Break Form: Making stories with and for communities

Via the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR)

Community-driven stories hold power — to reveal hidden truths, activate public discourse, and create positive social change. They feed the soul, providing emotional and intellectual sustenance. They help us understand, and in some cases celebrate, differences. Now more than ever, we need stories that give us a window into people and cultures that are different from our own so that we can better understand and appreciate the rich tapestry of America.

Many of these stories have remained untold in mainstream media, particularly in the far corners of American communities that traditional public media typically doesn’t reach. These corners are a mosaic of cultures, races, ethnicities, and political ideologies. They’re the places where public media outlets need to establish more inroads if they want to build their audience and remain relevant. Many are hard at work on this, including those that participated in AIR’s Finding America initiative, which produced valuable lessons and takeaways for the industry at large.

[READ MORE, AND ACCESS A PDF OF THE FULL RESEARCH REPORT THAT I CO-AUTHORED HERE.]

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New research shows journalistic support for Restorative Narrative

A new study conducted by three professors from around the country has found that journalists are telling stories within the Restorative Narrative framework and have favorable attitudes toward the genre.

The study used data from a sample of more than 1,300 daily newspaper journalists in the U.S. and explored their familiarity with and attitude toward Restorative Narrative, solutions journalism, and constructive journalism.

University of Oregon professor Nicole Dahmen — who received a grant last year to study Restorative Narrative and has been working closely with ivoh ever since — conducted the research in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Karen McIntyre and the University of Oregon’s Jesse Abdenour.

Dahmen said that while there’s been a recent increase in reporting that goes beyond breaking news, there’s been little academic research on Restorative Narrative, solutions journalism, and constructive journalism and what these “emerging contextual genres” mean for the field of media.

“Our survey results indicated that journalists highly value professional roles associated with contextual reporting (such as being socially responsible) and that they were largely supportive of reporting beyond breaking news,” Dahmen said. “And while they weren’t overly familiar with the terms constructive journalism, solutions journalism, and Restorative Narrative, they expressed positive attitudes toward these genres and experience with the genres after being presented definitions.”

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The media’s ‘failure’ presents an opportunity in the aftermath of Trump’s presidential win

Now more than ever, we need stories that will bring us together rather than pulling us farther apart. The media has an opportunity to bring to light these stories and redeem itself after what some are calling an “epic” failure this election season.

The media, many say, missed the story and “blew it” by not taking Trump voters seriously enough. The criticism, which has cut across political lines, raises important questions about the media’s power and purpose.

“The media is supposed to be a check to power, but, for years now, it has basked in becoming power in its own right,” Danah Boyd wrote in a blog post this week. “What worries me right now is that, as it continues to report out the spectacle, it has no structure for self-reflection, for understanding its weaknesses, its potential for manipulation.”

Boyd’s point about self-reflection is key. Media organizations and individual practitioners aren’t given enough opportunities to reflect on what they do, why they do it, and why it matters. Too often, this reflection comes from media critics, rather than the media itself.

The day after the election, media critic and CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis wrote a postmortem for journalism, saying: “Journalism lost sight of its simple, vital reason to exist: to inform the public. Think back on story after story and round table after round table and ask whether it was conceived and executed to help inform the electorate or instead to entertain them and grab their attention or make the journalist look like the smart one. Our job is to make the public smart.”

I would argue that it’s also the media’s job to help people understand differences. This means giving equal weight to liberals and conservatives, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor. It means covering rural communities with as much vigor as bustling cities, without settling for cliches about Main Street and Wall Street. It means shedding light on questions like “why?” and “what happened?” It means reallocating resources and putting people before polls.

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As tragic news unfolds around the world, media has an opportunity to be a force for good

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When news organizations first started sending out mobile push alerts, I jumped at the chance to sign up. The ability to receive alerts on my phone, in real time, gave me a rush as a news junkie.

Lately, though, I’ve seriously considered deactivating them. In recent weeks, they’ve delivered updates about shootings, stabbings, and bombings. The jarring headlines, which pop up on my phone without notice, have made the world seem like a dark place — darker than ever, perhaps.

The recent incidences in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, Nice, Munich and other cities around the world have been nothing short of tragic. But contrary to what we might think, research shows that the world isn’t more violent than it used to be, even though a lot of media coverage would suggest otherwise.

“People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception,” author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil said at a conference last week. “What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.”

Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker did extensive research on this topic for his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”

“The only way you can really answer the question — has violence gone up or down? — is to count how many violent incidents have there been as a proportion of the number of opportunities, and has that gone up or down over the course of history? And that’s what I tried to do in the book,” Pinker told NPR in an interview earlier this month. “I looked at homicide, looked at war, looked at genocide, looked at terrorism. And in all cases, the long-term historical trend, though there are ups and downs and wiggles and spikes, is absolutely downward. The rate of violent crime in United States has fallen by more than half in just a decade. The rate of death in war fell by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years.”

Pinker’s book was published four years ago, but it’s been widely quoted over the past month as people search for answers about whether violence is in fact on the rise. The Republican and Democratic conventions have further fueled the conversation, with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and Michelle Obama’s assertion that it’s already great.

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10 tips for media practitioners covering tragedies & Restorative Narratives

evin Becker (right) at ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium last week. Photo by Gloria Muñoz.

Kevin Becker (right) at ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium last week. Photo by Gloria Muñoz.

What do communities need from media in the aftermath of tragedy?

We explored this question at length during ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium and Retreat last weekend. The event brought together a group of about 40 media practitioners, educators, psychologists, and others interested in the impact that Restorative Narratives can have on people and communities.

One of the event’s speakers — clinical psychologist Kevin Becker — shared tips for media practitioners looking to tell Restorative Narratives in communities that have been affected by tragedy. There are three things, he said, that communities need after tragedies: safety, predictability, and control.

Media makers can take this into account when telling Restorative Narratives. Specifically, they can provide safety by creating a safe space for people to talk about what they’ve been through, and by letting sources know that they are committed to telling their story accurately and fairly. They can providepredictability by giving sources a sense of what the story will be about so that they’re not surprised when they open the paper or turn on the TV. Additionally, media makers can provide control by letting sources know that they have control over whether or not they choose to share their story and over what information they choose to share.

Becker, who has specialized in crisis intervention and trauma for 25 years, shared several other helpful insights during the colloquium and in a follow-up conversation with ivoh. Here are some related tips for media practitioners to consider when telling stories in a tragedy’s aftermath …

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Orlando Sentinel focuses on community healing in wake of tragedy

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The Orlando Sentinel is taking an unconventional approach to today’s front page in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Instead of featuring a news article about the casualties, the Sentinel published a front-page editorial that looks at how the local community is coming together to remember those affected by a tragedy that killed 49 people and injured 53 others.

“We decided the front page of the Orlando Sentinel needed to reflect what we were hearing throughout Sunday about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub,” Orlando Sentinel Managing Editor John Cutter wrote. “Many talked of the sadness that we were now the leaders on an infamous list of mass shootings in the United States. But also we heard a growing chorus throughout the day that this horror would not be how we are remembered.”

Titled “Our Community Will Heal,” the front-page editorial emphasizes that the community can’t be defined by what happened but by how it responds.

“We will not — we must not — let Sunday’s heinous act of brutality and cowardice define our community,” the editorial reads. “Beyond offering our abundant prayers and sympathy, we must ensure that those who survive — who will forever carry the scars from the trauma — know that they are not alone today, tomorrow or in the months and years to come. Let our community define itself by our unequivocal response: United.”

In the aftermath of a tragedy like this, it’s too soon to start telling Restorative Narratives that show how people and communities have made a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. Often, these narratives don’t emerge until months or even years after a tragedy has occurred. It’s not too early, though, to report on moments of resilience and to lay the groundwork for what could become a Restorative Narrative later on. This is the time to practice good journalism — to tell the story of what happened and to show signs of hope as community members work together to heal and support one another.

Sentinel staffers are doing a good job of this, and are reminding one another that they need to take care of themselves during this difficult time.

“You can really tell it’s a newsroom that cares about the community,” Sentinel multimedia artist Charles Minshew told Poynter.org’s Kristen Hare. Minshew interned at The Denver Post when the Aurora theater shooting occurred. Hare writes: “It sounds simple, but Minshew’s tried to stop and ask his coworkers if they’re OK. It’s something he saw in Denver. You have to take care of yourself during something like this, he said.”

To see how the community is coming together on social media, follow the hashtags #OrlandoUnited and #LoveisLove.

11 guiding questions for journalists pursuing Restorative Narratives

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Images & Voices of Hope’s Restorative Narrative Fellows met last weekend at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., to share updates on their projects, seek feedback from their coach Jacqui Banaszynski, and deconstruct the Restorative Narrative genre.

