Last updated: September 6, 2003

Narrative Psychology Search


[Narrative Psychology]

 Narrative in Other Disciplines

Documentary Studies, Journalism, and Non-Fiction


        Background  ||  Internet  ||  Bibliographical  ||  Theorists

Background Issues

Human beings go out into the world, observe other human beings, and draw conclusions. They interpret what they see and, at times, feel compelled to share those interpretations with others publicly for varying reasons. The form by which observations are interpreted often assumes a strongly narrative character (Coles, 1998) while the results of these interpretative processes may be shared by using various media, e.g., via writing, film or videotape, photography or sound recording. In all these efforts there is a strong personal presence by the observer/narrator and a preference for investigation in the field, in real world locales. Such activities form what can be called more generically documentary studies. Closely allied with documentarians is the work of journalists who report the news of the world by "finding the story" or those narratives which account for the details uncovered in their investigations. Various names have been given to the family of journlistic practices referenced here; they include "literary journalism," "New Journalism," and "narrative journalism."

The materials below are associated broadly by their focus upon public documentary and narrative journalistic intent and modes of presentation. Cutting across disciplines and often undertaken without formal institutional affiliation or support, the documentary studies and resources here suggest how broadly such activities can explore the human domain in its diversity. There is something of a bias, however, in the documentary world which looks toward the singular, the exemplum, and the "unvoiced" among individuals or groups who tend to be overlooked by the mass communications media. Documentarians often seek to portray what popular culture ignores or cannot gain sufficient distance to critique meaningfully. Contemporary documentary studies as well as resurgent interest in narrative journalism is tied historically to the work of a host of towering figures -- for examle, Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair -- in the "muckraking" journalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; James Agee, Dorothea Lange, and other Depression journalists, photographers, and analysts; the "Chicago School" of urban sociologists like Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Clifford Shaw; and, even, mid-20th century efforts such as that found in the collaboration of Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow in crafting CBS Reports (Harvest of Shame, etc.).


Theorists*Key Figures

Internet Resouces


Center for Documentary Studies (Duke University). The CDS is an interdisciplinary effort which describes itself in this fashion: "CDS connects the arts and humanities to fieldwork, drawing upon photography, filmmaking, oral history, folklore, and writing as catalysts for education and change. CDS supports the active examination of contemporary society, the recognition of collaboration as central to documentary work, and the presentation of experiences that heighten our historical and cultural awareness." (from site blurb).

Double Take Magazine Since 1996, this magazine has focused upon the "human experience" as portrayed both in fiction through stories and poetry as well as in non-fiction (interviews, articles, photography). Taking a publishing hiatus in mid-2001, the magazine plans to produce a new issue in May, 2003. The website does not yet reflect that renewal in publishing. Robert Coles has been the general editor of this magazine.


"Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists" (Mark Kramer, Boston University). A short description and set of rules to delineate what is meant by "literary journalism"

Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (Harvard)

Poynter.Org: Narrative Journalism. This site contains short summaries of most of the presentations made at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

[Icon] Radio and Internet Documentaries

A particularly rich documentary source has emerged on public radio stations and Internet-based venues. Spurned by the commercial media, documentarians such as David Isay, Ira Glass, Julian Crandall Hollick and Joe Richman have partnered with National Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, WBEZ Chicago, and other outlets to offer the public voices on the margins or seeminly lost from history. Many radio documentaries are available either for immediate download or streaming or can be purchased for modest sums.

American RadioWorks: Documentary Journalism on Public Radio and the Internet. " the national documentary unit of Minnesota Public Radio. ARW is public radio's largest documentary production unit; it creates documentaries, series projects, and investigative reports for the public radio system and the Internet. ARW is based at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul with staff journalists in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, C.A., and Durham, N.C." (site blurb)

CBC Outfront. This Radio One (Canadian Broadcast Corp.) program features radio documentaries made by members of the public who are invited to tell their own stories.

