unshaven, profane, cigar chewing (and spitting), and I wonder if he went to college. Certainly, he was as different from the urbane, Harvard-educated Lippmann as anyone could imagine. Yet Lyle’s Law, as I call it, offers journalists a way of achieving Lippmann’s objective of assembling facts into a picture of reality upon which people can act.

On a December night in 1957, I was a young reporter struggling over a complicated obituary that would be my first story on Page 1. For hours, Lyle had made me call the family, the police, the coroner, the fire department, and many other sources for answers to the endless questions with which he probed my reporting. Finally, with deadline looming, he asked for my lede. Never having studied journalism or written anything more than a one-paragraph obituary set in agate, I confessed miserably that I did not know what one was.

Lyle regarded me kindly. “Bill,” he said, “just write what happened.”

So there in four words was Lyle’s Law: Just write what happened. Sooner or later, he made it a lifetime’s lesson for all of his reporters.

Lyle was not an epistemologist, but his mandate to just write what happened requires a journalist to make a expedition into the reality of the event at hand—the school board meeting, the fatal out on Route 21, the closing of the shoe factory. Unless you understand the what of the event, and can explain it in words that neither add to nor subtract from its meaning, you can never give readers a usable picture of reality. Never mind giving them the truth.

I said at the outset that Lippmann’s concept was particularly difficult for journalists who would write in the narrative form. Certainly it does not preclude them from doing narrative stories that are powerful, honest and a joy to read. Some very good journalism is done that way. But if journalists imagine that all they need for an effective narrative is to apply to their reporting the sequence and elements of “storytelling,” they are mistaken. Lyle’s Law tells you why.

Narrative derives from the Latin “narrare,” to tell the particulars of an event.

In this sense, narrative journalism coexists easily with Lippmann and Lyle. Telling the particulars is telling what happened, and the narrative form is one way to do it. But it is a limited way, fraught with difficulties.

One trouble is that narrative journalism is not regarded as merely conveying the particulars of an event. Journalists know it as a form of writing aimed at storytelling. It is usually sequential and anecdotal, so as to introduce real people and their actual experiences. By its nature, it subordinates ideas (particularly those involving statistics and facts) to drama and conflict.

Since the narrative is aimed at storytelling, it is concerned with beginnings, middles and endings and plots developed through the action and dialogue—just like the well made short story that literature students study. If we allow ourselves to simplify the reality for the purpose of storytelling, then we run the risk of turning it into a cartoon or caricature. It might be entertaining, but it is scarcely a reality upon which anyone can act.Readers remember stories, journalists are told. Start them with a scene that holds their attention. Don’t write, “A 17-year-old youth suffered head injuries yesterday while climbing a hill on his family’s farm. A female companion also fell but was unhurt.” Write, “Jack and Jill went up the hill….”

Even in the hands of the most assiduous and perceptive reporter, facts gathered are likely to be incomplete, unconnected and susceptible to many interpretations. The narrative strands necessary to reconcile all these things are not easily handled. This is why frequently the narrative approach is abandoned once the going gets heavy and why stories with anecdotal beginnings are so full of disposable people, characters thrown away as soon as their work of getting readers into the story is finished. You can think of them as the dusting maids who start a play. If Jack and Jill introduced a story about agricultural accidents, we might be left to wonder forever about them once she came tumbling after.

Further, though reporters may frame stories in a narrative form, they may not have been there at the beginning or the end of whatever they’re writing about, and perhaps not much of the middle, either. Research can give them an idea of the beginning, and they can guess at the end. That, and what they saw of the middle, might be the best they can do.

What, for example, is the story of the recent changes in the welfare system? We might need to wait several generations to know it well enough to write about it in a truly comprehensive way. Even with individual experiences (those, say, of a single parent striving for economic self-sufficiency), the beginning may lie in murkiness or contradictions, and the end of the story may not be evident for many years. Writing what happened is not as easy as it might seem.

Lyle’s Law imposes rigorous requirements on reporters who would attempt to bring their reporting to readers through narrative. They need to have scrupulous professional integrity and also intellectual humility. As reporters, we are almost always dealing with limited knowledge and even the most obvious story is often more complicated than it appears, the deeper we look into it. If we allow ourselves to simplify the reality for the purpose of storytelling, then we run the risk of turning it into a cartoon or caricature. It might be entertaining, but it is scarcely a reality upon which anyone can act.

For these reasons (and others), I also am skeptical of the so-called “solutions journalism.” Serious problems—whether social, economic or political—rarely are solved quickly enough for the rhythms and pronouncements of daily journalism. We may imagine that the story ends, but time has its way of playing tricks with our conclusions. Think of penicillin. Not too long ago, journalists described it as a miracle healer. Now we hear constantly about all sorts of new drug-resistant bugs.

Journalists do not write the first draft of history. They write about a slice of events from one of many perspectives of time and space. The good news is that sometimes this gives readers a useful sense of at least a part of what happened. We need, though, to be careful of the inherent claims we make for our work. Readers (and the editors who assign stories) may well prefer “this works and that doesn’t” to “it’s much too soon to tell, but this is what’s happened so far,” but the latter is more faithful to Lippmann and Lyle. And more honest, too.

If you think that these reflections are leading to a rousing reaffirmation of the old pyramid news story, you would be wrong. As the linguist Georgia Green pointed out in a report several years ago to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the disjointed structure of the standard or traditional news story often makes it hard to understand. In imposing an order on a set of facts, the narrative technique is an effort to make stories more understandable—and hence more interesting. That’s all to the good. Journalism badly needs clarity.

We mislead our readers, however, when in the name of producing an interesting story we superimpose an arbitrary order on an incomplete selection of facts and present it as the reality—as the what that happened. In doing so I think we also can mislead ourselves into imagining—and even worse, believing—that life divides neatly into beginnings, middles and ends and plots and characters that develop as events unfold.

That is not a reality upon which journalists should act. It is the way novelists and short story writers produce their realities about the human condition, but the last time I checked, we, as journalists, were still supposed to be about nonfiction.

William F. Woo, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, was a reporter and editor for 39 years before retiring as editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996. Since then he has taught journalism in the Department of Communication of Stanford University.

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