The case for Restorative Narrative: a strength-based storytelling genre that can improve media coverage

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, and they’re 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.

At 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 the 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 an agent 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.

Clark 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?

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 interest in Restorative Narrative and their 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 crowdfunding 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—WFYI’s Jake Harper, the Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery, the Detroit Free Press’ Rochelle Riley, the University of Oregon’s Alex Tizon, and the University of Cincinnati’s Elissa Yancey—told Restorative Narratives in Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Alaska, and Ohio.

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.

Take, for instance, “The Girl in the Closet,” an eight-part Dallas Morning News series about Lauren Kavanaugh—a 20-year-old woman whose mother and stepfather tortured, sexually abused, and starved her for six years when she was a child. Several media outlets covered Lauren’s story when she was first discovered in the closet, but as time passed, they moved on to other stories. Reporter Scott Farwell revisited the story ten years later and spent nine months trying to get Kavanaugh to open up to him. Finally, she got to the point where she could trust him with her story. Farwell reported on the abuse and neglect Kavanaugh endured as a child but also looked at where she is today. He showed that she’s getting a college degree, is able to make friends, and is doing far better than psychologists and caregivers ever expected. But she still struggles; for example, she hoards hidden food in her room for fear that it will be taken away from her like when she was a child, and she still has trouble telling people she loves them. In his story, Farwell was able to show how resilient Kavanaugh is, without pretending that she’s “all better” or “fully recovered.”

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

  • capture hard truths. These narratives don’t ignore the difficult situation that a person or a community has endured. They explore the rough emotional terrain, but instead of focusing on what’s broken, they focus on what’s being rebuilt to reveal hope and possibilities.
  • highlight a meaningful progression. Restorative Narratives show progression from heartbreak to hope, tragedy to possibility, suffering to recovery. It’s important to focus not just on where someone is today, but how he or she got there.
  • are often—but not always—sustained inquiries. Restorative Narratives can sometimes be reported in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or crime, but they often come to fruition months or years after a tragedy or period of disruption. Pursuing these narratives requires patience.
  • are authentic. Restorative Narratives are true to a person’s or a community’s experiences. Sustained inquiries into a person’s life or a community enable us to determine the authenticity of the narrative.
  • are strength-based. Restorative Narratives speak to people’s strengths and help others find inspiration and strength. Instead of focusing on the most dismal aspects of a situation, these narratives get people to care and listen by highlighting what’s possible. 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.”

The fellows shared these lessons and more when they presented their work during ivoh’s June 2015 Summit. As we told the fellows and summit attendees, ivoh didn’t invent the Restorative Narrative genre, but we’ve helped define and grow it. In giving the genre a name, we’ve given it power and built a community of support around it. So many media makers have approached us to say, “I’ve been telling these stories for years, but I never knew what to call them and never knew how many other people were invested and interested in this type of storytelling.”

Creating a Cultural Shift in Newsrooms

Attendees dancing to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” a restorative narrative-based song at ivoh Summit 2015. Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Sanjeev Chatterjee.

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 positive 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.

Judy Rodgers, president of ivoh’s board of trustees, with trustee Ozioma Egwuonwu at ivoh Summit, June 2015. Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Sanjeev Chatterjee.

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.

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 flashbacks, and encourage fearmongering. 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.”

Gielan, who is conducting a news media study with Arianna Huffington and positive psychologist Shawn Achor, recently found that when people are exposed to just three minutes of negative news first thing in the morning, they’re 27% likely to report having had a bad day six to eight hours later. By contrast, people exposed to ‘transformative news’ for just three minutes in the morning are 85% likely to report having had a happy day six to eight hours later (M. Gielan, personal communication).

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.

There’s also a business case for telling these types of narratives, Gielan said. For instance, a Stanford University study found that the placement of print articles greatly influences buying decisions. Consumers’ intent to purchase was 24% higher and their attitude toward a brand was more positive when the advertisement they viewed was placed next to a positive story.

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.



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