Breaking news: how an unfolding narrative works across different platforms

“How will this all end?”

This short sentence summarises the confusion that can swirl around early reporting of a breaking news story, as journalists, commentators and witnesses try to make sense of information.

In this instance, that closing coda[1] (Cortazzi, 1993) is delivered to camera by a journalist on the streets of Harare in Zimbabwe.

As news began to break on November 14th 2017 that Robert Mugabe’s hold on power in Zimbabwe had been loosened, newsrooms and online platforms across the world sought to clarify the situation and share information.

These examples illustrate how narrative techniques transcend platforms but pose specific challenges, particularly when a story is changing rapidly.

The video posted on Facebook

Shingai Nyoka’s report for BBC News, carried on the channel’s Facebook site, contains the three distinct elements of a narrative, as identified by Mieke Bal in his seminal text Narrative Theory:[2]  the text, the story and the fabula.

In this short news video we are introduced to a range of protagonists — some indirectly, including Robert Mugabe and General Chiwenga; some directly, including ordinary citizens, soldiers and the reporter herself.

There is constant movement, both literally and figuratively. There is conflict represented by the ‘flashback’ element of the report, which refers to gunshots and explosions during the so-called coup, and in the brief background voiceover. We are aware too that while watching this report the drama is continuing to unfold, though frustratingly ‘out of shot’.

We are introduced to the setting, the Umwelt,[3] as a physical entity: a tank parked up on a dusty street in Harare, red-capped soldiers in camouflage gear sitting calmly on the front; we also see ordinary people in the background of the key shot of the journalist speaking to camera, walking in and out of buildings, the cityscape exuding relative normality.

The reporter’s onscreen position, off centre to the right, encourages us to look into the landscape behind her, while also meeting classical ‘rule of thirds’ photo composition rules, as exemplified by Henri Cartier-Bresson.[4]

In being thus positioned, she is explicitly ‘showing, not telling’ — what’s referred to as mimesis.[5] We see the peaceful streets of Harare for ourselves. Yes, at one point in the story we see there’s a tank, and soldiers, but they look calm, not aggressive.

This mise en scene is important in “establishing and signifying the historical and social settings of the story.”[6]

It does not look much like the scene of a recent military coup, as events are described by some commentators — which is reassuring yet also disorientating.

This is because my interpretation of what a military coup would look like are within a context — what Peirce refers to as ‘grounds’[7]— of my individual knowledge and subjectivity. I am expecting violence and bloodshed and people gathering on the streets, yet the reality I am shown is one of subdued normality.

Most western observers, like me, will already have a bias about the background to this news story, even if it’s as simple as a perception that Robert Mugabe is a ‘bad man’.

Grosser (2017)[8] referred to ‘the Law of Narrative Gravity’:

“that the public and press are drawn to narratives, and the more widely accepted (or massive) a narrative, the more it attracts and shapes the perception of facts.”

Narrative gravity in this unfolding story works to confirm our beliefs. This story presumes we share the same bias, which is that the removal of Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe is a ‘good thing’. We are uncertain about whether and how this has occurred, and what happens next, but certain of this.

The report also takes steps to affix responsibility for the unfolding events — what is called the Blame Frame. (Shahin, 2015) [9]

A sense of righteous action is reinforced in the video by two local Zimbabweans, who both appear positive about the impact of what has happened but are also uncertain.

Adding these additional voices enriches the perspectives of the story and the context, which explains why people should care and why they are following this story. (Blaine, 2014)[10]

The journalist is both narrator and part of the narrative. Her report switches from first person (we are here…) to third person (when explaining what has happened). This is a classic narrative device used in this instance to switch temporality[11] from the present (tanks on the streets) to the past (what has happened) to the present (interviews) and then to the future (what will happen next?)

It is, using narrative structure definitions from Segel and Heer,[12] formed in a Kabob structure — we start with an ‘anecdote’ (those tanks again) then the story is told chronologically, until we end with that kicker question or coda.

This short report also has what Ira Glass, in ‘On Storytelling’, [13]refers to as the two building blocks of a broadcast narrative: the ‘anecdote’, or sequence of actions, which give momentum; and it has ‘bait’ — “you want to be constantly asking questions”.

It is also a classic example of what Christopher Booker[14] calls ‘overcoming the monster’ — one of the seven basic plots he identifies in storytelling. Mugabe and his wife Grace seem to be the monsters that must be overcome. But we are not yet certain if those doing the ‘overcoming’ will themselves turn out to be monsters also.

