How Media Can Be a Force for Good

April 18, 2014 //
A thoughtful and engaging interview with the American Press Institute and Mallary Tenore, the new managing director of TWI grantee Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH), that explores themes of our ongoing conversation about storytelling, journalism, dialogue and community. 
How ‘Restorative Narratives’ Shape Communities: 9 Good Questions with Mallary Tenore of IVOH

IVOH has been doing some work around “restorative narratives.” What are they?

These aren’t positive, happy-go-lucky fluff pieces. They explore the tough emotional terrain of disruptions like the Newtown shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings.

MALLARY TENORE: As we look for ways to highlight how the media can be a force for good, we’ve become increasingly interested in a storytelling genre we’re calling  restorative narratives. These are stories that show how communities and people are learning to become resilient after periods of disruption. In doing so, they express empowerment, possibilities and revitalization. Last August, we convened 35 media makers to deepen our inquiry into restorative narrative and came up with this working definition: “Restorative narratives are honest and sustained inquiries that reveal opportunities in times of disruption. They express empowerment, possibilities and revitalization.”
This type of storytelling isn’t new, but it’s never really been given a good name. “Feature stories” and “human interest stories” don’t capture the depth of restorative narratives. The word “restorative” — which  is defined as “having the ability to restore health, strength, or a feeling of well-being” — is a better fit; it reflects resilience.
These aren’t positive, happy-go-lucky fluff pieces. They explore the tough emotional terrain of disruptions like the Newtown shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings. But they’re “positive” in the sense that they focus on themes such as growth and renewal — themes that, at some point in our lives, we can all relate to.

What made you want to start focusing on restorative narratives?

TENORE: We came up with the term after reading  Rachel Aviv’s December 2012 New Yorker story about how a small community newspaper, The Newtown Bee, was responding to the Newtown shooting. The paper’s editor, Curtiss Clark, really listened to what readers wanted during that time; he asked them questions and acted on their responses. He found himself thinking about the paper’s greater purpose and about ways in which the paper’s reporters could be supporters.
As Aviv wrote:
“He didn’t care if national reporters thought that he lacked a ‘hard-ass clinical angle.’ When he learned that a camera crew had rung the doorbell of parents who had just lost their child, he wrote a letter to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, urging the media to stop ‘invading the yards and space of grieving survivors.’ Another resident implored him, ‘Do anything in your power to get these media people out.’ In an editorial in a special edition of the Bee, published three days after the shooting, Clark counseled 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’s response made us think about how often the media swoops in during the immediate aftermath of tragedies. It’s understandable; they need to be there to inform the public about what happened. But sometimes reporters’ approach comes across as insensitive. And after awhile, these “what happened” stories can make the world feel like a callous place. The persistent focus on death and devastation ignores the fact that there are stories of resilience and recovery to be told.

What if newsrooms were to put as much emphasis on recovery and restoration as they did on tragedy and devastation?

What if, instead of reporting so many “what happened” stories, journalists reported more “what’s next” stories that explain how people and communities are finding the strength to move on after experiencing tragedies or other difficult times? What if newsrooms were to put as much emphasis on recovery and restoration as they did on tragedy and devastation?
It is not unlike Victor Frankl’s premise in “Man’s Search for Meaning” — even in the concentration camps during World War II, there were people who were able to find meaning in their circumstances and find inner strength.
I get it — these stories aren’t always easy to report. Journalists are strapped for time and resources, so the thought of spending an extended period of time following people and communities through their recovery process can seem unmanageable. And sometimes, people don’t want to talk to the media. I think the media could build trust, though, by telling stories about resilience and recovery — aka restorative narratives. These stories would show the public that journalists are invested in telling important stories that have a meaningful impact. I’d like to think that if more journalists told stories about resilience in a particular community, they could help other communities learn how to become more resilient.

This seems to imply a deeper idea — that journalism doesn’t just reflect what happens in a community but actually helps to shape what a community becomes. Am I right about that?

