Envisioning a journalism that restores and heals

By Jon Funabiki

Have you heard about the new public service journalism prize in the category of “Restorative Narrative”?

Probably not, since the award hasn’t been created yet. But it should be, judging by the enthusiasm expressed by media makers and media consumers at a conference in the Catskills recently.

The concept of restorative narratives was taken up by a group of journalists, filmmakers, artists and others hosted by Images & Voices of Hope (IVOH), a nonprofit group that is concerned about media’s impact on society. I serve on IVOH’s board of directors, and I’ve written essays in the past about the group’s in-depth dialogues with prominent American and international journalists about the values and passions of the profession.

The latest discussion was inspired by a March 4 New Yorker article, “Local Story: A community newspaper covers a national tragedy,” about the horrific killings of students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Author Rachel Aviv examined The Newtown Bee newspaper’s efforts to “draw the community together, to reclaim its routine” in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that rocked the community and nation. Curtiss Clark, the Bee’s editor, wrote in an editorial: “We need to extract ourselves from the sticky amber that freezes things in time.”

Judy Rodgers, IVOH’s founder and executive director, was excited by the idea of journalists taking what seemed like an unorthodox stand. She posed this question: Can reporters embark on a form of journalism that is explicitly designed to help a community climb out of a disaster, crisis or other situation that seems hopeless? If so, what does this form of journalism look like? How would it be defined? (Most of our discussion focused on journalism, but we also talked about music, poetry, the arts and other forms of cultural expression. For this reason, we chose to use the more general term restorative narrative, rather than restorative journalism.)

To help us decide, we examined some existing works that might be considered restorative narratives. They included:

• A moving New York Times video profile of a Boston Marathon bombing victim who lost both legs and was being outfitted with prosthetic limbs so that he could walk again.

• A documentary film, “After the Factory,” which shines a light on creative ways that people are trying to revitalize life in two cities, Detroit and Lodz, Poland, both of which suffer from the collapse of their manufacturing economies, unemployment and rapidly fleeing populations.

• “Rule of Law,” another documentary about a charismatic woman attorney who represents clients who have been victimized by Zimbabwe’s corrupt governmental and legal systems.

These and other examples resonated in part because they offered signs of hope in what seemed like impossible—even horrible—situations. In fact, director Philip Lauri, who lives in Detroit, was quite explicit about his intentions: “Going into it, I wanted it to be hopeful.” He wanted his documentary to stimulate action.

So this raises the classic debate: Is it journalism or advocacy? Can we avoid a “Pollyanna” approach to journalism while still producing something that can be helpful to a community reeling from crisis? After all, the news media often are attacked by the public for their emphasis on conflict and problems, rather than solutions. And this is the appeal of the restorative narrative approach: We all wish to recover from crisis—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

These were the kinds of issues that we explored during two days of discussions, punctuated by interludes of music, poetry and quiet walks in the forest. The setting was conducive to reflective thought. We met in the tree-studded Catskills Mountains at Peace Village, a retreat and meditation center operated by the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual group that helped Rodgers incubate IVOH almost 15 years. Case Western Reserve’s Center for Research on Appreciative Inquiry and the Visions for a Better World Foundation also were key players in creating IVOH.

We came up with several themes that begin to define a journalistic approach cast in the form of a restorative narrative. A few key ones:

• A restorative narrative approach seems most relevant in traumatic times—when normal life has been interrupted and people need to pick up the pieces and move forward.

• Rather than being stuck in the “sticky amber” of the past, there is a focus on the future and on possibilities. In this respect, it is value-added journalism, not simply a collection of facts and figures.

• It is grounded in the reality of the situation. It doesn’t gloss over unpleasant truths, but is the product of honest reporting and inquiry.

• Depending on the situation, there may be a need to address emotional and spiritual needs of the people affected.

• Character-driven narratives seem to be an especially powerful approach. We can be inspired by the actions of creative and courageous individuals.

• In order to accelerate real change, there needs to be a “ground campaign” designed to help people to engage with or implement the good ideas that come out of the journalism.

Others who took part in the discussion may have their own takeaways, but this is my short list. Clearly there was excitement around the idea. IVOH will continue to work on refining and promoting the concept.

Thinking back, there’s nothing really new in these strategies. But together, they form a very powerful package. In fact, I feel safe in saying that they describe Renaissance Journalism’s Vietnam Reporting Project. The stories, photographs and documentaries by a team of talented journalists showed how the use of highly toxic Agent Orange during the Vietnam War has continued to wreak havoc on Vietnamese men, women and children—the herbicide causes genetic damage—and on the country’s soil and water. The stories won awards and were used by nonprofits and NGOs to persuade the U.S. to commit more funds to toxic cleanup and family services.

I’d like to do more journalism in the vein of restorative narratives. What do you think about the idea?

PS: Valerie Chow Bush, my colleague at Renaissance Journalism, gets some of the credit for coining “restorative narrative.” In the New Yorker article, Rachel Aviv used the term “redemptive narrative,” to describe The Newtown Bee’s goals. Bush, ever the wordsmith, thought that “restorative” was more a fitting adjective, and Rodgers agreed.

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