05 April 2010

Narrative trumps all in media

MinnPost's Eric Black reports this morning on a recent study that says "narrative" is the new political buzz word.

The Global Language Monitor uses some kind of algorithm that tracks the usage of words and phrases in all forms of news media plus now social media to spot such trends. This is way over my head, and I don't vouch for their finding, but as soon as you hear their big "narrative" conclusion, you realize there's something to it and that we've been hearing "narrative" a lot.

The GLM offers several sample headlines and excerpts to make the point, like "The Obama White House has lost the narrative in the way that the Obama campaign never did” (New York Times, March 6)," “Ok. Has the narrative changed because of the health care success? (Washington Post, March 26) and “The only thing that changes is the narrative.” (CNN, March 23).
I totally understand this concept. People dig stories. It's much easier to listen to a story with characters and a perception of dramatic conflict. I'm always drawn to journalism that has a strong sense of storytelling over sterile fact-telling. That's why This American Life episodes about the economic crisis are more interesting to listen to than, say, PBS Newshour reports.

Storytelling is exciting and suspenseful. It feels more human. And ultimately, a story gives an audience a nice framework in which to place all these little things it's learning.

But what's the danger? Well, at some point, the importance of the story arc takes precedence over the facts.

Here's a hypothetical: Let's say that I'm a media organization in a constant state of flipping shit about building/maintaining an audience to draw ad revenue, and I know that a strong narrative is more likely to achieve the aforementioned flip-shit goal than having a stream of accurate-but-sterile facts. Of course, I'm going to go with the narrative. It keeps the audience engaged and revenue stream flowing.

Now, obviously, narrative and facts don't have to be mutually exclusive. And, in fact, I think This American Life is a prime example of using a story structure to dispense oft-unreported facts. That being said, think back to the 2008 election. In the Democratic primary, it was the constant horse race between Hillary and Obama. In reality, though, it was going to be almost impossible for Hillary to overtake Obama's delegate count. But that's not a good story. The good story is the older, tough-as-shit woman fighting for her political life against the fresh-faced newcomer. Remember the constant comparisons to the I'm a Mac/I'm a PC ads?

And that continued into the general election. McCain was the old crusty guy, who was erratic and unreliable in the face of economic chaos. Obama was the calm, steady hand from a new generation who offered a bright, clean start in dark times. How many voters do you think were looking at the details of policy put forth by both campaigns? In the recent health care reform circus, polling was against the reform package. Until, of course, it passed. Then more people were supportive. Why? People like to win. They like a good story, and they want to feel happy at the ending.

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