Communication Interpretive Journalism
by
Susana Salgado
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0226

Introduction

Interpretive journalism has been defined in extant research as a style of news reporting that is opposed to descriptive journalism. Rather than simply describing what happened and providing source-driven and fact-focused accounts, it provides journalistic interpretation and analysis through explanations, evaluations, contextualizations, or speculations by the journalist. The prominent role of the journalist in news coverage is linked to the disbelief in value-free facts and in interest-free sources, thus making it necessary to explain the context and interpret the relevance and impact of facts, events, and statements. Interpretive journalism is thus a style of reporting centered on the journalist to the detriment of sources, which empowers journalists, by giving them more control over content, through the selection of themes and the possibility of adding new meaning to news stories. This style of journalism thus potentially impacts on the purpose and tone of news reports as well. It can take the form of signaled comment and analysis or of journalistic interpretations intermixed in straight news stories. The latter has been pointed as problematic, as it gives the journalist tools to induce certain ideas or evaluations in the audiences’ mind, without explicitly warning that those are the journalist’s own interpretations. Interpretive journalism has been often the subject of normative evaluations. It still is controversial in the journalistic cultures that are most committed to objectivity in guiding news narratives, and in other cases it is interconnected with the role of journalism as the fourth estate and its contribution to the healthy functioning of democracy. Some critics consider that it introduces subjectivity and partisan (and other) bias in the news reports, which can, for this reason, discredit journalists and journalism itself. Despite the criticism, interpretive journalism is not recent; in fact, it is rooted in the inception of journalism itself. Newsweekly journalism is the most acknowledged and one of the earliest forms of interpretive journalism: it is substantiated by the fact that daily news media provide the facts, and the purpose of weekly news media outlets is to provide the interpretation of those facts. But interpretive journalism can be found in any type of media outlet. The idea that journalists should not only report the increasingly complex world, but also explain and interpret it, has become relatively widespread today, especially given the impact of the Internet on the amount of news media outlets and information available stemming from all kinds of sources, including shady sources. In fact, in today’s complex media environments, the relevance of interpretive journalism may increase, in the sense that it could be regarded as journalists’ important comparative advantage, when any person can now publish/post information. In research, interpretive journalism has been the subject of multiple approaches and it has been mixed with other concepts. Given that these other concepts always attribute a central role to the journalist and to her/his interpretations, interpretive journalism could be viewed as an umbrella concept.

General Overviews

The titles included in this section provide general overviews of interpretive journalism, such as Houston 2015 and Salgado 2019, or place the topic into broader contexts in discussions about journalism practice, such as Krieghbaum 1956; Hill and Breen 1977; Agee, et al. 1983; and Fontaine and Glavin 1987. Schudson 1995 discusses the role of journalists in democracy. These references also illustrate some of the ways in which interpretive journalism has been defined throughout the years: Hage 1976; Neal and Brown 1976; and Agee, et al. 1983 see it as an inherent part of the news reporting process, while Patterson 1996 refers to it as a specific style of journalism that is opposed to descriptive journalism. Some consensus is found in these references regarding the main features of interpretive journalism: it is mainly associated with the function of providing background information in the news reports, which means furnishing additional meaning through context but also evaluations. Another important issue present in these references relates to the impact of interpretive journalism on democracy: for Krieghbaum 1956, democracy needs critical views from journalists, and Schudson 1995 sees such views as a necessary function of journalism in democracy, through which journalists de-construct complex issues and thus help citizens to make sense of reality. These views stand in contrast to Patterson 1996, which links interpretive journalism with negativity and strategy-making in the news and considers that this combination is harmful for democracy because it increases citizens’ discontent with politics and political leaders, contributing to the downward trend in election participation.

  • Agee, Warren Kendall, Phillip H. Ault, and Edwin Emery. 1983. Reporting and writing the news. New York: Harper & Row.

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    This book dedicates a chapter to “Interpretive Reporting” that explains its pertinence: “the reader needs to be told what the facts mean and to have them put in perspective” (p. 298). Journalists should therefore provide background information about an event. To the authors, interpretive reporting means that reporters are expected to sort out facts and opinions obtained from sources, to challenge or discard distorted accounts, and to supply background and context needed for the readers’ understanding of spot news events.

