Exploring the impact of Restorative Narrative
By Mallary Jean Tenore | February 2016
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.
One of the goals of our Restorative Narrative Fellowship is to spread awareness about the genre, learn more about it ourselves, and help media practitioners embrace this genre so that they can spread the adoption of it in newsrooms and other media organizations.
Our 2015 fellows say the fellowship helped them become more open to stories of resilience, renewal, and recovery. University of Oregon professor and Pulitzer winner Alex Tizon recently told us that he’s “drawn to darkness” as a storyteller but that the fellowship has helped him seek out “flickers of light.” He likes calling himself a “secret agent for Restorative Narrative” — someone who quietly embraces this genre and keeps an eye out for stories of resilience that emerge — but are often overlooked — in the aftermath of tragedy.
In an ivoh.org essay, 2015 fellow Elissa Yancey wrote that her experience telling Restorative Narratives restored her faith in storytelling. “What is the measure of success of Restorative Narrative? For me, it’s about more than the response to my fellowship series. It’s about shifting my work as a storyteller and as a journalist. It’s about using restorative tools—like looking for access, pushing for time, and emphasizing context—on an as-needed basis, whether it’s in a tweet or a 6,000-word multi-media series.”
Yancey said her fellowship project — a five-part series about a Cincinnati woman named La’Monica Sherman — gave the local community a boost. “The response to its publication has been overwhelming, both in Winton Terrace and in the Greater Cincinnati community. Readers have told me they’ve been inspired by the stories, that they feel empowered by LaMonica and her work, that the narrative gives them hope.” In recent months, Yancey has continued to follow her fellowship project, which led to a community-based theatrical performance.
The reaction to Yancey’s project raises an important question: How can Restorative Narratives impact people and communities in ways that traditional doom and gloom stories can’t? There are several recent studies showing that repeated exposure to traumatic news can cause acute stress symptoms, trigger flashbacks, and encourage fear-mongering. A Harvard University study released last year found that traumatic news can actually contribute to daily stress, whether we realize it or not.
Research suggests that Restorative Narratives can mobilize people and communities in ways that traumatic stories can’t, partly because they tend to focus more on positive emotions.
Positive psychologist Barbara Frederickson has found that witnessing and hearing about positive emotions such as kindness, generosity, compassion, gratitude, etc., can “broaden the scopes of attention, cognition and action and build physical, intellectual and social resources — enduring personal resources, which function as reserves to be drawn on later to manage future threats.”
Positive psychology research shows people in positive emotional states are more creative, more pro-social, and more resourceful. The same research also suggests that resilience can be learned and that it has a ripple effect.
“Research from psychologist Kelly McGonigal supports these findings. She elaborates on them in her new book, “The Upside of Stress,” which features a section on ivoh. With McGonigal’s permission, we’re republishing a related excerpt from the section of her book:
“The kind of restorative narratives that ivoh champions aren’t fluff pieces that pretend that a person’s or a community’s suffering is over. However, these stories do choose to [explore] the process of recovery. How do communities rebuild after a disaster? How do people re-engage with their lives after tragedy? How is meaning created out of suffering?
“According to Mallary Jean Tenore, executive director of ivoh, when people hear, read, or see restorative narratives, they feel more hopeful, courageous, and inspired to create change in their own lives. The resilience in the story is contagious. This is one of the great lessons of restorative journalism: There is power in the stories we tell and in the stories we pay attention to.
“The idea that we can experience post-traumatic growth from other people’s stories is not wishful thinking. New research shows that people can find meaning in, and experience personal growth from, the traumatic experiences of others. Psychologists call this ‘vicarious resilience’ and ‘vicarious growth.’ It was first observed in psychotherapists and other mental health care providers, who often reported being inspired by their clients’ resilience and recovery. Vicarious growth was most commonly reported by professionals working with people who had suffered greatly; nurses caring for severely injured children at a burn treatment center, social workers helping refugees and victims of political violence or torture, psychologists counseling bereaved parents. They spoke of finding hope and feeling better about their own capacity for resilience, as well as coping better with the challenges of their own lives.
“Vicarious growth is not limited to those in the helping profession. One study, conducted by researchers at Bond University in Australia, asked adults to describe the most traumatic event they had been vicariously exposed to in the past two years. Participants reported events such as a miscarriage, surviving an accident, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or crime. The events happened to friends, family members, spouses, or even strangers – some were learned about through news. The participants reported not only vicarious growth, but also that this growth enhanced their ability to find meaning in their own lives.
“How do you catch resilience and growth from another person’s suffering, instead of only sympathetic distress? The most important factor seems to be a genuine empathy. You must be willing to feel their distress and imagine yourself in their experience. You also must be able to see their strength alongside their suffering. One of the biggest barriers to vicarious resilience is pity. When you pity someone, you feel sorry for their suffering but do not see their strength, and you do not see yourself in their story. In many ways, pity is a safer emotion than genuine empathy. It lets you protect yourself from sharing too closely in someone else’s distress. You can maintain the fiction that you will never suffer in that way. However, in addition to diminishing the person who is the object of your pity, it also blocks your capacity to experience vicarious growth. The process of learning and growing from another person’s suffering seems to require being affected by that suffering. It is not about passively witnessing resilience in another. It is about allowing yourself to be touched by their suffering and their strength.”
Moving forward, we’d like to do some of our own research around the impact of Restorative Narrative. In the meantime, we are holding a small colloquium and retreat this June to explore the question: “Can restorative narratives support community resilience?” We plan to publish a white paper from the colloquium and will also publish related stories on ivoh.org in early July.
Our hope is that the 40 or so colloquium attendees — who have experience in psychology, trauma, resilience, storytelling, media, and impact — will deepen our inquiry into Restorative Narrative and provide us with greater clarity about the impact of Restorative Narratives. We believe these narratives have great potential — to not only change media for the better but to foster resilience in the people and communities that media serves.