Vol 9, Issue 1, Spring 2007

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Crisis Storytelling: Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm and News Reporting

Christopher T. Caldiero,
Fairleigh Dickinson University


This essay examines the ways that popular American news magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, use specific types of narratives to cover notable crises. These narratives unfold in predictable patterns regardless of the specific crisis. Two positions are taken. First, using Fisher’s discussion of the narrative paradigm as a foundation, the rhetorical implications of narrative use in meaning formation are established. Second, using open coding methodology, it is proposed that there exists evident types of narratives during crisis coverage and that these narrative types form patterns regardless of the specific crisis being covered. Following the discussions of narrative as tools for meaning formation and Fisher’s narrative paradigm, the data and methodology section describes out the procedure by which narratives were coded and identified. The essay concludes with descriptions and examples of the narrative types, implications for future studies, and charts displaying the results of the open coding process.

Narratives as Tools for Meaning

Three recent disasters stand out in the American memory. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in the Florida sky 74 seconds after liftoff. On April 19, 1995, an explosion that could be felt as far away as thirty miles occurred within meters of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 167 people. On September 11, 2001, at 8:45 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. respectively, two fuel-laden jet airliners crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City and within an hour, both of the towers collapsed into more than a million tons of rubble. Not long after, an airliner hit the Pentagon and another airplane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard.

News magazines, specifically Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, covered these events in seemingly arbitrary ways. However, a distinct linear pattern exists that can predict how coverage will unfold for future crisis coverage. The discussion presented here will establish two positions. The first is that storytelling and narration are ideal methods for conveyance of symbolism, and therefore meaning, especially in times of crisis. Using Fisher’s theory of the narrative paradigm, this essay discusses how storytelling, and not argumentation (rationality), forms the basis for public meaning creation, particularly in terms of crisis reporting.

The second position is that the crisis coverage in news magazines is consistent over time and space. This will be shown through examples of narratives. In addition, this essay describes the pattern that narratives often form during news magazine’s coverage of crises. The public has certain expectations and needs that the weekly news magazines satisfy. The salient issue beyond the use of the narrative in crisis reporting is whether a pattern of reporting exists between the public and the news media by which stories are “pre-destined" to be reported in a particular way. The data presented here describe how different types of narrative patterns all play out in predictable ways during crisis reporting, and thus allow for some predictability as to how future crises may be covered in news magazines. Hugh Dalziel Duncan, in his introduction to Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change, writes, “If, in the suffering and horror of our time, we can develop a method for the analysis of what symbols do to us in our relations with each other, we may yet learn to lead a better life" (Burke, 1965, p. xliii). These inspiring words provide a backdrop for the analysis presented here. Substituting the word narratives for Duncan’s “symbols," we may yet come to a fuller understanding of how the narratives shape our realities. Fisher defines the narrative as “a theory of symbolic actions (words and/or deeds) that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, and interpret them" (Fisher, 1984, p. 2). Fisher’s paradigm offers a viable tool for textual analysis. Fisher argues that storytelling, not rationality and argumentation which both require a certain degree of “expert knowledge," allow the public to participate in meaning formation (Fisher, 1984; 1985; 1987). A detailed discussion of Fisher’s narrative paradigm follows.

Regardless of the incident being reported, a recognizable, predictable pattern of narratives has developed in news reporting. This pattern, in effect, assists the public in establishing meaning and allows for prediction of future news coverage and meaning conveyance. The pattern of coverage consists of a five-part sequence of narratives: (1) individual/collective, (2) scapegoating, (3) prevention, (4) imagined futures, and (5) reflection (cf., Burke, 1969; Jacobs, 1996; MacIntyre, 1981; Scott, 2000; Ungar, 1998, for discussions of each of these narrative types). All of these narratives types and the corresponding scholarship associated with each are presented later.

According to Taylor (2000), journalists are the first historians. Although their work usually needs correction and elaboration, news writers are the first to document the events that shape our world. Given their role as social historians, a better understanding of the methods and meanings conveyed by the media provide insight into the meanings society places on the news.

Lipschutz (1999) writes of narrative news reporting, “The initial impression is what counts, not the causality; the flash and bang draw attention, not the detailed minutiae that follow from long, drawn-out investigations" (p. 413).