The fellows — who are part of ivoh’s second Restorative Narrative Fellowship — are pursuing storytelling projects that focus on a variety of topics:

  • Dan Archer of Empathetic Media is creating an immersive virtuality project about a small community in Colombia that’s seeking healing and justice after years of violence.
  • Yes! Magazine senior editor Christa Hillstrom is working on a longform digital package about a young woman who leads martial arts workshops designed to help Native American women who have been sexually assaulted.
  • Public radio reporter Heidi Shin is reporting on refugees who have resettled in Boston and are exhibiting resilience in the face of constant hardships.
  • Florida International University professor Moses Shumow is creating a documentary about Liberty Square, a public housing development that’s often defined by a single narrative of crime and poverty. Shumow’s documentary will relay the painful history, turbulent present, and uncertain future of Liberty Square while illuminating stories of dignity, strength, and hope.

The fellows have been immersed in their projects for four-and-a-half months and are scheduled to complete them at the end of June. Along the way, we’ve provided them with coaching on the craft of storytelling and the Restorative Narrative genre. In turn, we’ve learned a lot from them and have found their own insights about the genre to be invaluable — particularly with regard to the benefits and key tenets of this genre and some of the challenges that come with pursuing it.

When we met, the fellows gave us some feedback on a list of guiding questions we had created for media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives. We updated it after meeting with the fellows and are publishing it here for the first time. We hope the list will be a helpful resource.

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Exploring the impact of Restorative Narrative

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In recent years, “impact” has become a buzzword in the nonprofit world as funders emphasize the need for NGOs to demonstrate that their work is having a positive effect.

Impact is no doubt important, but it can be difficult to measure, especially when it comes to media. Stories can affect people on a deeply personal level, but the creators of that media may never know it.

At Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh), a media-related nonprofit, we’ve become increasingly interested in the impact of Restorative Narrative — a term we coined to describe a genre of stories that show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience.

On a quantitative level, we know that Restorative Narratives often do well in terms of Web traffic and social shares. We gleaned as much from the work of our 2015 Restorative Narrative Fellows, and we’re looking forward to learning more from our 2016 Restorative Narrative Fellows.

Quantitative measurements are especially important for newsrooms, but as a nonprofit, we’re more interested in the qualitative impact of Restorative Narrative. We see this qualitative impact as being two-fold: the extent to which our Restorative Narrative work impacts individual media practitioners, and the extent to which the Restorative Narrative genre impacts people and communities.

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Mother who lost daughter writes about resilience & the ‘slow awakening’ of hope

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In 2015, Images & Voices of Hope spent a lot of time exploring Restorative Narratives‘ role in news stories. As we look ahead to 2016, we’re interested in learning more about how this genre can play out in various types of media and story forms.

Along these lines, we were recently drawn to a personal essay, “Dear Kate,” which embodies many of the key tenets of Restorative Narrative. The essay — which was recently published in Indianapolis Monthly — details how Nancy Comiskey has coped with the loss of her daughter Kate, who died in a car crash in 2004.

Comiskey writes that in the first year after Kate’s death, she didn’t have any “brilliant insights on healing and hope.” In the decade since, she has learned to grieve and has reflected on what it takes to cope in the aftermath of a devastating loss.

Comiskey doesn’t gloss over difficult truths in her essay; she acknowledges them and explains how difficult her journey has been. Similarly, Restorative Narratives don’t wrap up everything with a pretty bow. They often dig deep into a tragedy but they don’t get stuck there; instead, they show how the people and communities who were affected are finding meaningful pathways forward.

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ivoh’s Restorative Narrative work featured in new book, ‘The Upside of Stress’

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Looking for a new book to add to your Fall reading list? Consider Kelly McGonigal’s “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It,” which features a section on Images & Voices of Hope. McGonigal featured ivoh because of our work around Restorative Narrative — stories that show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience.

We’ve been especially interested in learning more about the impact of this genre. It’s somewhat easy to track the quantitative impact, by looking at the Web traffic that Restorative Narratives generate and the number of shares they get. It’s harder, though, to track the qualitative impact — the question of how these narratives actually impact people and communities.

Positive psychology research shows people in positive emotional states are more creative, more pro-social, and more resourceful. Based on this research, we believe that Restorative Narratives have the potential to evoke resilience in individuals and communities, mobilizing them in ways that traditional stories that only focus on trauma can’t. The same research also suggests that resilience can be learned and that it has a ripple effect.

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