Storytelling, Memories and Identity Constructions

Annual Humanities Conference

Puebla - Mexico City: 4 - 9 November 2011

Cultural History  

Cultural Studies  

Queer Studies  



Narrative journalism and the shaping of identities

Marie Vanoost

Department of Institut Langage & Communication

Université catholique de Louvain


Narrative journalism is often considered as synonym with literary journalism or creative nonfiction. Although there are some little differences in the definitions one can find for each term, they all refer to “the genre that takes the techniques of fiction and applies them to nonfiction” (Nieman Foundation 2011). This genre constitutes “storytelling of a very high order – through the revelation of character and the suspense of plot, the subtle braiding of themes, rhythms and resonance, and a narrative stance that is intelligent, humble, questioning, distinctive, individual and implicitly alert to the world” (Forché and Gerard 2001, 1). As a consequence, Mark Kramer asserts that it “helps sort out the new complexity. If it is not an antidote to bewilderment, at least it unites daily experiences – including emotional ones – with the wild plenitude of information that can be applied to experience” (Kramer 1995, 34).

Narrative journalism seems thus to be able to play a certain part in shaping community and individual identities. In order to analyze how this journalistic model can influence communities, it appears interesting to consider the political gestures defined by Géraldine Muhlmann (2004). Muhlmann distinguishes two different political gestures in the history of modern journalism. The first one, and most widespread by far, is “unifying,” gathering together readers and reinforcing their community around a shared perspective of the world. The second one, “decentring,” aims at moving readers off-centre. It confronts them with a form of conflict or strangeness that questions their community.

Narrative journalism can also influence the building of individual identity. Paul Ricoeur (1992) considers narratives as being part of human identity. According to him, our narrative identity is created through a threefold process that he calls the triple mimesis. During Mimesis I, or prefiguration, people have a pre-understanding of action. Mimesis II is configuration; it is the time of narration and emplotment. Then comes refiguration, or Mimesis III, where people hear or read the narrative. It allows them to understand and to interpret not only the story itself, but also their own experience – about life, themselves, others… As narrative journalism offers readers more elaborated stories than “conventional” journalism, it may appear as an important way to create narrative identity.
On the contrary, Christian Salmon (2007) critiques narrative journalism, which he associates with the storytelling revival. He focuses mostly on management and politics, but also holds up narrative journalism as an example. He claims that storytelling uses narrative techniques to create a persuasive story, giving the public the perspective of the world that those in power want to impose. It is thus according to Salmon a major democratic issue to fight against that symbolic violence which influences people’s actions, opinions and emotions. If narratives really possess the possibility to manipulate their audience, then narrative journalism could be a way to sway opinions.

Narrative journalism seems thus to be in the depths of major ethical and democratic issues related to community and personal identity. It appears important for both journalists and readers to become aware of these issues.

Bio: Marie Vanoost is a Research Fellow at the F.R.S-FNRS (Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research). Her Ph.D. thesis concerns the ethical issues of narrative journalism. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information and Communication and a Master’s degree in Journalism from the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium.



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