Tag Archives: Narrative

Journalism and Gaza

I read Ethan Bronner’s article today in the New York Times, “Bullets in my Inbox,” and I thought he did a very good job summing up how hard it is to navigate reporting the story of the Israel/Palestine conflict. So much is based on narrative, definition of terms, context/history, and perceived hidden biases/agendas. The idea of narratives and definitions made me think of this great book I read, “The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent,” by Patrick Hogan (though I wish he would publish an updated edition; the first is from early 2001, before Sept. 11, and is really before the Bush Presidency and the Iraq War, though Hogan does talk a lot about Desert Storm).

Anyway, re: Ethan Bronner’s Times’ article, I really understand in terms of looming deadlines and the struggle to be fair in one’s reporting, how much of the time, reporters don’t think one way other the other about an agenda or bias. However, just because they’re not explicitly thinking about it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t seep through. We all have biases, we all have agendas and everything is politics. I believe that there is no such thing as objective reporting, but that there is a thing called fair reporting.

Bronner points out that Israel banned all foreign journalists from Gaza during the three week assault on the narrow strip of land (which has been under a near total blockade since 2005, and had been fully occupied by the Israeli military before that). What happened was that you had all these foreign journalists reporting from towns in southern Israel that were being hit by Hamas’ rockets. As such, in the West, we didn’t see the death, damage and destruction in Gaza; instead we saw the aftermath of rocket attacks on civilians in southern Israel. The proportionality of what we saw did not match reality. It is crucially important to point out that over 1300 Palestinians died in Gaza (many if not most of them civilians), while 13 Israelis died. That is a 100:1 ratio of death. There is no getting around that fact when telling this story.

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It’s All About Narrative

So in my attempt to “understand” the American electorate and how we make decisions about who to vote for in political campaigns, I came across this article by Dr. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Westen is the author of the book, The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds Without Using Our Heads. In his article, “Why Voters Say they Don’t Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don’t Really Know Much about John McCain, Either)” Dr. Westen explains that while we think that political campaigns (well, at least presidential campaigns) turn on substantive debate about the issues, they are rather all about the narratives you weave about yourself and your opponent. He argues that a winning campaign focuses on four stories:

the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I am personally intrigued by this idea due to my own focus on and fascination with media/communications, news, and how people get their information. Dr. Westen goes on:

Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn’t enough. It isn’t memorable. It doesn’t capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species’ evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy–and when our children have not yet learned to read–was through stories.

Right now, John McCain is doing a better job than Barack Obama in telling these four stories in a compelling way. I believe Westen’s article is a must read for the Obama campaign and his supporters at this point in the summer campaign. I also think that if Obama can weave together “the four stories” in this current political climate, he will have a very high chance of winning in a landslide this November.

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