The Campaign Spot

Did ‘Narrative Journalism’ Help Ferguson Store Owners or UVA Women?

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

‘Narrative Journalism,’ Leaving Wreckage, Pain and Tragedy in Its Wake

I appeared on “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren last night, discussing my contention that “narrative journalism” ends up hurting the causes it claims to support. I’m not so sure how well I laid out my points in the limited time, so if you saw it, pretend I said this instead . . . 

What makes “narrative journalism” different from, say, factual journalism is that narrative journalism is determined to tell you a very simple, one-sided morality tale with a hero and a villain, or a victim and a villain.

Trayvon Martin was a good kid walking home with Skittles, and George Zimmerman was Yosemite Sam.

Michael Brown was a “gentle giant” and Darren Wilson was a racist, trigger-happy cop.

The Rolling Stone story featured a young girl and these monsters at a fraternity, and those callous, heartless university administrators.

And anything that gets in the way of that narrative gets ignored or downplayed. And the audience or readership comes to believe that this is a slam dunk, that it’s obvious what happened.

The difference is that life isn’t a one-sided narrative. At some point, that other side of the story either comes to light or impacts events. Inside a jury room, all of those contrary pieces of evidence get aired. Grand jurors see a very different story than the folks who watch Al Sharpton’s show. And thus they come to a decision that to that audience is absolutely unthinkable.

(Is this what happened in the Garner case on Staten Island? Perhaps. But because anyone can see what happened at the time on video, the public at large may be more skeptical of the grand jury’s decision to not indict.)

The Rolling Stone article portrayed University of Virginia administrators as unbelievably unconcerned about a series of organized ritualistic gang rapes by fraternities. Doesn’t that look a little different now? If indeed the victim’s story has changed and doesn’t align with available evidence, doesn’t the fact that no one has been arrested make a little more sense?

By the way, in the middle of what is indisputably a shoddy piece of journalistic work, that Rolling Stone article raises a key question that’s being echoed left, right, and center, and probably deserves more discussion: Why on earth are universities being trusted to investigate and prosecute major crimes like rape?

Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime — something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do — the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.

I’m sure MSNBC would tell you their “narrative journalism” was meant to serve the interests of the African-Americans in Ferguson . . . and then some members of that community had their businesses looted and burned down. Rolling Stone would tell you their “narrative journalism” was meant to serve the interests of young women at the University of Virginia . . . and now those women will probably encounter even greater skepticism and doubt after reporting a sexual assault.

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