If “impression" is extrapolated to convey meaning, then Lipschutz and others are correct when they suggest that news reporting helps create the realities we experience (1999; cf., also, Berry, 1983; Bird & Dardenne, 1988; Gill, 1995). Consider, for example, how influential the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon television debates were in creating the impressions and realities in the public’s mind. Nixon’s uncomfortable physical presence and lack of charisma affected the audience’s opinion of him more than the issues that he attempted to address (Berry, 1983, p. 368).

Not only do narratives exist and influence us as “homo narrans (or story-telling animals)" (Fisher, 1984), but paradigms themselves become recognizable and worthy of study—metaparadigms if you will (Kuhn, 1962). Fisher explains the metaparadigm as a representation designed to formalize the structure of the human communication experience (1984, p. 2). The “formalization of structure" infers that the structure can be predicted and used to forecast future narrative construction.

The study of crisis, the media, and the narrative is not new (Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Jacobs, 1996; Scott, 2000; Ungar, 1998). Indeed, much research has been done on crisis coverage, polls and public opinion (Kent, Harrison, & Taylor, 2002). Contained within the spectrum of media coverage of some of the most notable disasters in the last twenty-five years lay recognizable patterns and themes. Indeed, the existence of different types of narratives forms the foundations of this crisis coverage. Fisher’s narrative paradigm, while it does not provide a causal relationship to narrative patterns that form, does allow for greater insight into how and why publics are able to make sense and assign meaning to the narratives that newsmagazines provide.

Homo narrans, Fisher explains, should be added to a long line of root metaphors that have come to describe mankind, including homo economous, homo politicus, and homo sapien (1984, p. 6). Upon close examination, the narrative structure employed by news magazines during crisis coverage becomes evident and reveals that the news media do more than just report the news. Now more than ever, and perhaps for evermore, media shape the very realities from which we make sense of the world (Iyengar, 1991; McCombs, 1981).

Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm

Fisher’s narrative paradigm provides an excellent tool for textual analysis. By narration, Fisher is not referring to the fictive world of storytelling. Instead, Fisher makes clear that his idea of the narrative refers to “a theory of symbolic actions, words and/or deeds, that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, and interpret them" (Fisher, 1984, p. 2). For our purposes, the “symbolic actions" refer to the texts themselves, published in news magazines, and interpreted and given meaning by readers.

Fisher argues that there is a need to use narration as a rhetorical tool (1987). Traditional notions of human rationality and rhetoric allow only for argumentative forms (Fisher, 1984, p. 2). Analyzing discourse may only occur when there are clearly identifiable forms of “inference and/or implication," and when a rhetorical artifact draws from “informal or formal logic" (1984, p. 2). Fisher explains that the narrative paradigm does not seek to discount or deny reason and rationality, but rather make them “amenable to all forms of human communication" (1984, p. 2). Indeed, Fisher attempts to make it clear that there are two paradigms at play here: the narrative and the rational.

Briefly, the rational world paradigm uses logic and argumentation for critique whereas the narrative world paradigm expands that idea to include values and ethics. Fisher’s strongest argument against exclusive use of the rational world paradigm is rationality’s inherent feature of excluding the common man (1984, p. 4). Fisher explains that, because rationality (the ability to be competent in argument) must be learned, the public must be instructed in the ways of logic and rhetoric, and those that are not instructed are disadvantaged in their ability to create meaning (p. 4).

Fisher’s narrative paradigm is composed of three main tenets: 1) narrative fidelity, or a story’s correspondence to reality, 2) narrative probability, or a story’s internal coherence, and 3) good reasons, or a story’s values. It is within the scope of narrative probability that this essay finds the most use for Fisher’s ideas. Fisher insists that the philosophical ground of the narrative paradigm lies in ontology, or lived experience, whereas the rational paradigm is based in epistemology, or what is known (Fisher, 1984, pp. 4, 8).

As such, the narrative paradigm deals with symbols and the communicative expressions of social reality (which Fisher calls “good reasons"). Symbols and “good reasons," in combination, allow the narrative paradigm to be used for analysis of meaning formation. The first two of the three components of the paradigm, narrative fidelity and narrative probability, fall in with the first material element of the paradigm—the symbols (or text). In short, narrative probability involves having a coherent story. Narrative probability addresses questions such as: Does the story make sense? Is the story free of contradictions? Does it “hang together?" Is it consistent (Fisher, 1985, pp. 349, 364)?

Narrative fidelity bridges the concept of probability to the final component: good reasons. Narrative fidelity, as defined by Fisher, examines whether the story “rings true" in the mind of the reader: Does the story exist on the same plane as other stories the reader has experienced? What are the “truth qualities" of the story? Is the reasoning sound? How good is the reproduction of the story? What is its value (Fisher, 1985, p. 349ff; 1987)?

