Saturday, 21 November 2009

Telling stories

There are a couple of interesting and related posts on Falkenblog that caught my eye. This one on narratives, and this one on Malcolm Gladwell. I've not blogged about narratives for a while, but I do think they are absolutely fundamental to how we interpret the world and they run much deeper than we often realise.

I used to get irritated by people who said they didn't read newspapers - because they seemed to think they were more clever than they were - but I've changed my opinion. I've always thought that journalism is about story-telling, but the more I've thought about this the more I think it is fundamentally true.

Not only does journalism seek to fits bits of information into a narrative structure (even though they might not fit together really) but as a journalist you are specifically taught to do this. That's doing journalism properly. Two or three stories of the same type make a trend, and then encourage journalists to look for more of them, whilst not being anything like as interested in stories that point in the other direction. Confirmation bias is doing it right. Real-life randomness just doesn't fit the model.

You can clearly get a situation where journalists highlight and reinforce (if not create) an apparent trend - and by extension define a sense of who/what organisation is important in relation to it - without any real reference to underlying reality. There's a bit in Homage to Catalonia where Orwell talks about hacks creating emotional superstructures over the top of events that never really happened. Well I think in day-to-day journalism the same thing happens in a less intense way. The events happened but don't have the importance/relevance given to them. You get the impression that the punters realise this once in a while, but most of the time it occurs unchallenged.

I do not think this is fitting of info to narratives is in any way limited to journalism. As I've blogged previously, Fisher's 'narrative paradigm' proposes that this structure actually underlies all forms of communication. Going a bit more detail, George Lakoff has argued that the use of metaphor is core to how we understand the world, to the extent that it can even be seen in mathematics. And as I've blogged recently, Albert Hirschman set out that certain forms of argument have a recurring appeal in politics.

We spot the desire for narrative in the press, or in crap Malcolm Gladwell books, but it affects all of us, all of the time. We probably need narratives in order to make sense of "a bunch of stuff that happened" and give meaning to it. But as such we need to be aware of its pull on us, and try and distinguish between a genuine attempt to analyse, and a comforting and familiar story that allows us to fit some facts into it.

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