Do we want a ‘narrative,’ or reliable facts about bin Laden’s death?

Something interesting has happened since news broke that Osama bin Laden had been shot and killed. We have already received different accounts from government officials about what happened during the American raid on the compound in Pakistan.

These accounts are being referred to as "narratives," and some journalists are concerned with the implications and connotations of that word. NBC's Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd tweeted that he found it "odd and a tad troubling" that the Department of Defense has used the word in such a way.

In a live chat, which you can replay below, I talked with Ben Montgomery, a narrative writer at Poynter's St. Petersburg Times, about the use of the word narrative, and how it differs from a report.

When we hear the word report, we think of a vehicle for conveying information. A report contains at least some of the five Ws. A report is also written with language that is unloaded. A report is subject to verification by independent parties.

A "narrative" is something completely different. A narrative connotes story, expressed in scenes, moving in time, and communicated by a narrator, a storyteller. A narrative can be truthful, of course, as in the phrase nonfiction narrative. But its purpose is not to inform. A narrative is a form of vicarious experience, a virtual reality that transports us from the here and now to some distant place called Abbottabad.

The earlier narratives described bin Laden firing a weapon and using some woman as a "human shield." Later versions said he had no weapon, and that a woman was injured trying to protect him.

This topic of the difference between report and narrative is essential to our understanding of how government uses and abuses language, and how journalists hold them accountable.

You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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