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ivoh | November 16, 2017

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ivoh explores and defines restorative narrative

ivoh explores and defines restorative narrative
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Nailing down the attributes of hazy concepts is never easy, and the early going of ivoh’s exploration of “restorative narrative” was no exception.

Maybe that’s why the room came alive when journalism professor and ivoh board member Jon Funabiki (photo above) suggested we make a list of “what’s in and what’s out” to help us define this emerging media genre.

“No gloss,” Funabiki began, echoing the view of ivoh founder Judy Rodgers, who first got the organization thinking about restorative narrative and insisted it be rooted in often painful reality.

“Knowledge-based,” Funabiki added, picking up on one of the elements listed by Harvard professor Tom Patterson as he discussed his forthcoming book, “Informing the News.”

Funabiki, Rodgers and Patterson were among several dozen participants in a gathering ivoh (Images & Voices of Hope) sponsored earlier this month in the Catskills to examine the idea of restorative narrative and brainstorm ways that ivoh could encourage its practice.

Reading from his notbebook, Funabiki added a few more attributes: “Not so broad-brush,” “authentic,” “leading to positive outcomes,” “journalism with purpose and intent.”

He also put some things on the “what’s out” list, including: “happy and misleading,” “exclusive focus on the negative,” “leading to despair.”

John Yearwood flanked by Kelly Cornell and Keith Hammonds

John Yearwood flanked by Kelly Cornell and Keith Hammonds

Although not especially visible on the current media landscape, restorative narrative is an idea that, in one form or another, has been under discussion for some time. Other organizations are pursuing media forms with significant overlap, including The Solutions Journaland the Solutions Journalism Network, and ivoh leaders expressed interest in collaborating with such ventures. Keith Hammonds, COO of the Solutions Journalism Network, participated in ivoh’s gathering.

Much of what was on Funabiki’s list could be said of other forms of journalism and media, of course.

As the group discussed several stories and documentaries (see list in right rail beneath our Twitter feed), we quickly identified ways that these stories were different. It became clear that these stories didn’t simply transmit facts, but helped to transform a situation. We noticed they didn’t dwell on human suffering — neither did they overlook it — but they looked beyond to see what comes next.

Restorative narrative defined and deconstructed

Many questions remain, but a working definition emerged: “Restorative narrative is an honest and sustained inquiry that reveals opportunity in times of disruption. It expresses empowerment, possibilities and revitalization.”

Roberta Baskin, president of the ivoh board, suggested boiling that down to six words, perhaps these: “Restorative narrative reveals opportunity in disruption.”

Here are some characteristics that, considered together, help differentiate this type of work from most types of storytelling:

It’s forward-looking. It highlights hope and choice. While most stories focus on what brought us to where we are, a restorative narrative pays special attention to what’s next. It searches for resolution. Conflict and challenges are necessarily part of the story; the difference is that the story focuses on how people respond.

Watch The New York Times’ video about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. The story isn’t about him losing his legs in the blasts; it’s about him learning to find a new equilibrium on his prosthetic legs.

It considers the effect of the narrative on the audience. A story can change its audience. It can stay with them, a constant reminder of what’s possible. As several people mentioned, witnessing an act of kindness has an effect on someone — they’re more likely to do something kind themselves. Restorative narrative seeks that effect; it’s deliberate without being manipulative.

Participants view CBC report about a returning student

Participants view a CBC report about a student who returned to high school after dropping out.

It’s authentic. Storytellers may have to look harder for a restorative narrative, and they may have to ask different questions to find it. But the process must be intellectually honest, rooted in an inquiry rather than an argument. This framework cannot be imposed upon every story. Storytellers cannot gloss over important challenges and questions.

In an authentic restorative narrative, the hope comes from within. Listen to Dan Grech and Kenny Malone’s radio story about an unexpected moment of hope in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The characters in the story are lifted up, and we along with them.

It’s sustained. Time is a key factor in discovering a restorative narrative. The story of a disaster does not have to end with the last funeral or moment of silence. Jeff Bauman’s story would have been different had it been told after a few weeks rather than a few months. It’s difficult to stick with a story when there are no obvious events driving it forward, when you can’t see where it’s going. As storytellers, can we pay attention long enough to see the signs of the new normal?

It awakens a sense of human connection. A restorative narrative resonates with audiences by making them feel connected to their communities. It creates a forum for discussion, perhaps literally. And it reminds people of what they can accomplish by working together.

It’s action-oriented, though not prescriptive. A restorative narrative empowers the audience to act, but it doesn’t necessarily advocate for a particular solution. The action could vary; it could be as basic as enabling people to connect with other members of their community or to help the victims of a disaster. Perhaps it brings a massive social problem, like Detroit’s blight, down to human size by showing how some people are improving the blocks around them. The story may equip people to deal with their own suffering.

Storytellers may want to consider a strong post-publication action plan. Philip Lauri, one of the creators of “After the Factory,” which shows similarities between the Polish city of Lodz (prononced “woodge”) and Detroit, said his team is directing some of the film’s proceeds to community initiatives.