This last question brings forth Fisher’s final component—good reasons. “Good reasons" can be defined as those elements of the narrative that humankind can interpret as reasoning/valuing beings. In other words, through the narrative, the readers are able to cull the themes based on their own realities and judge the story based on their own values and logic. Fisher justifies the narrative paradigm as a basis for rhetorical critique because of this very premise.

Fisher’s proposal of the paradigm and its three tenets (fidelity, probability, and “good reasons"), argues that the coherence, likelihood, and values of a given narrative create a perception of reality for the reader (1984, p. 3). Fisher writes, “The ground for determining meaning, validity, reason, rationality, and truth must be a narrative context: history, culture, biography, and character" (Fisher, 1984, p. 3). Given these conditions, the narrative types discussed later fulfill Fisher’s requirements for determination of meaning. Individual and collective narratives are of a biographical nature—stories about people. Scapegoating narratives are of a character nature—who or what is to blame? Prevention narratives are of a historical nature—what could have been done or can be done? Imagined futures narratives are of a cultural nature—how will things play out with relation to what has already happened? Finally, reflection narratives are of a historical nature—stories about reflection after the crisis.

With these definitions in mind, it is clear that the narratives contained within crisis reporting can assist the reader in meaning formation. Fisher argues that, as long as the narratives have fidelity and probability (and “good values"—the problematic element to Fisher’s argument) then narratives serve to enhance, and not deny, reason and rationality (Fisher, 1984, p. 2). Narratives used rhetorically in conjunction, and not in place of, rationality can be effective for meaning transmission. Fisher argues that the biggest reason for this is that narratives allow the “non-expert," or public, to be included in rhetorical discussions whereas argumentation (or rationality) only includes “experts," or those who are well informed on the topic at hand. The fact that Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report are part of American culture and literature and are read by all types of people implies that the inclusion of narratives within the magazines allows for non-experts to create meaning.

Fisher argues that traditional rationality implies a hierarchal system, allowing for judgment and leadership for some and not for others (the uninformed or uneducated) (Fisher, 1984, p. 9). The application of good reasons, then, grants that all people participate in the creation of reality through the narrative. If a narrative is consistent, logical, and meaningful to an audience, it is likely that the audience will believe and justify the meaning of a story. However, even if a story is full of questionable “values," an audience may not be aware that they are being deceived. Consider narratives included in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Applying Fisher’s narrative paradigm to the news coverage of the 1986 Space Shuttle explosion, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and, most notably, the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, it is clear news magazines use narratives to help convey meaning. Earlier studies on this topic presented narrative examples with regard to all three crises (the charts at the end of this essay include such data). However, this presentation focuses exclusively on narrative patterns during the coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Narratives within News Magazines

A close reading of the texts reveals certain stylistic patterns. These patterns are grouped into five different narrative types: 1) individual and collective narratives (stories of individuals and groups), 2) scapegoating (blame) narratives, 3) prevention narratives (narrative passages which discuss how the crisis might have been prevented), 4) imagined futures narratives (narrative passages about the future), and 5) reflection narratives (narrative passages of a “reflective" nature). These elements became recognizable only after examining the coverage of crises in the artifacts.

Before describing the narrative types, it is important to discuss the methodology by which these types were analyzed, categorized, and sorted. Strauss and Corbin (1998) propose open coding as an ideal method for this sort of qualitative analysis. Open coding calls for a series of steps to occur as the text is analyzed. These steps include conceptualizing, labeling, and classifying (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, pp 103ff.).

Conceptualizing involves breaking down the data into discrete incidents. Once this is done, the items can be grouped according to some defined properties that these incidents share. As the news magazines were read, in accordance with Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) “line-by-line analysis," it became apparent that certain single sentence or short paragraph incidents shared commonalities of language and/or description. The specific language used in each of these narrative types is explained further as the types are presented.

Using Strauss and Corbin’s recommended method of “code notes," the narrative passages were marked in the margins of the articles themselves, thus labeling the appearance of categories. As these categories began to repeat and, perhaps more interestingly, appear in similar locations regardless of the crisis being examined, the narrative types were classified using Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) concepts of property and dimension. The properties were the specific characteristics of each of the categories, and the dimensions were the locations of such properties (and thus narrative types) along a continuum or range. The combination of property and dimension provided clues that the appearance of these narratives in form and function were not simply a coincidence. The resulting counts of the narrative types are displayed on charts at the end of this essay. Although in many instances, the number of narrative passages for any given type was high, only a few examples of each are provided here. This is done in order to conserve length while still providing the reader with some idea of examples of the narratives.

