Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The art and science of journalistic narrative

I could hardly be a bigger fan of American journalist Brian Montopoli. His analysis over at the Columbia Journalism Review blog of the way the U.S. news media covers political events is always unusually astute, and his scathing critique of my beloved (and much-missed, since my emigration) National Public Radio may have broken my heart, but it couldn't have been more accurate. But although his latest piece roasting the new boss at U.S. news channel CNN is as well written as ever, it seems to circle his point without ever quite hitting it. This is because Montopoli is missing a crucial element: that of the art and science of narrative.

Montopoli begins by telling us that the new CNN president, Johnathan Klein, has been lauded as a hero of the journalistic revolution because he's bringing the public more news and less spin by emphasizing the character-driven story, or narrative arc, in the events CNN reports. Then Montopoli shows us how this theory actually plays out in practice, offering up the example of how the 24-hour news station focused almost entirely on the runaway bride story in hour after hour of coverage over this past weekend. This isn't news, Montopoli argues, this is the quest for a classic narrative arc without any regard for substance:

Klein claims that CNN has "been working hard to find provocative, character-driven news stories. We've been emphasizing storytelling." If it wasn't before, it's pretty clear now what Klein means by "character-driven": he wants stories with clear narrative arcs, with heroes and villains whose roles can be conveyed in twenty-second blocks. The problem with this philosophy is that neither news nor life is ever so neat.
The key missing piece here is that the narrative arc, based on what linguists and psychologists have learned in researching the phenomenon, is an inherent part of the way the human brain makes sense of personal experience. This structuring of life happens every time a child tells his teacher about why his homework is late and every time one spouse tells another about the crazy antics of the boss that day, and remarkably, narrative exhibits the same basic structure across languages and across cultures. Although people certainly vary in their skill at recounting stories, all narrative of personal experience has a central conflict, a build, and a point or a "punchline" when it can be declared finished. One thing we learn as young children as a part of the acquisition of our native language is how to pick and choose among our experiences to sort them into a narrative; in other words, how to recount only the things that are deemed relevant for the story to flow into an arc. When people tell stories about the boss tripping over his shoelaces, for example, they will leave out things that don't move the story toward the Big Payoff (like the secretary being absent that day or the fact that it rained that afternoon). And the preferred ordering of events in a narrative of personal experience often isn't chronological, but the way that makes for the best build to a climax.

As Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps point out in their brilliant work of psychology and linguistics Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling, this structure isn't merely optional; it's essential. When people recount the events of their lives to others, they don't spout off disjointed details; they transform those events into narratives of personal experience with a clearly identifiable structure, every single time. When a witness testifies in a courtroom, the ordering of the questions the lawyers ask and the way he structures his responses help both participants co-structure events in to a classic narrative. Studies in the nursing profession have found that nurses who are able to transform the daily events of their job into narratives not only have a better chance at avoiding burnout, but they also tend to be better nurses. And in the realm of psychology, learning how to sort events into a narrative arc with a clear beginning and an end is a key component in how sufferers from post-traumatic stress disorder recover, and how people with learning disabilities can learn to cope with their neurological problems. Narrative can't be dismissed as a mere journalistic oversimplification of life; it's a crucial part of the way the human brain works. And when journalists write up news stories as narrative arcs, they're doing what every last one of us does on a daily basis: making sense of the world around us in the very best way our brains are equipped to process it.

The real problem isn't with the journalistic practice of teasing a narrative arc out of otherwise disjointed events, and it's not that "neither news nor life is ever so neat." The problem is that when CNN offers up an endless parade of runaway bride relatives as news, what they're peddling is more akin to the narrative arc of a bad romantic comedy than the narrative arc of a Booker Prize-winning novel. And as Canadian journalist Paul Wells regularly points out, it's not just the obviously superficial stories that are the culprits, either. When political journalists provide news consumers with an endless loop of stories telling us that the outcome of the anticipated no-confidence motion against the current Canadian government could "all come down to Chuck Cadman's vote!" and recycle the same tired old clichés about "explosive testimony" at the Gomery inquiry, they're not giving us astute political analysis, they're giving us a popcorn flick. And while the latest episode of "The Libranos" may well be entertaining enough to keep newspapers flying off the stands and all eyes glued to the CBC for a while, it's not going to teach us very much about how exactly things got the way they are or what this tells us about our political process, and it's not going to outline the steps that whoever forms the next government can take that might prevent things from going the same way again.

1 comment:

Helen said...

enjoyed your blog about the narrative arc, i am a budding doco maker, your comments are very relevant in this sphere.