Communications guru Andy Goodman has a clever aphorism that is becoming one of my mantras. Speaking to education activists about how to frame their issues for the public, he explained, “Numbers numb. Jargon jars. Stories get stored in the brain and change minds.”
The purpose of journalism isn’t necessarily to change minds but to open them and inform them. Still, the same rule should apply. Numbers are hard to grasp; they flow in one ear and out the other, but a good story is like a bowl of chicken soup; it has healing powers and the flavors become richer over time.
That’s what I love about narrative journalism. Beautiful, simple, elegant, immersive, sometimes disturbing writing in which the author’s account can sometimes smack you upside the head, making an impression that continues to sting or throb in your consciousness long after you stopped reading. Okay, maybe that’s too violent a metaphor. But narrative journalism is where reporting meets storytelling.
Last fall, as part of a project on teen substance abuse, one of my students wrote a review of Dirty, a nonfiction book by Meredith Maran about youth in treatment for addiction. This student repeatedly referred to the book as a “novel.” I was a little surprised that I had to explain to a college senior that novels are fiction. On some level, though, I understand the confusion. The best of narrative journalism tastes a lot like literature.
And narrative journalism is often where I turn if I ever feel “sick” about the state of the news media. I slurp up a bowl of chicken soup by checking out weekly picks on Longreads, or taking in a documentary from Independent Lens or POV.
I noticed during this year’s contest for the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, our judges faced difficult choices weighing deep investigative work against deep narrative work. Sure, there were overlaps, but each panel grappled with the question of impact. Typically, the investigative work had tentacles reaching into public policy but the narrative work had greater impact on the spirit and the imagination. The investigative work exposed injustices and unearthed hidden abuses of power. The narrative work revealed truths through the common ground of human experience.
We need both investigative and narrative journalism. That is to say, we need lots of different kinds of journalism: data-driven, visual, graphic, experimental, citizen, serial, advocacy, crowd-sourced and more. There is no hierarchy in journalism. There are many ways to show and tell the truth.
One of the most accomplished narrative journalists today is Katherine Boo, who recently won the 2013 Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism from the New York Public Library for her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Accepting the award, she credited other journalists, like 2013 Casey medalist Alex Kotlowitz, Dana Priest, Philip Gurevitz, Nina Bernstein, and Jane Mayer.
Boo said, “They were taking these subjects that people didn’t want to read and they were saying, ‘You can’t complain about the American public. You can’t say the American public doesn’t give a sh*t about kids growing up in the inner city. You have to make them give a shit by reporting harder.’ … The best capital W writing happens … because the reporters says, well they don’t care … I have to find a way to make them care so I’m just going to have to work a little harder.”
Nieman Storyboard recently featured 40towns, a site that publishes the work of Jeff Sharlet’s literary journalism students at Dartmouth College. Some of Sharlet’s students have written stories specifically about issues affecting children and youth.
- The Shady Lady: Children of the Transient Motel, by Danny Valdes
- Tiny Birthday: 24 Weeks and 3 Days Old and Counting by Laina Richards
- Brace Yourself: Two Women Leave Prison by Kendall Madden
Some of these students may go on to be the great chicken soup chefs of the future, the narrative journalists who take us there and make us care.