Questioning the importance of storytelling in journalism may verge on blasphemy, but it is a growing necessity.

Since the Claas Relotius scandal at Der Spiegel, where the award-winning reporter was discovered fabricating a number of his features, journalistic storytelling has come under increasing scrutiny.

It makes us ask ourselves whether our need to ‘tell a story’ takes us on a wrong path almost by default.

The story puts us at distance from the audience; we become the narrator, said Jeff Jarvis, professor of journalism innovation at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (5 April 2019).

“It also takes us away from listening: as storytellers, we are telling, not listening,” he added.

One of the problems with storytelling, Jarvis said, is that journalists are trying to explain what humans do as actions driven by motives, without looking at the larger picture.

In reality, it is not so simple. Sometimes we do not understand our own motives and actions, let alone those of people whose stories we are covering.

From storytelling to fraud

Most editors have had an experience with reporters who have crossed the line and tried to stretch the truth.

At Der Spiegel, however, the fact-checking team seemed to have missed some red flags, said Tanit Koch, editor-in-chief, Central Newsroom, RTL.

For example, in one of the Relotius’s stories about Mexican immigrants, the journalist famously reported that there was a sign outside of a US town saying ‘Mexicans keep out' but he never produced any photo evidence of it and no-one seemed to have challenged him. It was a great story, but it was completely made up.

“The problem is,” said Koch, “that if you want to preach — as a German saying has it — you first need to fill the church.”

The readers are after the juicy bits and not just the bare facts, she added. Reporters and editors know that all too well, which makes it tempting to embellish the dry truth with something exciting, even if that ‘something’ is completely fictional.

What Relotius’s case showed was that a dangerous mindset lived amongst journalists who sympathised with the dishonoured reporter. 

“Many journalists’ reaction was ‘I get him, there is so much pressure in the newsroom’,” said Koch. “But there is no pressure to commit fraud. If it were any other profession, say, a banker, people wouldn’t feel that empathetic.”


Another criticism of journalistic storytelling came from Jay Rosen, associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University.

“Storytelling is not the atomic unit of journalism,” he said. “That is reporting facts and discussion. Another one that is gaining ground is investigation.”

Rosen added that journalists perhaps have some kind of fiction-envy, talking about stories like something deeply innate to humans, but that fantasy does not guarantee relevance to the audience.

“The problem, however, is not chasing the story but to only chase the story that confirms your own bias. The real problem is the lack of open-mindedness,” he concluded.

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