Six Ways News Stories are Different from Fictional Ones

Engagement strategies borrowed from fiction haven’t always been an easy fit for news media. Why not?

by John FraserJena Barchas-LichtensteinBeth KarlinAri Rosenblum
Aug 14, 2020

In today’s media-saturated world, journalists are adopting techniques from different spaces to report the news in fresh and engaging ways. Theories of transmedia storytelling, which were based on the ways entertainment producers use traditional and digital forms of media to tell complementary stories with multiple entry points, are also applicable to the news media. Kevin Moloney proposes a taxonomy that applies these theories to all media production, but he doesn’t fully tease out what differentiates journalism from other media. Transmedia techniques are a valuable addition to journalistic practice -- but to help news media use these techniques effectively, it’s important to understand what sets the news apart. Here are six ways that the news is different from entertainment media:

  1. Fiction can be evergreen and static; news, by definition, can’t. News happens now and its value is short lived. “Timeliness” as a core news value has stayed constant -- although it’s gotten even more immediate in today’s world of social media. And scooping the competition is still very much on journalists’ minds.
  2. Fiction can treat its audience as individuals; news media think of their audiences as collectives. In general, the news media aims to support public understanding and discussion of issues of general concern.
  3. Fiction is structured to highlight growth; in news stories, people don’t always change for the better, or at all. News stories capture and present factual information as it emerges and they are open to revision over time. They don’t necessarily have a beginning, middle, or end in the way we expect of fiction.
  4. Fiction authors can change personal details to meet the needs of a story; characters in news stories have full lives and backstories and are psychologically complex. Their lives and histories may not be presented in the story -- or even known to the journalist -- and the details may be irrelevant to the story at hand.
  5. In fiction, the author may shift perspective depending on the needs of the story; when news reporters take on multiple roles, they as themselves in all cases. A novel might use the first-person to refer to different characters in different chapters. Reporters -- like fiction creators -- can be narrators, characters, witnesses, and interpreters. But unlike fiction, we understand first-person stories to be limited to the journalist’s point of view.
  6. Fiction can be self-contained; news stories rarely, if ever, deal with truly isolated events. Each report is situated inside the scrum of other reporters and news outlets telling their version of the same story, within their beat, and as part of their own editorial paradigm.

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

Join the Conversation
What did you think of this? How did you use it? Is there something else we should be thinking of?
Support research that has a real world impact.