The Case for Restorative Narratives, by Mallary Jean Tenore

GUEST HIGHLIGHT, with permission from Kosmos Journal

Mallary Jean TenoreRestorative Narratives, Strength-Based Storytelling

by Mallary Jean Tenore

The phrase “future of journalism” is often uttered in media circles these days –and understandably so. Everyone wants to learn
how to save parts of the industry that are struggling financially, attempting to figure out how to best prepare themselves and their news organizations for the years ahead.

To prepare for the future, many news organizations have experimented with innovative ways of telling stories – through compelling interactive graphics, impressive video packages, and more. Much of the innovation in media these days revolves around technology. This is important and a step in the right direction, but we also need to be thinking about innovation in terms of the types of stories we tell.

Mallary Jean Tenore peopleAt Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh), a media-related nonprofit, we’ve been developing a genre called Restorative Narrative – stories that show how people and communities are making meaningful progression from despair to resilience. Restorative Narratives explore despair and address difficult truths, but they also move the storyline forward by showing how affected people and communities are rebuilding and, in some cases, recovering. In doing so, these narratives highlight signs of renewal and resilience.

In many ways, Restorative Narratives offer a more holistic and balanced approach to media coverage. We’re not saying, “Don’t tell stories about tragedies, problems, and crimes.” We’re saying, “Tell these stories, but don’t stop there.” The story doesn’t end when the last shot is fired
or when the tornado leaves town; in many ways, it’s
just beginning.

Exploring, Not Exploiting

Ivoh has studied the Restorative Narrative genre for the past two years and has learned a lot along the way. The genre fits into ivoh’s mission of strengthening the media’s role as agents of change and world benefit. We believe that the media can create meaningful awareness and change and that Restorative Narratives are part of this equation. We began to develop the Restorative Narrative genre after reading a New Yorker article about the Newtown Bee, the small-town newspaper that played a major role in covering the Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the article, written by Rachel Aviv, Newtown Bee editor Curtiss Clark said he began to question the paper’s purpose in the aftermath of the shootings.

prayClark didn’t want Newtown Bee reporters to be adding to community members’ trauma by putting cameras in their faces or camping outside of their houses. In an editorial, Clark advised Newtown residents not to conform to the expectations of the “legions of journalists who had arrived in caravans of satellite trucks as if drawn by some dark star of calamity.” Clark wanted the Newtown Bee to be of service to residents and asked, “How can we, as a small-town paper, help the community through this difficult time?” He was empathizing with them and their situation, and in doing so, he cultivated a level of trust.

After reading about the Newtown Bee’s coverage, we kept returning to the phrase “redemptive narrative,” which was mentioned in the New Yorker story. The word “redemptive” didn’t seem like quite the right fit, however, so we began to think more along the lines of “restorative” narratives. What would media coverage look like if more news organizations took Clark’s approach to covering tragedies? What if media covered stories of resilience and rebuilding as much as they covered stories about trauma and tragedy? How might these narratives mobilize people and communities in ways that traditional doom and gloom stories can’t?

Restorative Narrative Summit & Fellowships

In 2013, we convened 35 journalists to explore some of these questions and to come up with a working definition of Restorative Narrative. We’ve since held two Restorative Narrative Summits in upstate New York in 2014 and 2015. Collectively, the summits attracted about 250 media practitioners from a variety of media fields – journalism, photography, documentary film, gaming, advertising, and the arts. They came to talk about their shared belief that these narratives – and the media in general – can act as a force for good.

We further developed support for Restorative Narratives when launching our inaugural Restorative Narrative Fellowship earlier this year. Through a crowd-funding campaign, we raised just over $18,000, which helped us give five journalists from across the United States a stipend to spend six months telling Restorative Narratives in various communities. The fellows’ stories addressed topics such as child abuse, religion, and poverty, proving that Restorative Narratives can play out in a variety of different storytelling beats.

