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IVOH | October 22, 2014

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Why Restorative Narratives are an important part of the media landscape

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By Mallary Jean Tenore, managing director of Images & Voices of Hope

For about a year, Images & Voices of Hope has been exploring what it calls “restorative narratives” — stories that bring communities together, inspire hope, and reveal the personal in the universal.

This type of narrative is by no means new, but it hasn’t been given a recognizable name, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The terms “human interest stories” and “feature stories” don’t fully capture the depth of these narratives and the impact they have. “Restorative” — which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “having the ability to restore health, strength, or a feeling of well-being” – seems more fitting.

The stories we publish on ivoh.org reveal how the media can have a positive impact on society. Restorative narratives are one part of that equation. We want to highlight restorative narratives by explaining their significance and impact, and by offering insights for those who want to experiment with this type of storytelling.

So often, we hear about why the media is to blame and why it can’t be trusted. (Americans’ trust in the media reached an all-time low in 2012, and increased only slightly in 2013, according to Gallup.) There’s a need for media criticism that draws attention to what’s wrong and what needs to be improved. But there’s also great value in showcasing content that acts as a force for good in society. New research reveals that people increasingly want to consume — and share — this type of content. Time Magazine’s Eliana Dockterman reported:

“Researchers are discovering that people want to create positive images of themselves online by sharing upbeat stories. And with more people turning to Facebook and Twitter to find out what’s happening in the world, news stories may need to cheer up in order to court an audience. If social is the future of media, then optimistic stories might be media’s future.”

Restorative narratives aren’t always positive or happy-go-lucky, and they don’t necessarily end on a high note. But they’re positive in the sense that they touch upon themes like survival, growth and rejuvenation — themes that, at some point in our lives, we can all relate to. Restorative narratives capture hard truths, but they don’t focus on what’s broken. Instead, they reveal hope in times of despair.

At ivoh’s annual gathering in August, attendees analyzed examples of restorative narratives and created a list of characteristics that describe them. (When we say “narratives,” we don’t just mean written stories; we also mean artwork, film and other types of multimedia that have restorative qualities.)

In his ivoh.org piece about the gathering, Steve Myers shared a working definition that came out of the event: “Restorative narrative is an honest and sustained inquiry that reveals opportunity in times of disruption. It expresses empowerment, possibilities and revitalization.” Additionally, Restorative Narratives:

Are authentic & sustained: “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. … 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. … 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?”

Are 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.”

Awaken 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.”

Reveal 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.”

Here are some examples of restorative narratives:

  • Josh Haner’s New York Times video about Jeff Bauman, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor. The video (and the accompanying story by Tim Rohan) highlights Bauman’s determination to keep moving forward even though he lost both of his legs during the bombing. “When something bad happens,” Bauman says, “people need something else to look to to make it better.”
  • A WLRN radio story about four medical professionals who were unexpectedly inspired when helping patients affected by the earthquake in Haiti. The story – by Dan Grech and Kenny Malone, with help from Sammy Mack – “reconstructs an inspiring moment amid tragedy and pain.”
  • Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker piece about the Newtown Bee’s response to the Newtown school shooting. The story details how Bee Editor Curtiss Clark found himself thinking about the paper’s greater purpose, and how his staff could support the community, following the tragedy.

These are the types of stories we want to highlight. Starting this month, we’ll be publishing stories more regularly to the website and want to become a hub for examples of restorative narratives. We also want to show how the media is connecting communities in other ways. (Examples here and here.) You can email me examples and ideas at mtenore@ivoh.org or tweet them to @ivohMedia.