Hearing Voices (Barrett Goulding).

Independent Broadcasting Associates (IBA) " a non-profit media production company which creates programs on India, Europe and Islam for National Public Radio...Our mission is to live and work among villagers and city dwellers in the Third World to tell their stories, to bring their lives to Western radio audiences." (site blurb)

Long Haul Productions. "Long Haul Productions documents stories of everyday lives, stories of people and communities in transition, and stories of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. When we choose a story, we're really in it for the long haul: we spend months, sometimes years, getting to know our characters. These are documentaries that mark the course of human life...Since 1992, Long Haul Productions (formerly DC Productions) has chronicled everyday stories of ordinary Americans for National Public Radio and other broadcast outlets." (site blurb)

Lost and Found Sound (NPR All Things Considered). "Lost & Found Sound is a national collaboration of radio producers, artists, journalists, sound collectors, film sound designers, public radio listeners and NPR" (site blurb). This effort has produced exemplary documentaries since 1999.

Outright Radio (Dave Gilmore; Public Radio International). Tells the stories of gays and lesbians in archived audio documentaries and programs. Since 2001.

Radio Diaries (Joe Richman, New York City). Billed as "people documenting their lives on National Public Radio" this site offers a range of stories from teenagers, incarcerated diarists, and others. See, for example, the 2002 audio documentary, My So-Called Lungs, by 21-year-old Laura Rothenberg who subsequently died of cystic fibrosis.

Sonic Memorial Project. " is an open archive and an online audio installation of the history of The World Trade Center. We are continuing to collect stories, ambient sounds, voicemails, and archival recordings to tell the rich history of the twin towers, the neighborhood and the events of 9/11. " (site blurb) Peabody Award-winning site hosted by the September 11 Digital Archive.

Sound (New York City). David Isay and his collaborators have assembled here a broad range of their important work, including Ghetto Life 101, Youth Portraits Series, The Execution Tapes, and The Sunshine Hotel. Isay's powerful 1995 All The Way Broken, the audio diary of former prostitute and heroin addict, Iolene Catalano, reveals the possibilities of this documentary format to give voice to the silent.

Soundprint (WNYC). Hosted by Barbara Bogaev, this spectacular weekly radio documentary program has archived all its program since 1999. Describes itself as the "audio equivalent of photojournalism". (Dmae Roberts, MediaRites Productions, Portland, OR) " welcomes the personal narrative told in literary and audio art form. Carefully constructed words and sounds in a complex and white noise world." (site blurb) Since 2001. This site has a broad range of documentary materials focusing upon a diverse community of interests and persons. Roberts, its executive producer, won a Peabody award for Mei Mei, A Daughter's Song, a 1990 docu-play in the series, Legacies: Tales from America.

Talking History (SUNY Albany) "Talking History, based at the University at Albany, State University of New York, is a radio and aural history production, distribution, and instructional center. Our mission is to provide teachers, students, researchers and the general public with as broad and outstanding a collection of audio documentaries, speeches, debates, oral histories, conference sessions, commentaries, archival audio sources, and other aural history resources as is available anywhere..." (site blurb)

Third Coast International Audio Festival (WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio). Archived and annotated documentaries which have aired since 2001.

The America Project (Alix Spiegel). Creators of radio documentaries.

This American Life (WBEZ, Chicago, IL). Ira Glass has hosted this weekly program since 1995. The three or four "acts" of the weekly broadcast are radio documentaries and commentaries organized loosely around a common theme. Almost every broadcast from the past is archived online for listening. A subpage "For Educators" illustrates ways individual teachers have used TAL segments in high school and college classrooms.

