11 guiding questions for media practitioners pursuing Restorative Narratives
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.
11 guiding questions
- Why am I choosing to tell this story now? Trying to tell a Restorative Narrative days or weeks after a tragedy may be too soon. Restorative Narratives don’t often emerge until months or even years after a tragedy — largely because resilience and recovery take time. During tragedies, media practitioners can lay the groundwork for what could become a Restorative Narrative down the road — by getting to know their sources, keeping in touch with them, and keeping an eye out for how the people and communities affected are finding meaningful pathways forward.
- Do I know enough about the tragedy/issue that occurred to tell the Restorative Narrative that emerged from it? Restorative Narratives don’t just focus on resilience and recovery; they capture hard truths and explore the tragedy, trauma, or chronic situation at hand. As media practitioners, it’s important to know and tell the backstory so you can make sense of the Restorative Narrative that emerged from it. Fellow Dan Archer pointed out that Restorative Narratives capture an “expanded landscape” and aren’t solely about despair or solely about resilience. These narratives capture both despair and resilience and “make harder stories easier to hear,” fellow Heidi Shin said.
- Do I know enough about this story to tell it authentically? As storytellers, we need to ask ourselves if we feel confident with the authenticity of our sources’ story and the way we’ve captured it. It’s important not to make it seem as though a person or community has “recovered” when they’re still very much struggling. To tell a Restorative Narrative authentically, you need to spend time with your sources and develop a deep understanding of the trauma, tragedy, or issue that occurred — and the resilience that followed. Sometimes resilience doesn’t follow, and that’s ok; stories about tragedies don’t always result in a Restorative Narrative.
- Have I told my sources about my Restorative Narrative approach to this story? This isn’t necessary, but it can help. Some of our fellows said their sources opened up to them more after hearing the term “Restorative Narrative.” Their sources appreciated knowing that the fellows were pursuing a different kind of story — one that doesn’t focus solely on the trauma, problem, or tragedy that occurred but that moves the storyline forward. Anecdotally, we’re finding that this approach to storytelling can build trust.
- How does this Restorative Narrative move the storyline from “what happened” to show “what’s possible”? Restorative Narratives go beyond traditional “doom and gloom” stories, which often focus on the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. These stories are important, but they don’t capture the full story. Restorative Narratives address these W’s, but they also answer “how.” How did the community that was devastated by a hurricane rebuild itself? How did the woman who was sexually abused as a child learn to trust people again? In answering “how,” these narratives offer up a relatable sense of hope.
- Have I acknowledged the “messy middle”? The path toward recovery and resilience is often lined with roadblocks and detours. Restorative Narratives acknowledge this messy middle and show how a person or community moved through it. As ivoh fellow Christa Hillstrom recently said: “Traumatic events usually happen for a period of time, while we wrestle with the repercussions for years or decades. When this very key part of the journey isn’t reflected in the media or considered newsworthy, we miss something.”
- How am I defining “resilience” in this story? Fellow Moses Shumow pointed out that resilience is a broad term that can carry different meanings for different people. For some, resilience means overcoming a traumatic experience. For others, it means finding the will to get up every day and move forward in the midst of incredible challenges. Our fellows said the fellowship has made them more attune to small moments of resilience that they may have previously overlooked. The Restorative Narrative framework encourages storytellers to find glimmers of light in narratives that are often defined by darkness.
- Am I trying too hard to fit this story into the Restorative Narrative framework? Telling a story within a particular framework can give you a sense of focus as a storyteller. But it can also pose some risks. You never want to force a narrative into a framework or genre. The framework can help shape the questions you ask and the angle you take, but it shouldn’t take over control of the story. The particular story you’re telling may not end up being the Restorative Narrative you thought it would be, but it could pave the way for one in the future.
- Do I have the support I need from my manager/editor? If so, how can I use that support to help my storytelling? If not, how can I get the support I need? Some higher-ups are supportive of the Restorative Narrative genre. Others hear the term “Restorative Narrative” and incorrectly equate it with fluffy feature stories. When pitching a Restorative Narrative, it’s important to articulate why you think this story is important and be honest about the support you’ll need to pursue it. Sometimes it helps to pitch Restorative Narratives as untold stories — ones that offer up a counter narrative to the “if it bleeds, it leads” media coverage that often dominates headlines. Research showing that people are brought down by doom and gloom headlines signals the need for change.
- How am I feeling and reacting while reporting and telling this story? It’s easy to get so immersed in someone else’s story that we forget to ask ourselves how we’re doing as storytellers. At ivoh, we encourage media practitioners to take time for personal reflection throughout the storytelling process. Reflection can advance your own well-being and strengthen your storytelling. Shin, whose project focuses on refugees, recently said: “Frankly, I’ve become a more resilient person myself, in seeing how resilient some refugees can be. … In coming alongside survivors in this journey, I’ve learned so much about how to find possibility, and how to see hope.”
- Have I been transparent about how this story could affect the people and communities involved in it? It’s important to make sure that sources understand the implications of sharing their story, particularly when dealing with those who are already in vulnerable situations. Publishing their story may give them a level of exposure that they hadn’t anticipated. Being transparent about this will help you avoid unwanted surprises. As journalism professor Walt Harrington recently said, “When dealing with ordinary people, handle them basically with an anthropologist philosophy: Do no harm.”
At ivoh, we want to continue supporting media practitioners who care about the Restorative Narrative genre. We plan to develop it further over the coming year and are holding a colloquium next month to explore the genre’s impact. If you are working on a Restorative Narrative project and need our support, please let us know. Also, if you’d like to contribute to our work around this genre, and support the fellows and other media practitioners embracing it, we encourage you to make a tax-deductible donation to ivoh. We’ll share more updates from the fellowship in early July, once the fellows have finished their projects.
Related ivoh stories: Announcing ivoh’s 2016 Restorative Narrative Fellows | Meet Dan Archer, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and a pioneer of Virtual Reality journalism | Meet Heidi Shin, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and multi-media journalist sharing the stories of refugees | Meet Christa Hillstrom, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and journalist learning about recovery from a joint-lock ninja in Fargo