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Journalism genres: understanding the differences between hard news reporting, interpretive journalism, and opinion

Countering disinformation with professional and ethical journalism: hands-on hard news reporting and analysis journalism. Role-play as journalist and produce a news story and interpretative piece using open sources

Note*: Adapted from Arcos, Rubén (2019). “Open source intelligence portfolio: challenging and developing intelligence production and communication skills through simulations,” in The Art of Intelligence: More Simulations, Exercises, and Games, edited by Rubén Arcos and William J. Lahneman (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield): 14-38.

Journalistic genres guide news producers and consumers on the aims and structure of textual content and the degree of subjectivity that is considered allowed or expected for each genre (Hjarvard, 1997; see also Table 1). Journalism genres can be categorized, depending of the degree of presence of the journalist in the text (written, oral, or audiovisual), into news, news plus interpretation, interpretation, and opinion (Grijelmo 2014: 28). The presence of the journalist is very high in the genres of opinion journalism and low in news genres (Ibid.). As stated in The New York Times manual of style (2015), in reference to newspapers, the term news should be reserved for “the factual reporting and analysis by the news staff”, reserving editorial and opinion for the opinion section (Siegal and Connolly, 2015: 107).

Benson and Hallin (2007), in a comparative study of the US and French national newspapers in the 1960s and 1990s, developed a classification of newspaper stories based on four journalistic functions: “reporting current facts or statements, giving background information, giving interpretation and giving opinion” (Benson and Hallin, 2007: 32). Current facts reporting is considered to be statements without adjectives or adverbs; news stripped of speculation or judgments. Similarly, background information is a news story that adds a temporal base to current facts by considering previous related events. Interpretation is considered as a kind of empirical statements that “goes beyond current facts, setting or historical context to speculate on such things as significance, outcomes and motives”, while the last category, opinion, consist on “the exercise of judgment, either normative (what is good or bad) or empirical (what is true or false)” (Ibíd.). Based on this categorization, Esser and Umbritch differentiate between:

“news items” (stories offering concise descriptions of events or –if longer–additional background information and broader circumstances), “information mixed with interpretation” (stories offering explanation, investigation or speculation about the motivations, tactics, and consequences of political events), “information mixed with opinion” (stories offering peripheral commentary, opinionated perspectives, or subjective viewpoints despite not being marked as commentary), and “commentary” (editorials, leaders, opinion columns). (Esser and Humbritch, 2014: 239-240).

            According to Brant Houston “interpretive journalism goes beyong the basics facts of an even or topic to provide context, analysis, and possible consequences” and reporters “are expected to have expertise about a subject and to look for motives and influences to explain what they are reporting” (Houston, 2015: 301). For Thomas Patterson, descriptive journalism positions the journalist in the role of an observer while in interpretative journalism the practitioner is also required to be an analyst (Patterson, 2000: 250). And similarly to analysis in the field of intelligence, the analyses of events in interpretative journalism can be good or badly informed by the sources and contents reported by them. As Salgado and Strömbäck have noted, “these interpretations and analyses can be well informed as well as uninformed, critical as well as uncritical, and providing context as well as distractions”. (Salgado and Strömbäck, 2012: 147).






Disseminator: reports facts and events

Observer: Explains events and actions

Supporter: selectively partisan reporting of facts and events


Watchdog: critical and investigative reporting

Commentator: Evaluation and prediction of actions and events

Advocate: criticism and advocacy

Table 1: Hjarvard-Patterson framework of journalistic roles and forms of journalism, Adapted from: Hjarvard (2010: 32)


Esser and Umbritch use the notion of hard-news paradigm as the dominant shared mindset among members of the journalism community, which is characterized by the use of the inverted pyramid paragraph, balanced reporting, stressing verifiable facts, source attribution, a detached point of view, and a demarcation of functions between news and editorial (Esser and Umbricht, 2014: 230). According to these authors, the paradigm came under attack during the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of calls for blending “the hard-news paradigm with analytic and interpretative elements”, and resulting in a mixed approach that “retains from the hard-news paradigm a distance from political commitment but complements it with reflexive knowledge and critical expertise of the journalist” (ibid: 232). Writing on the need for interpretation in journalism and its growth, Curtis MacDougall in his pioneering work on interpretative reporting already stated that:

“The successful journalist of the future is going to have to be more than a thoroughly trained journeyman if he is going to climb the ladder of success. He must be capable of more than routine coverage and to interpret as well as report what is going on” (MacDougall, 1968: 13).    

As for the meaning of “interpretation” an array of illustrative expressions can be found on MacDougall’s work, including:

“Make sense out of the facts”, “put factual news in perspective”, “point up the significance of current events”, “expand the horizon of the news” (ibid: 17). For Wyatt and Badger, exposition is the form of composition “that operates mainly through logical and explanatory devices to provide a heightened perspective on or understanding of its subject” (1993: 7).

Methodology and Resources

  • Arcos, Rubén (2019). “Open source intelligence portfolio: challenging and developing intelligence production and communication skills through simulations,” in The Art of Intelligence: More Simulations, Exercises, and Games, edited by Rubén Arcos and William J. Lahneman (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield): 14-38.
  • Benson, Randy and Daniel C. Hallin. 2007. “How states, markets and globalization shape the news: the French and US national press,” European Journal of Communication 22(1): 27-48.
  • Esser, Frank and Andrea Umbricht. 2014. “The evolution of objective and interpretative journalism in the western press: comparing six news systems since the 1960s.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 91(2): 229-249. 
  • Grijelmo, Álex. 2014. El estilo del periodista. Madrid: Taurus.
  • Hjarvard, Stig. 2010. “The views of the news: The role of political newspapers in a changing media landscape.” Northern Lights 8: 25–48, doi: 10.1386/ nl.8.25_1
  • Houston, Brant. 2015. “Interpretive journalism.” In The Concise Encyclopedia of communication, edited by Wolfwang Donsbach, p. 301. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
  • MacDougall, Curtis D. 1968. Interpretative reporting, 5th edition. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Patterson, Thomas E. 1998. “Political roles of the journalist.” In The Politics of the News and the News of Politics, edited by Doris Graber, Denis McQuail, and Pippa Norris, 17-32. Washington D.C.: CQ Press.
  • Patterson, Thomas E. 2000. “The United States: news in a free-market society.” In Democracy and the media: a comparative perspective, edited by Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan, 241-265. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rossenwasser, David and Stephen, Jill. 2012. Writing analytically with readings. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  • Salgado, Susana and Jesper Strömbäck. 2012. “Interpretive journalism: a review of concepts, operationalizations and key findings.” Journalism 13(2): 144-161.
  • Siegal, Allan M. and William G. Connolly. 2015. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5 ed.) New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Wyatt, Robert O. and David P. Badger. 1993. “A new typology for journalism and mass communication writing.” Journalism Educator (Spring 1993): 3-11.