Beware of instant narratives

Business Times - 10 Apr 2012

Beware of instant narratives

They're fickle, dictated by vested interests - and hold far from the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth


NOT so long ago in the pre-Internet era and at a time when print media reigned supreme, members of the chattering class in the West were looking forward to reading the cover story of the new issue of Time magazine to find out how the political and cultural zeitgeist was shaping up.

Today's young readers and the media in general continue to pay some attention to whom Time chooses as its 'Man' - oops! - ' Person of the Year'. But in mid-20th century America, the magazine had an enormous power to shape the nation's agenda - and, by extension, that of the rest of the world - by constructing the Current Narrative.

Not only did Time's cover stories inform Americans and the entire global village about who was 'in' and who was 'out' in the worlds of art and literature (yes, that was a time when people actually read books); the magazine would also devote the occasional cover story to what its editors considered to be mega political-cultural trends - for example, the then rising power of the feminist movement or the growing violence in the inner cities.

In that context, one of the most famous (or infamous) cover stories in the magazine was Is God Dead?, which was published on April 8, 1966 and which focused on the increasing secularisation of Western societies and the responses to that development by religious institutions and theologians.

Revisiting that 1966 story more recently on the occasion of the death of its author, some writers suggested that Time may have misjudged the long-term trends about the fate of religion in America, noting that the majority of Americans continue to profess their belief in God.

So perhaps it was a rush of judgement on the part of Time at that moment in history. But remember - that and other Grand-Narrative cover stories would be a reflection of serious efforts to study a major and complex issue in depth, involving a lot of research and writing (and rewriting, by the magazine's editors) and igniting a lively debate in other media outlets.

Consider now our contemporary media environment in which hundreds (if not thousands) of Internet sites and blogs, Facebook posts and twitters, and even the surviving representatives of the 'old' media (including Time) are competing for our attention. Click this minute on the link to your favourite blogger and you'll find out that he or she have just constructed an Instant Narrative that tries to make sense of the world at exactly this, well, minute.

Recall how many times since the start of the Great Recession the same blogger who insisted again and again that the world-as-we-know-it was coming-to-an-end was also predicting again and again that the recovery was around the corner.

If it was Monday, Sept 5, 2011, then President Barack Obama was 'finished' - end of story; three days later, Mr Obama was on a roll and heading towards victory. In our media universe, God would be dead - and then be back alive - depending on the blog you read and on the time of day.

This kind of rush to judgement by the Internet and the 24/7 cable television news shows came into full view after Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager, was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer. Based on a set of Florida's permissive gun laws (aka Stand Your Ground), Zimmerman claimed he had acted in self-defence and has not been charged by the police with anything. In states where the Stand-Your- Ground type of laws don't exist, Zimmerman would have been arrested and brought before a judge where the prosecutor would have announced his decision on whether to charge Zimmerman with one of various legal gradations that apply to 'homicide'. A trial would have ensued under which the jury and a judge would have had to decide whether Zimmerman was guilty and, if guilty, what type of sentence to impose on him.

Zimmerman argues that he acted in self-defence after Martin attacked and injured him. Martin's family accuses Zimmerman of killing an unarmed young black man in cold blood and being driven by racist animosity.

These and related issues would have been resolved in a trial with judgement being rendered based on the evidence and the testimony of witnesses as they apply to the law. But since Zimmerman wasn't arrested and no trial is planned, what Americans were exposed to was trial by the Internet and cable news - with bloggers, radio talk-show hosts and television pundits serving as judges, juries and executioners.

Reflecting the political polarisation that dominates the online political exchange, bloggers and media types who identify themselves with the political left drew up an instant Grand Narrative which helped transform the killing in Florida into another case of race-based violence perpetrated by a white racist and tolerated by a racist white community and the police force.

At the same time, conservative Web news sites and pundits portrayed Martin as a young black thug and drug dealer and Zimmerman as a law-abiding citizen protecting his community, and accused African American activists of exploiting the issue to advance their political interests and of engaging in an Internet 'lynching' of Zimmerman.

The reality, however, didn't seem to fit into either instant narrative. Zimmerman turned out to be a Hispanic man who lived in an integrated community and maintained close social ties with many blacks but who may have uttered anti-black epithets before the shooting. Martin was a high-school student with no police record who had hoped to go to college. What happened, or so it seems, is that Zimmerman (a wannabe cop who was trigger-happy) operated in a permissive legal environment that encouraged him to shoot at a young black man wearing a hood whom he perceived as a 'threat'. Â

In any case, only a trial - or, short of that, a long and exhaustive research of the incident by a serious media organisation committed to the standards of objectivity - could be relied on to come up with a fair judgement on what really happened.

Don't expect the same kind of performance by your favourite blogger who might provide you with an exciting and biased storyline - but not with the hard facts.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


I somehow agree with you because yes, bloggers aren't journalist, they don't know how to be super objective but there are some cases when it is not that needed because it is more valuable to learn about a certain event from someone who have been part of it than from a third party, isn't that so?
Movers said…
Apart from the noteworthy classification who is a real artist, there are people who stay in the shadow, doomed to get ahead ot their time and thus remian unappreciated and unintelligible by the critics and by the audience. The art hstory can heap us with sucha examples, if you give it a second thought.
Follow the news very interesting to listen to and quality
kizi said…
Well, I hope you're happy. You've managed to impress me, the unimpressionable one. My friends will make fun of me for this. You did well.
I don't know how to be super objective but I some cases when it is not that needed
Samuel Clark said…
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