TENORE: Yes. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the media can help rebuild struggling communities. This is especially true in Detroit, where media startups like Detroit143 are trying to improve community life and create meaningful change. Two other projects — the Detroit Journalism Cooperative and Zero Divide — are also trying to play a role in Detroit’s revitalization and recently received funding from the Knight and Ford foundations.  In a release about the projects, the Knight Foundation’s Katy Locker made a good point:
“How residents and policymakers understand and deal with Detroit’s crisis will have repercussions decades into the future. … Some say the bankruptcy could herald the start of a recovery, but that can only happen if the community is informed and engaged and has a plan for continuing improvements the day after bankruptcy. Nonprofit journalism can help.”
At ivoh, we believe restorative narratives are part of this equation. We’ve written and talked a lot about restorative narratives, but we would like to do – and learn – more.
Can you point to some examples of restorative narratives?
TENORE: One example of a restorative narrative is Josh Haner’s  New York Times video about Jeff Bauman,  a Boston Marathon survivor who lost both of his legs and is now learning what it means to move on in the wake of tragedy. It’s a poignant video that show
s a progression from physical and emotional pain to recovery. (Haner just received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his essay on the same subject.)
On, we recently profiled  another restorative narrative by Dallas Morning News reporter Scott Farwell. He wrote  an eight-part series about Lauren Kavanaugh, a young woman whose mother and stepfather locked her in a closet, starved her and abused her for six years. The story is painful to read in parts, but in the end it shows how Lauren is learning to cope with her hardships. (Farwell was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his work on the same subject.)
Farwell told me that Dallas Morning News Editor Bob Mong read the first draft of his story and said it needed “more hope”:
“He wanted me to reconfigure the first few days to give more of a whiff of hope — to let people know that this was going to be a painful journey, but if you stuck with us, there would be some emotional payoff in the end and something restorative that you could look forward to. … He was right,” Farwell told me.
The response to the story ended up being “unprecedented.” It generated half a million unique page views during the eight days it ran online, and the paper’s print circulation increased by 5 percent that same week, Farwell said.
That says something about the appetite for this type of content.

What effects do you see restorative narratives having on readers and the broader communities?

TENORE: I think restorative narratives have the potential to make a big impact. The trick is getting media practitioners — and higher-ups — to see their value.
There’s been a lot of recent research on resilience at places like the University of North Carolina, Vassar College and the University of Pennsylvania.
And some news organizations (but not enough!) see the value in resilience reporting. The BBC’s Media Action project, for example, is geared toward showing how the media can improve humanitarian responses and increase resilience.  The BBC explains that “Media and communication can help build the resilience of people vulnerable to shocks and long-term trends by providing information, by changing attitudes towards risk and innovation, by supporting dialogue that will facilitate positive change and by encouraging greater accountability in service provision and policy making.”  For one of its projects, BBC Media Action  created a series of films aimed at helping people cope with life as a refugee.
There’s also the Guardian’s new “resilient cities” project, which focuses on resilience in cities around the world. The project is being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is also funding a resilience reporting fellowship in collaboration with the  Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The center has been studying the factors that make someone resilient and is sponsoring a nine-month-long fellowship “to train a reporter to take a rigorous look at the academic literature on resilience,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported in November. Trevor Tompson, director of the Center, told CJR that the fellow will study data analysis and social sciences research to learn how to tell more nuanced stories about resilience:
“A lot of the coverage of disasters had to be pretty anecdotal … There’s a lot of storytelling, but it’s hard to connect it to the big picture. … If [research is] not accessible to journalists for news then we’re missing a huge opportunity to get that information out there to people who could really use it.”
As we dive deeper into the concept of restorative narratives, we hope to learn more about the impact they have on communities.

Is there evidence that this approach is good for a publisher’s business as well?

TENORE: Journalism’s going through a tremendous amount of change, so I think there’s a lot more openness to different types of storytelling than there used to be.

People’s appetite for news is changing, and with that change comes opportunity — to tell stories that shift the traditional journalistic focus from tragedy to recovery.

