Four building blocks of Restorative Narrative: Ineptitude, misery, generosity & innovation
Aerial view of Detroit, Michigan. (Stock image)
By: Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell lives in Boston, where he blogs about life at Beacon Hill Friends House (ayearinaroom.com), and works on a start-up in Detroit (Detroit143.org). He is a member of ivoh’s board of advisors.
There’s nothing like a nutgraf to zero in on the heart of a story.
If you ask me what my recent story about the Detroit water crisis is really about, in other words, I’d say something like:
“Municipal ineptitude and human misery are converging with generosity and innovation.”
In some ways, that’s nothing new. Think about how many stories fit the model of cause-effect-response. Consider how often causes involve ineptitude and effects include misery. What strikes me as less common (at least in my experience) is the extent to which generosity and innovation stick out among the responses. And how a rigorous pursuit of those two dimensions can shift the focus and impact of a story — and, for that matter, journalism itself.
Before I get too carried away here, I should confess to a more modest goal in reporting this story for National Geographic. I wanted to make sense of a situation that was attracting global attention to Detroit as America’s most woebegone big city. In the course of writing an early draft, though, my goal shifted beyond sense-making to a more specific exploration of the four elements listed above.
The water crisis in Detroit had picked up steam in March, when the Water and Sewerage Department targeted customers who owed more than $150 or had fallen at least two months behind on their bills. Under pressure to collect nearly $100 million in bad debt, the department was cutting off service without the sort of common alerts – door-hangers, repeated warnings, etc. – used by other utilities.
Chaos ensued. Thousands of Detroiters, many with acute medical need for water, were left to scrounge for it anywhere they could find it. Help also ensued. People near and far stepped up to offer simple as well as more complex forms of relief.
What surprised me were the ways that charting this cycle of cause-effect-response can form the backbone of the emerging journalistic genre of Restorative Narrative.
It’s an approach to media that, without minimizing dysfunction or pain, also documents responses that address those causes and effects. Images and Voices of Hope (ivoh) has led the way in exploring the genre, especially this defining piece by ivoh managing director Mallary Jean Tenore.
Restorative Narratives can be reported at almost all stages of a crisis. Aftermath is perhaps the most common stage for this reporting, a phenomenon underlined by The Aftermath Project. (Danny Wilcox Frazier, the photographer assigned to the Detroit water story by National Geographic, was awarded a prize by the group for his 2010 photos documenting the aftermath of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the 1978 stand-off there between the U.S. government and the American Indian Movement.)
But I’m also intrigued with the idea of pursuing Restorative Narratives earlier in stories’ evolution. Last week, my wife and I stumbled upon the story of the severely disturbed man accused of stabbing two Park Rangers on Boston Common. The Boston Globe did a good job recounting the suspect’s troubled past (and I was glad the paper used my photographs of his arrest), but I wonder what Restorative Narrative may lie buried beneath the heap of pain his circumstances have inflicted on himself and others.
For now, though, here’s a brief deconstruction of how the four elements mentioned above contribute to the Restorative Narrative I attempted in Detroit:
The ineptitude was municipal in this case, but the adjective almost doesn’t matter. It might be corporate ineptitude. It might be military. It might be religious. The idea is to peel back the layers of the sort of behavior lacking knowledge, attention, or care that we think of as ineptitude. It need not involve mean-spiritedness, greed, or any of the other nasty traits often targeted by investigative reporting. Sometimes, the most well-intentioned people can wreak serious havoc simply by not having a clue what they’re doing.
For that matter, ineptitude is not always the villain at hand. A New York Times story about a different sort of water crisis — this one caused by the California drought — shows how natural disasters sometimes supplant ineptitude as the relevant cause or agent provocateur. In other stories (see this discussion of a Restorative Narrative involving the Boston Marathon bombings), the cause is not so much ineptitude as it is aggression or malice or both.
Although Restorative Narratives typically focus on such themes as recovery, renewal and resilience, each of those themes is rooted in life gone wrong, one way or another. Attempts at Restorative Narrative that ignore those roots lack the depth the genre requires.
Absent dramatic tension, long stories lose readers long before they end. Misery — and how a story’s characters escape it or not — can form the fulcrum for exactly that tension. Restorative Narratives work only if there’s something in need of restoration. If you think of misery as an acid corroding life as we like it, the forces of misery emerge as foundational to stories tracking their transformation. Portraying misery is not easy, and there’s nothing like powerful photography to help convey what it’s like.
I did not set out looking for this in the course of my reporting, but stumbled into both simple and more complex examples of it. They ranged from Harriet Green, the 45 year-old Detroiter who showed up with jugs of water when her neighbor’s water was turned off, to a couple of young women from either side of the country who wrote a computer program to help Detroiters pay their water bills.
As much as generosity connotes the idea of giving without expectation of return, I believe the satisfaction it yields represents a powerful return indeed. I think that helps explain why generous people act generously over and over again — it feels good, it seems right. As I consider various examples of Restorative Narrative, I see few instances of self-restoration. There’s almost always evidence of generosity. Consider the role of generosity in this Detroit-based Restorative Narrative about nuns bucking the trend among some Catholic leaders to simply follow parishioners to the suburbs. I wonder what stories I’ve missed along the way by failing to seek out generosity more explicitly.