Individual/Collective narratives. Individual narratives refer to stories (narratives) told about specific individuals and/or small groups. Collective narratives refer to stories about larger groups, such as organizations, companies, or classifications of people (i.e., firefighters). For this first narrative type, it was important to decipher which narratives discussed the stories of what people were doing or experiencing during the crisis. This specific qualifier served as the property variable for this narrative type. The following questions were asked: Were stories about individuals and groups of people being told? Did these stories often appear immediately following the crisis occurrence?

Jacobs (1996) discusses the importance and value of these narrative types when presenting news accounts. Jacobs writes that narratives about individuals and groups help people, “…understand their progress through time in terms of stories, plots which have beginnings, middles, and ends, heroes and antiheroes, and tragic forms" (1996, p. 1240). Jacobs understood the essential role stories about individuals and groups play in helping those less involved in the crisis understand the dynamics and concrete forms unfolding before them.

Examples of individual narratives found within the news magazines’ coverage of September 11, 2001 include: “Architect Bob Shelton had his foot in a cast; he’d broken it two weeks ago. He heard the explosion of the first plane hitting the north tower from his 56th-floor office in the south tower" (Gibbs, 2001, p. 33). And, “New FBI Chief Robert Mueller, on only his second week of work, conducted a 6 p.m. conference call with special agents in charge of all the 56 field offices" (Hirsh, 2001, p. 36).

Examples of collective narratives include: “As rescuers searched the rubble surrounding the World Trade Center, they waded through a sea of paper-records of bond trades, stock quotes, and financial statements" (Lim, 2001, p. 42). And, “After the first chaotic moments, when nobody knew what they had on their hands, thousands of medical workers mobilized throughout the Northeast to care for the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks" (Shute, 2001, p. 50).

Scapegoating narratives. Scapegoating narratives refer to instances where the news magazines discussed the general topic of blame. The term “scapegoating" is often associated with the scholarship of Kenneth Burke. Burke argued that man, as a symbol-using animal, creates blame in a “dramatic" manner (Burke, 1969, p. 51). This means that, much like a play, mankind’s symbolic use of language is in the form of a “life script." As such, life is basically a tragedy—a story with a scapegoat, which supplies a catharsis (cf., Burke, 1964, p. 4; 1965, p. 77; 1969, p. 51ff.). Scapegoating narratives describe passages that discuss who or what is, or may be, to blame with regard to elements, or the whole, of a crisis. For scapegoating narratives, the inquiry needed to focus on whether or not narratives about blame were present. Using code notes, narrative passages thought to discuss blame were marked accordingly. The following questions were asked: Did the magazines report on who was to blame for the crisis occurrence? Did these reports often follow individual and collective narratives? The answer to both of these questions was yes. Examples include,

The fact before our eyes is that a group of savage zealots took the sweet and various lives of those ordinarily traveling from place to place, ordinarily starting a day of work or—extraordinarily—coming to help and rescue others. (Rosenblatt, 2001, p. 79)

Consider also, “This is a time when many people feel a natural urge to seek revenge, but explain to your children that it is always wrong to blame an entire group for the evil actions of a few people" (Kantrowitz, 2001, p. 63).

Prevention narratives. Prevention narratives, the third narrative type, refer to instances where the news magazines discussed deterrence and/or avoidance. In other words, these passages discuss how the crisis “could have," “should have," or “might have" been avoided and perhaps how other future crises could be prevented. Ungar (1998) described the use of such narratives in response to the Ebola scare in Zaire a few years ago. Ungar noted how the Zairian media shifted its focus (and thus its narrative type) to preventive measures, designed to alleviate panic (1998, p. 45). Ungar also deftly points out that it is precisely the “unpredictable development" of crises that calls forth efforts of reassurance and prevention for future crises of a similar nature (p. 46).

For prevention narratives, the focus is on narratives about cause and effect. The following questions were asked of the news magazines: Did the magazines discuss how the crisis could have been averted or how another crisis can be averted? Did these discussions often follow reports on who was to blame? Once again, the open coding showed the answer to both questions to be yes.

