Friday, April 22, 2011

How narratives warp news

I wrote before about the role of wider narratives in deciding what events become major news stories and what events are ignored. The tendency to tie individual events into wider narratives can distort our understanding of how the world works, greatly inflating the importance of some conflicts or risks while downgrading much worse ones.

Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear explores this further with a number of useful examples. By the early 1990s the first successes in managing the AIDS epidemic had been experienced, but terror of African disease was reinforced when author Richard Preston released a book in 1994 describing a true incident in which ebola-infected monkeys were taken from Africa to the US. Despite the fact that no American outbreak followed (and this strain of ebola was not lethal to humans), Preston's book helped to make horrible jungle diseases from Africa become a media narrative. The 1995 movie Outbreak continued the trend and then ebola really did break out in DR Congo:
...reporters rushed to a part of the world that is generally ignored. The coverage was massive, but the 1995 Ebola outbreak didn't lead to chaos and disaster. It just ran the usual sad course, killing about 255 people in all.

For the people of Congo and central Africa, however, chaos and disaster really were coming. In 1998, a coup led to civil war that sparked fighting across the whole region and civil authority collapsed. It's hard to know precisiely how many lives were lost, whether to bullet, bomb, or disease, but many authorities suggest three million or more died over the first several years. The developed world scarcely noticed. The war fit no existing narrative, and without any obvious relevance to the rich world it couldn't start one, so the media gave it a tiny fraction of the attention they lavished on the 1995 Ebola outbreak - even though the war killed roughly 11,700 people for every one lost to Ebola.
Gardner goes on to look at other shifting narratives, like that of the white anti-government radicals in the US which briefly made up most discussions about terrorism after Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995. For years media reported on 'cranky gun enthusiasts', a trend reversed by the 9/11 bombing. Since 2001 discussions of terrorism in the US have been dominated by concerns with radical Muslims.

Gardner describes Joel Henry Hinrichs III, a 'disturbed white guy with a thing for explosives' who blew himself up outside a packed stadium in Oklahoma in 2005. In 2007 six white men were arrested with an arsenal of weapons including a machine gun and hand grenades, allegedly planning a machine gun attack on local Hispanics. Because these stories failed to match the dominant terrorism narrative at the time they were barely covered by media.

Gardner's talk of narratives is particularly useful because it can explain apparent media bias without denouncing journalists and editors for explicit bigotry. Perfectly well-intentioned journalists could cover stories because they seem relevant, editors run them because they will attract alarm or attention. No bias is necessary to produce stories which accidentally misinform readers.

This explains the wave of alarmed articles in the 2000s about Muslim women in Europe wearing hijab or niqab. Muslim girls who refused to remove hijab in school become symbolic of wider anger - anger at Muslims for failing to integrate and anger at Europeans for for stamping on other cultures.

Yet when I was in school in 1990s Ireland we had students who also got into trouble for breaking the school's dress code. We had a pretty relaxed uniform - no tie or blazer for my humble school! - but boys were forbidden from shaving their heads. Being teenagers, some boys deliberately broke this rule, arrived into school as skinheads, and were suspended for it. They broke the rules to win status and approval from their own adolescent gang, and the principal defended her authority by kicking them out of school for a few days.

Nobody noticed these events outside our school. Once I remember minor controversy when another school forbade some students from sitting important exams because they broke its dress code. Without a wider narrative few people were going to lose sleep over it, though, while Muslim schoolgirls wearing hijabs had pro- and anti-Muslim perspectives already formed and ready to connect. Something similar happened when there was brief controversy in Ireland over the police force's prohibition on a Sikh officer from wearing his turban. Unlike Islam, too few people had opinions about Sikhism in the first place for this story to go far.

A final example is the constant media attention given to child abuse by Catholic priests, which is a major narrative in our time. Despite no evidence that priests are more likely to abuse children than any other men, the narrative of the paedophile priest has seeped through to mainstream humour and cinema. See the child-abusing priest in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, or the popular joke that someone is 'sweating like a priest in a playground'. Every new story about child abuse by a priest reinforces that narrative, while stories about child abuse by others do not.

I don't blame journalists or editors particularly for pandering to narratives the public find interesting. Yet it strikes me that there is space to undermine these narratives and throw events into a new light. A less conformist publication, that opens up new narratives to rival those of its competitors, could be great.


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