Clarifying the Genre

We gleaned a lot of lessons from these fellows and their work. Among other things, we learned that high-quality Restorative Narratives:

advise

After attending our 2014 Mindful Media Summit, The Solutions Journalism Network’s David Bornstein said: “To me, what’s restorative is when journalism truly helps
people understand the world in its fullness, so they can properly diagnose the ills, envision possibilities with a realistic eye, and see meaningful pathways forward.”

Creating a Cultural Shift in Newsrooms

Naming a genre, though mostly beneficial, can also lead to misperceptions and pushback – particularly from media practitioners, who are reluctant to embrace new forms of storytelling or who mistake Restorative Narratives for fluffy, happy-go-lucky feature stories.

ivoh

There’s a deep-seated belief in the media industry that “if it bleeds, it leads” – meaning that the more sensational a story is, the more people will be drawn to it. During a time when many news sites are carefully tracking web traffic and trying to get as many clicks as they can, it’s tempting to want to fall back on this belief. It can also be difficult to get buy-in and support from top editors who may question the Restorative Narrative genre because it’s new or because they equate it with fluff pieces. At ivoh, we tend to avoid calling Restorative Narratives positive stories for this reason.

Restorative Narratives go much deeper than your typical feature story; they explore both the positive and the negative and show that it’s possible for people to become resilient and for communities to rebuild.

Recent research shows that people’s appetite for news is changing. With that change comes an opportunity—to tell new stories that move beyond the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Several studies have shown that repeated exposure to traumatic news can cause acute stress symptoms, trigger flash-backs, and encourage fear-mongering. Such stories can leave people feeling hopeless and thinking that their communities and/or the world at large is much worse off than it actually is.

A University of Pennsylvania study found that news reports can dramatically shift a person’s mood from neutral to negative in a matter of minutes. As Michelle Gielan writes in her new book Broadcasting Happiness: “A barrage of negative news reports shows us stories of a world that is frightening and seemingly hopeless. Often these feelings linger with viewers and cascade into their time at work or school. The results of another study show that people who watch local news view their city as significantly more dangerous than it actually is, in terms of anticipated amounts of crime or likelihood of disaster.”

I interviewed Gielan, who defines “transformative news” as “an activating, engaging, solutions-focused approach to covering news.” She said Restorative Narrative is an example of transformative news and believes more media practitioners need to tell these types of stories. Solutions journalism, peace journalism, and the constructive journalism movement in Denmark are all part of this transformative news movement and are close cousins to the Restorative Narrative genre.

Research also shows that people want to share transformative news. In a study about what makes content go viral, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business analyzed the most-shared New York Times stories over the course of three months. The researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, found that positive content is much more likely to go viral than negative content.

So, why aren’t more news organizations telling Restorative Narratives? Part of the reason has to do with creating a cultural shift in newsrooms. At ivoh, we’re trying to help media practitioners understand why these types of stories are important for media coverage, for money-making purposes, and perhaps more importantly for the people and communities that newsrooms serve.

We’re creating a second iteration of the Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which we plan to open up to journalists, photographers, gamers, filmmakers, and advertisers. One of our goals is to get a better sense of how Restorative Narratives play out in a variety of other media sectors beyond journalism. We also hope to create a newsroom partnership to get a better sense of what it looks like when a newsroom embraces this type of storytelling. Our hope is to replicate this model into newsrooms around the country and develop a deeper understanding of the impact of Restorative Narratives.

As we look to the future of journalism, we want to help media practitioners of all kinds embrace innovative ways of telling new narratives. There is so much promise for narratives that show the whole story – narratives that restore hope and make us realize that the world isn’t as bad as so many headlines would suggest. Now more than ever, media professionals have an exciting opportunity to strengthen the stories they tell – and subsequently the people and communities they serve.

Mallary Jean Tenore is Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh). In this role, she oversees ivoh’s programs and events, leads strategic development, and fundraises. She helps manage the organization’s editorial work and online presence. Mallary believes the media can play a powerful role in connecting communities, restoring hope, and giving people a reason to care about social issues and has led the growth and development of Restorative Narrative

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