Martha Bebinger, a WBUR radio reporter whose report on “moral injury” was reviewed by the group, asked how journalists can best allocate their time among conflicting responsibilities of pursuing new assignments vs. sticking with stories for the long haul.

It’s responsive to the community. In the aftermath of a tragedy, people are often searching for answers and ways to help. A restorative narrative can help with both (though answers may not come as quickly as ways to help). The best storytellers get in tune with the community to know what people are searching for at that time. If not, one risks telling a story that rings false or fails to respect what the community has been through.

It reveals something universal, yet localized. The most moving, most memorable stories connect us to a universal truth or experience. Restorative narrative aims to address a common experience, truth or feeling that reveals something about a universal theme as well as the particular focus of the media at work.

Lorie Conway’s documentary, “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law“, focuses on the human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe who serves as the film’s main character, but also highlights the universal theme of “the rule of law” that supports the film’s relevance to circumstances far removed from Harare.

It’s character-driven. Not just a compelling character, but the right one. In discussing a series of stories he supervised for Canadian Public Television, Eric Le Reste described how he guided his reporters on a story about a teenager who had dropped out of school, then returned and was about to graduate. Suddenly, the presumed story line was interrupted when the student cheated on a test.

As the reporting unfolded, the main character shifted from the student to the school principal who refused to give up on the young man. And sometimes, as illustrated in “After the Factory,” it’s something other than a person — in this case a couple of cities — playing the role of main character.

Bob Walter, Vanessa Trengrove and other participants

Bob Walter, Vanessa Trengrove and other participants

It looks for root causes. Many stories address symptoms and effects; restorative narrative requires the storyteller to look deeper. Lorie Conway could have produced a documentary about the poverty, violence and decay underway at the hands of President Robert Mugabe. The filmmakers looked at what lay beneath the decay of a society and found that it was the erosion of the rule of law.

Some risks inherent in this type of storytelling

Most of the potential problems we imagined involve insufficient intellectual honesty — succumbing to the temptation to let the best of intentions overwhelm the facts of the matter.  Some examples:

Overreaching. Not every search for a restorative narrative will find one. With inquiry rather than argument as the guiding technique, the media maker is better equipped to root the reporting in reality. Timing is important. Especially in the aftermath of violent or tragic events, restorative narratives often take time to take shape.

Lack of context. Authors of a restorative narrative may be tempted to omit details that complicate or conflict with the arc of the story. Smart decisions about what to leave out is a hallmark of good storytelling, and restorative narratives will often focus more on the hope ahead than the horror behind. But taking that too far results in a distortion that serves no one.

Understanding key stakeholders is key. In describing how the journalists at the Newtown Bee covered the Sandy Hook shooting, The New Yorker reported that Editor Curtiss Clark “wanted the paper to draw the community together, to reclaim its routine. … In crafting a redemptive narrative, the Bee avoided much of the story. For weeks, the paper simply focussed on documenting acts of benevolence.”

One could argue that the rest of the story was being amply covered by other media. It’s important to tell the audience, perhaps explicitly, what is being left out.

False positives. Restorative narrative does not mean the good guys win, or that the positive narrative promoted by a company or community should be accepted without question. Especially when an uplifting angle serves particular interests, skepticism is called for as much in restorative narrative as it is in other forms of nonfiction storytelling.

Journalists aren’t trained to do this kind of work. Most journalists have been trained, on the job if not in the classroom, to begin their reporting with a focus on a problem. Although effective as far as it goes, such an approach often fails to discover the full arc of the story. Other approaches (ivoh favors the Appreciative Inquirymethod) pursue what is working and will require new training.

Eric Le Reste discusses CBC project on returning student

Eric Le Reste discusses Canadian Public Television project on returning student

Restorative narrativists are probably a self-selecting group. Journalists who think of themselves as storytellers, not newshounds or systems analysts, will want to do this kind of work. Some already are.

As an organization, ivoh is focused on all forms of media, including music, the arts and advertising as well as journalism.  A presentation by artist Riki Moss and a performance led by cellist Michael Fitzpatrick prompted discussion of restorative narrative in those media. But for the most part, this initial inquiry focused on various journalistic platforms.

Help us figure out this niche of storytelling

In the process of trying to define this thing called “restorative narrative,” we often felt the need to defend why this is a valid form of storytelling — why it isn’t a whitewash of reality.

Conflict is one of the core elements of journalism. When people complain about the media’s focus on “bad news,” the standard response is, “It’s not news if the plane lands safely.”

If we were to dig into people’s complaints, perhaps we would discover that they aren’t really talking about good news vs. bad. Maybe people simply lack the media vocabulary to explain what they would like to see more of.

We hope that we’ve laid the groundwork for this discussion.

In the coming weeks, we’ll point out stories that have characteristics of restorative narrative. You can help us by tweeting with the #restorativenarrative hashtag or tweeting to @ivohMEDIA. Ivoh is planning a larger gathering June 26-29, 2014 to further explore restorative narrative. If you’re interested in taking part, please contact Bill Mitchell.

In the meantime, let’s continue the conversation in the comments below. What’s your view of restorative narrative? How might media makers pursue it to maximum effect?

(Bill Mitchell contributed to this report.)