Examples include, “Scott Stephenson, an 18-year veteran with American Airlines, says, ‘It’s probably safer now than it’s ever been. But it’s also more intense. We’re told to let security know if we see the slightest thing that looks suspicious’" (Morse, 2001, p. 95). Also, “The experts said that a few Bin Laden lieutenants were probably operating in the United States, but no one seriously expected a major attack, at least right away. The millennium plots should have been a wakeup call" (Thomas, 2001, p. 39).

Imagined futures narratives. In essence, imagined futures define narratives that discuss how the future may occur with specific reference to the crisis at hand. MacIntyre writes, “We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future" (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 200). These future-related narratives might discuss individuals, groups, or society as a whole (MacIntyre, 1981). For this fourth narrative type, the following questions guided this analysis: Did the magazines discuss what “might have been?" or “what will be?" Did the magazines discuss where individuals and collective groups “go from here?" Did these discussions often follow discussion relating to how the crises may have been averted? While the number of narratives continued to decline (from the highs of the individual/collective narrative), the presence and placement of imagined futures narratives was clear.

Examples include, “When executives do fly in the coming months, many more will be taking a corporate jet. ‘Whatever movement there’s been to corporate jets,’ says Julie Kroll, ‘you’ll see an increase, as people question the safety of commercial air travel’" (Fonda, 2001, p. 11). Consider also, “Grieving dominates life in the weeks following a tragedy. But slowly, survivors are beginning to contemplate the financial worries that lie ahead. Many of the dead were the family’s primary breadwinners" (McGinn, 2001, p. 50).

Reflection narratives. Finally, the fifth element, reflection narratives, refer to those instances where the artifacts discussed how individuals, groups, or society, deal with the aftermath and existing conditions present after the crisis. Scott (2000) argues that reflection narratives are capable of adding elements of myth to a crisis. Even though the crisis may have only recently occurred, these narratives are capable of, “…wielding a new image, one heavily tinged with heroism and invested with mythological meaning" (Scott, 2000, p. 52). Most notably, Scott noted that these narratives dealt with issues of remembrance, even noting that reflection narratives are helpful in making the crisis “meaningful" to the public (2000, p. 56).

Once it was established that certain elements of this kind were recurring, the following questions were asked: Did the magazines discuss a “reflective" period—a time when those involved in or affected by the crisis would have to recover from, act on, grieve for, and reflect on what had happened? Did this discussion often follow discussions of imagined futures? Once again, the coding revealed that reflection narratives did occur predominantly in the “final" week of coverage of the examined crisis and that these narratives did often follow imagined futures narratives.

Examples include, “America has become a jittery nation since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and with good reason" (Elliott, 2001, p. 26). Also, “In this age of terrorism I can intellectually accept that I could end up in a pile of rubble," says Manhattan publishing executive Pat Eisemann, 47, “but I can’t accept that I would be in that rubble not having lived my life to the fullest" (Kelly, 2001, p. 52). Chart 5 displays a count of reflection narratives that were found in both weeks 4 and 5 of the crisis coverage. These 2 weeks of coverage were combined as some of the artifacts ended their coverage of the crisis after the fourth week, while others continued into a fifth week.

Data Summary

Once the argument for the existence of certain narrative types could be supported with scholarship, the narratives were counted, using an open coding method, and charted. The charts can be found at the conclusion of this essay. When this was complete, it was clear that three specific patterns were present: (1) the consistency of certain types of narratives regardless of the crisis being covered, (2) the placement of these narratives, regardless of the crisis being covered and, (3) the consistency in number of these narratives, regardless of the crisis being covered.

The data shows how each of the narrative types (individual/collective, scapegoating, prevention, imagined futures, and reflection) are present in the news coverage of each of the examined crises (Space Shuttle explosion, Oklahoma City bombing, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks). The charts show how, for example, individual/collective narratives are present in week 1 of the news coverage. The visual design of the charts is meant to give the reader a clearer picture with regard to the presence and consistency in narrative usage amongst the three examined artifacts (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report). The narratives appear throughout the four to five week period following a crisis and, for the most part, appear in sequential order and manner. Further, individual and collective narratives, for example, appear predominantly in the first week of coverage, and therefore their presence elsewhere in the coverage (i.e. an individual narrative about a firefighter appearing in week four’s coverage) does not preclude them from forming the first element of the crisis-reporting model. Random placements of any given narrative type were also counted, but were only charted when appearing in the greatest number, according to the time of coverage (i.e. week 1 through week 5).

