The Importance of News vs. Narrative

As published in the Las Cruces Bulletin, September 18, 2020

What do you do when news isn’t news anymore, but narrative? How can you know what’s true and what’s not? How can we understand the issues we face and work together on solutions, if the information we receive is presented in a way that drives us to emotional reactions or drives us apart, rather than encouraging us to think critically together about the issues we face? 

That, sadly, is the condition we are in as a society. When news becomes narrative or opinion and is intended to make us feel or think a certain way, it prevents us from understanding all of the facts and coming to well-informed, well-reasoned opinions.

Back in the day, when I studied journalism in high school and through four years of college, this was called “editorializing.” We (I) the writer was highly discouraged from looking at a set of facts and expressing an opinion about them. Editorializing cost us a letter grade.

Facts were of top priority. What? When? Where? Why? How? Like the old line from Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The way we were trained to report the news focused solely on the factual elements of a story in answer to these questions. And if we got any of our facts wrong, even misspelling a name, we failed the assignment.

As we see, those standards are under fire. The news industry has changed, perhaps driven by the seismic shift away from print news that has closed news outlets and displaced news people across the country, as well as cable news’ impact on the big three networks. The whole economic model of news has been turned on its head, as the morning and evening news was replaced by on-demand delivery of news 24/7 on cable and through our phones and computers. 

Narrative is creeping up in replacing news. It gets more clicks, more shares, and can “go viral” to be seen by far more people than could have ever been reached before. Headlines, not stories, drive those clicks. If all we read is a headline expressing a narrative, readers can be content to accept narrative as fact without ever diving into the rest of a story to evaluate the trustworthiness of the headline.

So, how can we become better consumers of news that is news and not narrative? Let me, from my journalism training, offer some suggestions.

First, read or view the whole story. You don’t have to read every story top to bottom, but you should fully understand the ones that are important to you, because they impact your life in some way. 

Second, find trustworthy sources of news. There are a lot of different ways to consume news. Don’t look only for those that present narratives you agree with. Look for those that seem to lay out only the facts and/or give you the tools to dig deeper into the information to learn more about the stories that interest you. Then you are equipped to fully understand issues and what they mean to you.

Third, steer clear of stories built on “anonymous sources.” If someone’s willing to put their name to a fact, then they are willing to be challenged on it. No one can challenge the veracity of an anonymous source. 

Finally, ask yourself the question, “What’s the motive of the writer/deliverer of this story?” Is it to deliver information or compel you to a conclusion? News informs. Narrative shapes opinions. It’s critical to know the difference.

Having said all of that, I want to thank the journalists of our community keeping us informed of what’s happening in our communities, our county, our state, and our nation. It’s fully understanding the news that helps guide us in our efforts to improve, to innovate, and to understand what’s working and what doesn’t. 

News can keep us connected, and it’s those connections that propel us forward in the work we do today to impact the change we seek for tomorrow. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, and we want that history to show exactly what we did together to change our community’s future.