Interpretive (or interpretative) journalism goes beyond the basic facts of an event or topic to provide context, analysis, and possible consequences. Interpretive journalists must have unusual familiarity with and understanding of a subject, and their work involves looking for patterns, motives, and influences that explain what they are reporting (Keller 1997).
For 150 years, interpretive journalism has waxed and waned, but levels of interpretation have generally risen since the beginning of the twentieth century, at least in US journalism (Barnhurst & Mutz 1997). In other countries where news work developed primarily as a literary occupation, interpretation began and remained at the forefront. In Latin America, southern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere, the main content occupying key positions in newspapers, for example, is always interpretive rather than straight news, which journalists in these regions consider mere chronicles.
Interpretive journalism overlaps with other forms of reporting, in which journalists themselves, after interviews and reviews of documents and data, assert who committed wrong or what caused failure. As in explanatory or narrative journalism, reporters make judgments regarding the most reliable sources and most trustworthy information.
Newspapers in the nineteenth century engaged in an early form of interpretive journalism by explaining events according to the ideology of an affiliated political party. A modern form of interpretive journalism began once the press became industrialized and independent of party control. During the muckraker era in the United States, for instance, reporters exposed unethical government and business practices and assigned blame for corruption. At the same time, the push to report facts without comment advanced within some newspapers and through wire services.
Journalists challenged the ideal of neutrality and argued that the informational model did not provide citizens with an understanding of events such as World War I. Day-to-day journalism especially gave descriptive accounts that lacked context. So newspaper journalists began to incorporate original research into stories and express a point of view about events. The journalist Walter Lippmann in 1920 urged reporters in Liberty and the news (Lippmann 2007) to base their work on facts combined with analysis. Journalism professor Curtis D. MacDougall encapsulated those concepts in his 1937 textbook Interpretative reporting (1987). He proposed that journalists explain what events mean and approach reporting aware of their biases, while offering a balanced viewpoint.
Some politicians criticized journalism that provided interpretation, saying that trivia, entertainment, and commentary were replacing substance in reporting. By the 1950s, objectivity had come back into fashion in the United States and left unchallenged political demagogues, such as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who made false allegations against citizens. The lack of substantial questioning by the press led, in turn, to greater resistance to journalists acting as mere stenographers who hold up a mirror to events.
By the 1960s, interpretive journalism had moved toward personal and literary styles, so that the ideal of the detached bystander gave way to acknowledging journalists as participants in events. Investigation and advocacy then re-energized in the United States and Europe through the late 1960s and the 1970s.
During the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, traditional reporting of official statements without background served to promulgate misinformation, and journalists adopted an independent model of interpreting news, conducting adversarial interviews to challenge authority. The trend culminated in the investigative reporting that brought down the Nixon administration. In subsequent years, particularly the 1980s, investigative reporters became more assertive and bolstered their interpretations by analyzing large databases.
Critics say interpretive journalism permits baseless comment and bias, but journalists internationally may bring a strong point of view and stated politics to their work. For example, journalists in Nigeria and other African countries intersperse commentary and opinion throughout news articles. In western Europe, objectivity was never a central professional value, and German journalists in particular have seen opinion as superior to news (Donsbach & Klett 1993). Award-winning British reporter Robert Fisk urged journalists not to hesitate about expressing opinions in writing or challenging government officials’ assertions. Yet, in some cases, overstatements and fabrications by reporters or literary journalists have undercut interpretive journalism. The reluctance of corporate media to offend the public also pressures reporters to limit interpretation in regular coverage.
Commentary in broadcast news increased significantly toward the end of the twentieth century, especially for politics. Echoing earlier complaints, media critics say the trend and journalists’ negativity have exacerbated public skepticism. Surveys show that broadcast journalists in commercial media systems worldwide may spend more airtime analyzing a politician’s comments than on giving the comments themselves, and growing negative coverage of political candidates has made voters cynical (Patterson 2002).
Today, leading journalists say the public will need more interpretive journalism because the Internet offers complex information and unsupported opinion. Journalists suggest they can best sift through, organize, and present information understandably by offering factually backed judgments. Questions about impartiality will continue to dog interpretive journalists. Some media observers suggest that objectivity and impartiality will become more important as journalism globalizes, but journalists should pursue impartial reporting while recognizing their own cultural biases.
- Barnhurst, K., & Mutz, D. (1997). American journalism and the decline of event-centered reporting. Journal of Communication, 47(4), 27–53.
- Campbell, R. (1998). Media and culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Donsbach, W., & Klett, B. (1993). Subjective objectivity: How journalists in four countries determine the key term of their profession. Gazette, 51, 53 – 83.
- Ettema, J. S., & Glasser, T. L. (1998). Custodians of conscience. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Keller, B. (1997). Can interpretive journalism still be impartial? Panel discussion, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, December 4. At concernedjournalists.org/node/298.
- Lippmann, W. (2007). Liberty and the news. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- MacDougall, C. D. (1987). Interpretative reporting, 9th edn. New York: Macmillan.
- Meyer, P. (2002). Precision journalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Patterson, T. E. (2002). The vanishing voter. New York: Vintage.
- Reese, S. D. (in press). Theorizing a globalized journalism. In M. Löffelholz & D. Weaver (eds.), Global journalism research: Theories, methods, findings, future. Oxford: Blackwell.