Theories of contemporary journalism and literature reveal a variety of sometimes contradictory definitions of the term “reportage,” which is often used in relation to the essay broadly conceived. Two distinct traditions exist for defining the nature of reportage. First, there is the journalistic perspective, restricting the term to a subgenre of reporting. Second, there is the literary perspective, particularly discussed in relation to the New Journalism.
From the Latin reportare (to bring news, to announce, to report), the word “reportage” is generally used in Romance languages to refer to an enriched variation of what in standard journalistic English is known as the news story, meaning a piece of direct, informative reporting, as opposed to comment (editorials and columns). This system of dividing all journalistic work into two categories (news and comment) reflects the success of American-led theory in journalism schools. In other cultural traditions, especially Southern Europe and until very recently Latin America, “news” is considered as at least three different variations of informative journalism. First, there are stories, second reportage, and third a hybrid category using terms derived from the word “chronicle.”
In modern journalism two elements distinguish a pure news story from reportage: the purpose of the “lead-in,” and the language and structure. In a pure news story, the lead-in summarizes the main points of the news by answering the socalled five “W” questions (Who, What, Where, When, and Why); the lead-in of a piece of reportage attempts to attract the attention of the reader and presents a wider stylistic range: an epigram, an ironic fact, the use of color and contrast, a question, or a relevant quotation. The main body of an item of reportage, as well as the traditional news story, has at last three kinds of approach: the fact story (a series of facts in descending importance), the action story (initial event, then follow-up with details, then return to the initial event with additional arguments, etc.), and the “quote” story (lead, quotation, new summary of context, documentation, more quotation, etc.). Models of fact story and action story are the items in news magazines such as Time and Newsweek.
What in continental Europe is called “in-depth” reportage corresponds to the American “in-depth reporting,” also known as interpretative reporting, and even investigative reporting. Its distinctive ingredients are the provision of background, a human element to the story, a degree of explanation and clarification, and an attempt to help the reader understand the underlying significance of the events.
Theorists of journalism also comment on related subgenres such as the French chronique, related to the American “column” and therefore belonging to the realm of opinion, along with the editorial. In contrast, the Spanish crónica and the Italian cronaca are considered as hybrid subgenres, lying somewhere between the column and the story, and retain as their goal the provision of information. A standard definition of crónica includes direct and immediate narration, which evaluates the chronological progression of an event. Such elements are also the primary criteria for the inclusion of certain texts in English anthologies of reportage, for example the writings of Xenophon, Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Garcilaso de la Vega, as well as recent accounts by such distinguished writers as George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Stephen Crane, John Reed, and John Steinbeck, and nonprofessional writers such as
Hitler’s general Erwin Rommel and the astronaut Neil Armstrong.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a wide variety of writing is routinely catalogued as reportage by publishers and libraries. First, there is the work of the practitioners of New Journalism, a school or trend that is not really so “New” since it corresponds to what is also called “literary journalism.” Contextual evidence questions the “journalistic” nature of the best of New Journalism: though many typical examples of the trend have appeared in newspapers or magazines, they might just as easily have been published as books.
However, literary journalists do have to follow certain procedures, such as researching the topic, maintaining an interwoven structure, reporting the facts accurately, keeping a sense of responsibility, and often adding an element of symbolism.
In its widest sense, reportage also includes nonsyndicated columnists as well as some of the classic syndicated journalists, writers who exhibit a personal style that transcends the standard formats pursued by editors. The term “reportage” could also embrace the work of some of the best Pulitzer Prize winners, and take in some of the more elaborate varieties of the journalistic form more usually known as the feature.
All the variations of reportage have certain characteristics in common with the essay.
First, they usually reflect the author’s own concerns and personality. Second, they express a greater interest in the human elements than in the facts of the newsworthy events themselves. They are more attracted to aspects of what in the Spanish tradition is called the intrahistoria, the daily activities of ordinary people, than the milestones of official history. Third, the structure and style show a degree of flexibility that obviates the need to use the inverted pyramid (in which facts are presented in descending order of importance) prevalent in standard informative newspaper writing. Finally, they attempt to persuade the reader of a particular stance even as they claim objectivity in the presentation of facts. It could be said that the essay and reportage share similar characteristics and constraints, the most apparent being the opinion-prone and authorcentered nature of the writing.
See also Journalism and the Essay
The Best of Granta Reportage, London: Granta/Penguin, and New York: Viking Penguin, 1994
The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey, London: Faber, 1987; as Eyewitness to History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987
The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W.Johnson, New York: Harper and Row, 1973
A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre, edited by Thomas B.Connery, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992
Copple, Neale, with Emily E.Trickey, Depth Reporting: An Approach to Journalism, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1964
Foley, Barbara, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986
Frus, Phyllis, The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative: The Timely and the Timeless, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Geisler, Michael, Die literarische Reportage in Deutschland: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen eines operativen Genres, Königstein: Scriptor, 1982
Hernadi, Paul, Beyond Genre: New Directions in Literary Classification, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972
Rothmeyer, Karen, Winning Pulitzers: The Stories Behind Some of the Best News Coverage of Our Time, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991
Scholes, Robert, and Carl H.Klaus, Elements of the Essay, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970
Winterowd, W.Ross, The Rhetoric of the “Other” Literature, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
Wolfe, Tom, The New Journalism (includes an anthology edited by Wolfe and E.W.Johnson), New York: Harper and Row, 1973
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