We’ve seen this with the rising popularity of sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed. Recently, Time Magazine   highlighted research  indicating that “the recipe for attracting visitors to stories online is changing. Bloggers have traditionally turned to sarcasm and snark to draw attention. But the success of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, whose philosophies embrace the viral nature of upbeat stories, hints that the Web craves positivity.”
People’s appetite for news is changing, and with that change comes opportunity — to tell stories that shift the traditional journalistic focus from tragedy to recovery.
When I talk with journalists who are producing stories along these lines, they say there’s an interest in this type of content. Take WBUR’s Kind World series, which we wrote about on recently. WBUR producer Nate Goldman created the series because as a way to counteract negative news fatigue — the feeling that news stories are too heavy and depressing. The series, which highlights the power of small acts of kindness, generated a huge response from readers of WBUR’s website — so much so that the station decided to do a radio series to accompany the online component of the project.
Other news sites, including Global Voices, have launched “Good News” sections, for lack of a better term. Global Voices’ section isn’t about fluff pieces; it’s about featuring solutions journalism that helps people identify ways they can help their communities. As more news sites experiment with this type of storytelling, I think they’ll start to generate more interest in it and see a payoff.
And there’s the Solutions Journalism Network, which has recently made great strides in helping journalists report on solutions to social issues — instead of always focusing on problems.

What shortcomings do you see in the ways many journalists usually cover these stories?

TENORE: When I mention the phrase “restorative narratives,” some people think I mean feature stories or human interest stories. Restorative narratives tend to go deeper; they address harsh realities and show a meaningful movement — from heartbreak to hope, tragedy to recovery, and so on.
Other times, I’ll come across a story that I think is a restorative narrative based on the headline, only to find that 90 percent of it is about a tragedy and 10 percent is about restoration. That’s not a restorative narrative; restorative narratives address tragic circumstances, but they give equal or greater weight to the restorative aspects of a person’s story.

Restortative narratives tend to go deeper than feature stories or human interest stories; they address harsh realities and show a meaningful movement.

Over the next year, we plan to deepen our understanding of this genre by creating programs that will enable media makers to report stories on social issues within the framework of restorative narratives. We want to convene dialogues with these media makers to hear what they’ve learned and to get a better sense of the impact their stories have had.

Sometimes a news event seems just all-around bad. Is there always a hopeful side of a story to present? How should journalists identify the hopeful story angles?

TENORE: That’s a good question. Not all stories about a tragedy can be turned into restorative narratives. Time is a critical component of restorative narratives. You couldn’t write a restorative narrative about a person in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy/difficult time because it would be inauthentic; the person wouldn’t have had time to heal yet. Sometimes these stories take months, and even years, to report.
Some storytellers have a tendency to wrap up stories with a pretty bow and end them on a happy note. But this approach can feel forced. Recovering from something doesn’t mean that everything’s all of a sudden perfect. Recovery is a journey and a process of discovery — one filled with twists and turns, bumps and setbacks. Good restorative narratives embrace this idea.

How can journalists get more involved with your organization or find more resources for embracing this approach?

TENORE: We hold an annual media summit at a retreat center in the Catskills, New York. This year’s summit is June 26-29 and will be centered on restorative narratives. We have a great group of speakers — including Andrea Elliott and Ruth Fremson, the reporter and photographer behind The New York Times’ “Invisible Child” series, and Solutions Journalism Network co-founder David Bornstein, who will lead a workshop.
We welcome anyone who’s interested in restorative narratives to attend. We’ll also be having a series of local conversations around the country, where we gather people from the media and the arts to talk about restorative narratives and other related topics.
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  1. Frank H. Burton on April 27, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    "Restorative narratives" are a good initiative to counter negative views of the press as an exclusive purveyor of "dirty laundry," focused only on the high ratings of human shortcomings and callousness, and events causing death or devastation. But the press should also consider making an equal effort to regularly create "Preventative narratives": Such narratives' goal, as human interest stories, would be showing how people are making growing efforts (like that by TWI) to "prevent" the acts of callousness, death, and devastation elicited by human irrationality — acts which today are today subtly aided by the Fourth Estate's near-myopic focus upon them.

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