To The Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK, Wisconsin Public Radio). Jim Fleming hosts this low-key program which features interviews and commentaries with both public figures and less well-known individuals. The TTBOOK homepage describes the program this way: "TTBOOK began as an audio magazine of ideas - two hours of smart, entertaining radio for people with curious minds. It's sort of journalistic (because some of us are, or used to be, journalists), but it's never about the President's speech to the U.N., weapons inspections in Iraq, or yesterday's stock market disaster. It's the kind of show that would spend an hour on the future of capitalism, or on the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. It might also spend an hour on hair. Or salt. Or pirates, road trips, psychic phenomena, house cleaning, animal intelligence, high energy physics, or how to say you're sorry." (from site blurb) Audio archives extend back to 2001. (Atlantic Public Media, Woods Hole, MA). Describes itself as "an experiment in channeling new work and voices to public radio through the Internet, for discussing that work, and encouraging more." Executive Director, Jay Allison, has worked in the field of radio documentaries for more than 20 years.

WNYC (New York City Public Radio). The vaunted radio station -- originally owned by the municipal government of the City itself -- now serves as a non-profit public corporation. Station programs include


Bibliographical Resources

Coles, R. (1998). Doing documentary work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Connery, T. B. (Ed.). (1992). A sourcebook of American literary journalism: Representative writers in an emerging genre. New York: Greenwood Press. (Text in the Questia Online Library)

Historical survey of 35 writers from Mark Twain to Tracy Kidder. Extensive primary and secondary source references.

Douglas, S. J. (1999). Listening in: Radio and the American imagination...from Amos 'n' Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern. New York: Times Books.

Hartsock, J. C. (2000). A history of American literary journalism: The emergence of a modern narrative form. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Light, K. (Ed.). (2000). Witnesses in our time: Working lives of documentary photographers. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Interviews with 22 documentary photojournalists.

Plummer, K. (2001). Documents of life 2: An invitation to a critical humanism (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage Publications.

In 1983, sociologist Ken Plummer published an important volume, Documents of life: An introduction to the problems and literature of a humanistic method, under the London imprint of George Allen & Unwin. Almost two decades have elapsed and Plummer has issued an extensively revised and updated edition through Sage. The focus of this text is the notion of "documents of life" -- be they diaries, films, letters, oral history recordings, etc. -- which permit us to understand individual lives with a depth and breadth not found in traditional sources of social science data. In those decades since his first volume, narratives and life documents have proliferated and caught the attention of many social scientists. In this revised edition, Plummer weighs these documentary sources and argues for their use (for which he gives broad historical and theoretical reviews of the literature) in achieving a "critical humanism". He is exquisitely sensitive to the blistering critiques of any form of "humanism" offered by many postmodern commentators; yet he maintains that social scientists must still seek to understand a human being as "always an embedded, dialogic, contingent, embodied, universal self with a moral (and political character)." (p. 262). This text draws deeply upon contemporary understandings of narrative (particularly in its middle and closing chapters) in developing approaches to the use of life documents within social science. The author's professional identity as a sociologist rather than psychologist is evident throughout. An especially valuable element of the text is the presence of short, annotated bibliographies of resources found at the end of each chapter.

Rosenbaum, M. D., & Dinges, J. (Eds.). (1992). Sound recording: The National Public Radio guide to radio journalism and production. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.

[Icon]Narrative Non-Fiction & Literary Journalism

Capote, T. (1966). In cold blood: A true account of a multipe murder and its consequences. New York: Random House.

By many estimates, the "non-fiction novel" (as Capote called it) detailing the 1959 murder of a Kansas family by two drifters and its aftermath (trial and execution) helped to establish the entire field of "literary nonfiction." Its very strong narrative structure and techniques has been influential in the development of narrative journalism (the "new journalism") over the past 35 years.

Mailer, N. (1998). The executioner's song. New York: Vintage. (Originally published )

Mailer's study of the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore by the State of Utah is a tour de force of narrative reporting. This book can be very profitably read alongside the extraordinary memoir of Gary's brother, Mikal Gilmore (Shot in the Heart, 1994, Doubleday).

Sims, N., & Kramer, M. (Eds.). (1995). Literary journalism: A new collection of the best American nonfiction. New York: Ballantine.


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