The Twitter Moment

Rob Irvine, Editor of Manchester Evening News, told a News Impact Summit in the city last month (October 2017) that in the first frantic hours after the Manchester Arena terror attack there was pressure on local journalists to ‘get information out, any information…’ but the paper tried to bide its time and ensure information was verified and accurate. “Our duty was to the people of Manchester and the families.”

As news from Zimbabwe began to unfold, Twitter came alive with versions of events from Africa and across the world.

The news team at made a first attempt at collating some of the information as a Twitter Moment[15] which they hoped would help make sense of the situation.

Using the headline What exactly is going on in Zimbabwe? the creators of the Moment are trying to explain and clarify the situation.

It was fair to then expect what Cortazzi refers to as the ‘typical narrative structure’. We do indeed get a brief ‘abstract and orientation’ introductory message, presented as fact, explaining what is known.[16]

But then, by the second, third and fourth tweet we get what Cortazzi describes as the turn and twist…we are plunged back into uncertainty as journalists express their own confusion.

It is a clear representation of what Mieke Bal[17] describes as a series of connected events. Multiple multimodal stories and text styles are created — tweets are chosen and ordered in a particular way.

The Moment, at various points, blames and explains the story (Shahin, 2015)[18]— it frames the event by pointing to human agents (Grace Mugabe in particular) and assigning responsibility to semi-natural processes (the inevitability of decline of Robert Mugabe, now aged 93).

 “Both frames serve to reproduce social boundaries and reinforce the status quo,” says Shahin.

 A Zimbabwean’s reaction in a single tweet

The final word in this analysis of the breaking Mugabe story goes to journalist Grace Chirumanzu, a Zimbabwean studying in Birmingham.

As the story unfolded from November 14, Grace Chirumanzu tweeted her reactions, using gifs, memes and links to breaking stories.

Finally, after days of uncertainty and the false start of Mugabe’s press conference when resignation was expected but never came, word finally emerged that he had indeed agreed to resign.

Grace’s short video and tweet summed up her relief and joy:

In this simple tweet, she manages to tick many of Twitter’s own recommendations for composing effective tweets, as set out in this eight point guide.[19]

It is brief; taps into a key moment; uses hashtags effectively; uses creative ‘stopping power’ by using an embedded video; and evokes an emotional response.

We, the viewer, can’t help but smile at Grace’s joyful smile, run and jumps. It is a moment of relief and delight after the uncertainty and trepidation.

We still don’t quite know “how this will all end.” But it’s the end of one chapter.


[1] Cortazzi, M. (1993) Narrative Analysis. Routledge. Martin Scortazzi refers to ‘coda’ as the final act of a traditional narrative structure.

[2] Bal, M. (2007). Narrative theory. London: Routledge.

[3] Fulton, H., Huisman, R., Murphet, J. and Dunn, A. (2005). Narrative and Media. Chapter 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] The Art of Photography youtube channel: ‘Composition in Photography’ Available at

[5] Fulton, H., Huisman, R., Murphet, J. and Dunn, A. (2005). Narrative and Media. Chapter 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Fulton, H., Huisman, R., Murphet, J. and Dunn, A. (2005). Narrative and Media. Chapter 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Peirce on Signs, edited by James Hoopes. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press

[8] Grosser, Z. (2017) The Invisible Force that warps what you read in the news. Available at [Accessed 10 November 2018]

[9] Shahin, S. (2016) Framing Bad News. Journalism Practice Vol. 10, Iss. 5, 2016 Available at: [Accessed November 10 2017]

[10] Blaine, M. (2014). The digital reporter’s notebook. Page 9. New York: Routledge.

[11] Fulton, H., Huisman, R., Murphet, J. and Dunn, A. (2005). Narrative and Media. Chapter 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Segel, E and Heer, J: Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data Available at

[13] Glass, Ira (July 2009): On Storytelling. Available at [Accessed on October 15 2017]

[14] Booker, C. (2004). The seven basic plots of literature. New York: Continuum.

[15] Twitter Moments is a narrative device that enables users to stitch together multiple tweets into a slideshow-style longform story. It is often used as an explainer, in the style of a ‘this is what you might have missed’.

[16] Cortazzi, M. (1993) Narrative Analysis. Routledge.

[17] Bal, M. (2007). Narrative theory. London: Routledge.

[18] Shahin, S. (2016) Framing Bad News. Journalism Practice Vol. 10, Iss. 5, 2016 Available at: [Accessed November 10 2017]



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