This, too, took many forms in the Detroit water crisis. Kenya Smith learned that one way to get water when your own is turned off is to find an abandoned house in the neighborhood — where the water is still on! Justin Wedes discovered that the sort of innovative organizing he brought to the Occupy Wall Street movement could be used to good effect with the Detroit Water Brigade. Innovation is more typically associated with creating something new than re-creating an equilibrium lost. In fact, restoring what was can demand every bit as much innovation as inventing what’s new.
What’s different about some of the innovation is the media created by the responders, e.g. the social media and interactive interfaces created by the Water Brigade and the Detroit Water Project built by Kristy Tillman and Tiffani Bell. All of which advances the idea of Next Step Journalism that I took a stab at describing several years ago. Not only are non-journalists helping to document and distribute the news, they’re creating media that responds to its causes and effects.
Reporting and writing this story provided a few other reminders and lessons to keep in mind when pursuing Restorative Narratives or, for that matter, stories of most any sort:
- As much as everybody is a publisher in the digital era, everybody needs an editor. That nutgraf mentioned in the lede? Credit my National Geographic editor on the story, John Hoeffel, for excavating those 11 words from a cluttered mess that rambled on at twice the length before he rescued it. Beyond that, he guided my reporting and writing with prods and questions that fleshed out the human dimensions of the narrative in ways that simply would not have happened without him.
- Words are not enough. As hard as Hoeffel pushed me to describe the misery involved in living with without water, it was the photography of Danny Wilcox Frazier that hammered home that part of the story. (And to explore some of the generosity provoked by the California drought story, be sure to watch the accompanying video.)
- The story is not enough. I’m sure the National Geographic website enjoys significant traffic, but I bet an awful lot of it happens as a result of clicks from some of the 32.4 million people who have liked its Facebook page or its 7.54 million Twitter followers.
- Social media is not simply a promotional tool but can serve as a critical supplemental publishing platform. Photographer Frazier and I have never met (he arrived in Detroit several days after I completed my reporting there), but we collaborated heavily via phone and email throughout the reporting we both did. A couple of weeks after his photos and my story were published on nationalgeographic.com, he sent me this note:
“I have an image from Belle Isle that speaks more to the beauty of living in Detroit than the hardship and I thought you could address that beauty in a short paragraph. Just thinking of ways to collaborate and keep the story moving forward.”
When I readily agreed, he sent me the photo below and I wrote a caption. Frazier did a slight edit and posted it along with his photo on Instagram:
The caption read:
“Anyone who follows the news knows that, in many respects, life in Detroit is hard. Less visible are the charms that ease some of the pain — and may help chart the recovery — of an extraordinarily well-situated city struggling with a half century of decline. The headlines offer no clue of Detroiters who end their day by nudging a paddleboard into the Detroit River from the beach on Belle Isle, the largest city-owned island park in the U.S. and now managed as part of the state of Michigan park system.
“Saturday mornings, there’s no better place to shop than Eastern Market, an explosion of produce, flowers and human diversity that stands in utter contrast to the “food deserts” plaguing so many neighborhoods. Along the river that guided the city’s founders 313 years ago, a run-down string of overgrown parking lots and abandoned industrial sites has been replaced with parks, bike paths and the sort of concerts and other events painting a new view of old Detroit. In less troubled cities, amenities like these are often taken for granted. In Detroit, they’re recognized as myth-busting details of everyday life and hopeful signs of better days ahead.”
Before we knew it, Frazier’s photos had attracted 148,000 likes on Instagram and more than 500 comments.
All journalists have had the experience of abandoning great stuff — images, footage, audio, stories — simply because, good as it was, it didn’t fit in the story. Frazier reminded me how to extend the life of one story by telling another, in this case getting at the mostly untold story of why many of Detroit’s 688,000 residents opt to stay despite having the wherewithal to leave.
That kind of community contribution to the Restorative Narrative that Frazier and I tried to tell underlines the wisdom of a lot of the re-thinking underway in journalism. For the past 15 years or so, Jay Rosen has invoked the late journalism scholar Jim Carey in pushing journalists to come up with a new story to describe how we interact with the communities we serve (See Rosen’s book, “What Are Journalists For?“).
More recently, I like the way Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel have reframed journalism’s guiding principles to include this one: “Engage community as an end, rather than a means.”
It’s also helpful to go to school on the examples and strategies assembled by The Solutions Journal and the curriculum developed by The Aftermath Project. And I find the tagline of the Solutions Journalism Network especially inspiring of Restorative Narratives: The Whole Story.
Partly by accident, that’s what happened with this National Geographic story. In the course of trying to tell the whole story, I discovered dimensions of restoration often obscured in stories about Detroit. It’s not as if ineptitude and misery have been conquered. But exploring generosity and innovation helped orient my reporting toward the communities with most at stake.