Anyone who works in the field of disaster management knows that few things grab the public’s attention more than news about catastrophic events–hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and even mass shootings. The more tragic an event is, the greater the interest and the volume of news coverage.
But as time passes – no matter how gripping or galvanizing the tragedy – our attention (and the news media’s) eventually wanes. With the exception of news and feature stories pegged to anniversaries of these horrific events, we often hear or see little more about people in the affected communities.
Yet, while the “story” might be over for most of us, is it really over? Or is there more to learn from watching as people rebuild their lives and communities? Can lessons of hope be gleaned from tragedy? Can stories of spirit and resilience provide some hope and guidance for the future?
One person who thinks so is Mallary Tenore, managing director of Images and Voices of Hope (ivoh), a nonprofit dedicated to “strengthening the media’s role as an agent of change and world benefit.” Tenore is championing what she calls “restorative narratives,” a form of journalism that tells the stories of “how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover after experiencing difficult times.”
While disasters and other kinds of tragedies – such as shooting or acts of terrorism – are different, they share a common element. They are disruptive to entire communities, cause pain, economic loss and the road to recovery is a long one. But if more news outlets keep writing stories about affected communities long after these disastrous events occur, that kind of reporting can also provide valuable lessons and help contribute to longer-term resilience by showing what’s possible.
As ivoh’s Tenore notes, what primarily sets restorative narratives apart from more traditional news and feature coverage that follows disaster and tragedy is that these kinds of stories:
Capture hard truths. “These narratives don’t ignore the difficult situation that a person or a community has endured,” says Tenore. “They explore the rough emotional terrain of the situation, but instead of focusing on what’s broken, they focus on what’s being rebuilt. They reveal hope and possibilities.” Tenore cites the work of photographer Oksana Yushko, who has visited the Russian city of Beslan 10 times since a school hostage crisis in 2004 that claimed 331 lives, including 186 students. Other photographers also descend on Beslan for anniversary stories, and typically they take pictures of the school’s ruins and of the surviving children, many who are photographed looking sad and dejected, “Yushko’s photographs reveal a different narrative,” says Tenore. Though she captures moments of sadness and grief, she also reveals moments that often go unnoticed in the mainstream media – those of hope and resilience.”
Highlight a meaningful progression. “Restorative narratives show progressions – from heartbreak to hope, tragedy to possibility, suffering to recovery,” Tenore said. She added that it’s “important to focus not just on where someone is today, but how they got there.” For example, Katharine Q. Seelye’s New York Times article, last April, “A Year After the Boston Marathon Bombings, Injured Brothers Endure,” profiled how P. J. and Paul Norden – who each lost a leg in the blast – had been “slowly, achingly,” rebuilding their lives. Describing how the bombing had changed Paul, Seelye writes, “before the marathon, he was complacent about life and didn’t see much purpose in it. ‘I didn’t care,’ he said. Now, he sets goals – getting out of the wheelchair, losing the crutches, walking the dogs. ‘Me and my brother, we’re happy and motivated to do things every day because we’re obviously lucky to be alive,’ he said.”
Are authentic. “Restorative narratives are true to a person’s or a community’s experiences,” Tenore said. “Sustained inquires into a person’s life or a community enable us to determine the authenticity of the narrative. Tenore points to a story by the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow about how parents coped after losing their children in the Newtown shootings six months earlier. Talking later about his reporting for the Post story, Saslow said: “You feel naturally in some ways in debt to them, but the truth is, the best way to pay that debt is by writing the most honest, complete, best story that you can – a story that will due justice to what they’re going through.”
Are strength-based. “Restorative narratives speak to people’s strengths and help others find strength,” Tenore said. “Instead of focusing on the most dismal aspects of a situation, these narratives get people to care and listen by highlighting what’s possible.”
Tenore also argues that restorative narratives can do what straight news reporting can’t. “Restorative narratives can compel people to become more engaged in their community and act in ways that benefit society. This type of engagement is especially important in the aftermath of tragedy,” she said.
Another benefit of this form of storytelling is how it can help alleviate some of the stress shown to result from a preponderance of negative news coverage. Tenore points to a study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health, which found that one in four people said they experienced a “great deal” of stress in the month before they were surveyed. Consuming news, they said, was one of the biggest contributors to their day-to-day stress.
“When people are overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed, they often feel paralyzed,” Tenore said. “News coverage of disruption and breakdown, then, may actually interfere with a community’s or a person’s ability to respond to crisis in creative and effective ways. By shifting the traditional journalistic focus from devastation and despair to resilience and recovery, we can create a world where people are mobilized by the news, rather than paralyzed by it – a world where people are brought together by the power of narrative.”
Tenore feels the time is right for restorative narratives. As she puts it, “People’s appetite for news is changing, and with that change comes opportunity – to tell stories that shift the traditional journalistic focus from tragedy to recovery.”