  • Fontaine, André, and William A. Glavin Jr. 1987. The art of writing nonfiction. 2d ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press.

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    Originally published in 1974 by André Fontaine, the second edition of this book adds a co-author. The authors seek to document a major change in journalistic practice in the United States, namely the growing weight of interpretation. The authors suggest adding interpretive journalism to forms of new journalism, literary journalism, advocacy journalism, and see it as a process, based on rigorous reportage that nevertheless employs the skills of the fiction writer and presents the journalist’s judgments.

  • Hage, George S. 1976. News strategies for public affairs reporting: Investigation, interpretation and research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    Describes situations in which there was an interpretive treatment to the news and explains that interpretive approaches gained acceptance throughout the 1970s in the United States. Refers to the interpretive approach as one that attempts to explain change and to relate events to each other. Explains that the dual approach (coverage of events through just reporting occurrences and an interpretive effort) is the prevailing method for reporting public affairs as fact-gathering and interpretation are not separable reporting functions.

  • Hill, Evan, and John J. Breen. 1977. Reporting and writing the news. Boston: Little Brown.

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    This book discusses the production steps of printed news stories and includes a section on “Writing Interpretive Stories,” which is linked to the explanation of issues as well as to the research done by journalists on current events and the events’ underlying meaning.

  • Houston, Brant. 2015. Interpretive journalism. In The concise encyclopedia of communication. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach, 301. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

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    Provides a general description of interpretive journalism and mentions its growing occurrence in news media in the United States, while in other parts of the world (Africa, Europe, Latin America) it has been a known feature of news coverage for much longer. It also briefly refers to the ongoing debate on whether the Internet will push for more interpretive journalism or for objectivity.

  • Krieghbaum, Hillier. 1956. Facts in perspective: The editorial page and the news interpretation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    Most of Krieghbaum’s work is focused on science writing in journalism, but this book refers directly to news interpretation and links it to the need for further criticism in the press, written as it was during a time when the mass media were under criticism. It also provides an account of the positive impact of interpretive journalism on democracy.

  • Neal, James M., and Suzanne S. Brown. 1976. Newswriting and reporting. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

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    Discusses a classification system used by journalists that divides stories into three categories: straight news, interpretation, and human interest. Despite the division, the authors assert that it is rare a news story that is entirely objective with no interpretation or element of human interest, and that interpretation is an effort to tell what the facts mean in terms of causes and effects. The authors also refer to the fact that the word “interpretive” tends to be controversial in some newsrooms.

  • Patterson, Thomas E. 1996. Bad news, bad governance. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 546.1: 97–108.

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    Patterson sees interpretive journalism as a quiet revolution that has taken place in news reporting in the past several decades in the United States and one that has some harmful consequences. The interpretive style, which gives journalists more control over content, is directly linked to a form of news coverage that focuses on the negative aspects of politics. This results in growing dissatisfaction by the public with politics and makes it difficult for officials to govern.

  • Salgado, Susana. 2019. Interpretive journalism. In The international encyclopedia of journalism studies. Edited by Tim P. Vos and Folker Hanusch. New York: Wiley.

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    Gives a definition of interpretive journalism and explicates the main issues facing contemporary research on interpretive journalism. The author explains that interpretive journalism is often linked to interventionist styles of journalism and that whatever the motivations behind interpretive journalism (e.g., adversarial, public interest, market-focused, and so on), it does always entail the prominence of the journalist in the news story, that is, the dominant voice belongs to the journalist.

  • Schudson, Michael. 1995. The power of news. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Schudson considers journalistic interpretation one of the seven goals that a media system dedicated to democracy should aim at: the news media should provide coherent frameworks to help citizens comprehend the complex political universe and should analyze and interpret politics in ways that enable citizens to understand and to act. The author notes that this goal is not new, as by the end of the 19th century journalists were already taking on the role of “interpreters of public life.”

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