The greatest example of this “random placement" occurs with individual and collective narratives that, for the most part, appear in some form or fashion throughout coverage of a crisis, be it week 1 or week 5. A discussion of imagined futures or reflection might occur before an individual narrative is discussed. Therefore, it is important to note here that the patterns that exist and the charts form represent a present pattern, rather than an omnipresent pattern. The pattern that forms is much like the words in a dictionary; For the most part, the words are in order, but that does not disqualify or eliminate the possibility that certain words would appear elsewhere and out of order in the dictionary (i.e., words used to define other words). However, it is interesting to note that, although certain narrative types sometimes appear out of “order," any given narrative type never appears more frequently than in the week it is predicted to. This is consistent over all three artifacts and all three crises.


For now, it is enough to say that this essay does not completely discount or ignore the argument that some of the findings might be “obvious" or clearly present within the artifacts and, therefore, unnecessary as a study of this kind. The fact that a magazine, in its initial coverage of a crisis (say, 3-7 days following the incident), might focus on individual and collective narratives because that is all the magazine has to work with, is irrelevant to this essay. What is relevant is that the individual and collective narratives are present, and that they assist the reader in forming meaning for the crisis at hand. The narratives exist and, because they exist consistently over time and regardless of crisis, they are worthy of examination and discussion.

What the implications for both readers of these narratives and those who write them? With regard to the reader, it is important to remember that narratives provide a sense of community and connectedness (Denton, 2004). There are two implications here. First, the order in which the narrative types appear help frame the crisis for the reader and thus help form a sense of community. As readers encounter individual and collective narratives immediately following the crisis, they are “subjected" to personal accounts of those who were there. Later, when readers encounter scapegoat narratives, they can communicate with others (who are reading the same narratives) and further develop a sense of connectedness, specifically with regard to who is to blame for the events. This development of community and connectedness through narratives continues as storytelling about the crisis continues over time. The second implication is that readers become, perhaps unknowingly, expectant of certain narratives to appear at certain times. Readers may be anxious to read about how individuals and collective groups (such as the New York City Fire Department on 9/11) dealt with such tragedy and displayed extraordinary courage. Subsequently, readers want to know who is to blame. This need is met, very often, in the following “batch" of narratives. Once the immediacy of the crisis has passed, it is likely that readers seek to know where we go from here. This need is met by the imagined futures narratives. Certainly, an examination of reader expectations for crisis coverage is worth further study and exists outside the boundaries of this study.

For the writers of these narratives, the implications are less clear. It is not certain whether news writers are instructed to focus on individual/collective narratives at the outset and then move, as matter of course, to scapegoating narratives and so on, or whether it is the more interesting case that these narratives appear in the order that they do as a matter of natural construction. In other words, are these narratives purposefully presented in a certain order or do they appear in an order that has, at least in the examination of the three crises presented here, evolved as a pattern of crisis reporting? If it is the latter, than future studies might refocus on the reasons why these narratives appear when they do. These studies might approach the “why’s" from the readers perspective, the reporters perspective, or both. However, as stated earlier, the present study merely sought to assess the existence of patterns in the chaos. As such, it is hoped that this study provides a stepping stone for other interesting examinations of how crises are presented and the relevance of the discovered narrative types.

Gadamer (1994) argues that interpretation of text (and therefore, the text’s “meaning") is an individual quest. How something is interpreted can never be truly definitive. Each of us assigns meaning based on personal experience, cultural influence, bias, favoritism, and an innumerable amount of other “influencers." Fisher argues that the common bond we share is storytelling. As such, storytelling is an effective rhetorical tool for meaning formation. The news magazines examined in this study follow this philosophy. Indeed, the storytelling/narrative method is used to such a degree that patterns become evident and predictable.

Surely, the next great crisis to affect our country will be told in narrative form. As MacIntyre reminds us, “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a storytelling animal" (1981, p. 201). The “actions and practice" of crises, and the reporting of these crises become the stuff of story, the content of reality, and foundation of meaning.


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Chart 1: Individual and Collective Narratives (Week 1)
Chart 2: Scapegoating Narratives (Week 2)
Chart 3: Prevention Narratives (Week 3)
Chart 4: Imagined Futures Narratives (Week 4)
Chart 5: Reflection Narratives (Weeks 4-5)

About the Author

Chris Caldiero, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. Prior to earning his Ph.D. in 2006, Dr. Caldiero taught and conducted research in crisis communication at Rutgers University. Before earning his graduate degrees, Dr. Caldiero worked for many years at CBS Sports in New York City.