Narrative journalism has been dogged for years by the idea that it is too subjective or somehow less capable of conveying hard numbers to the public than a traditional news story. In a world where data mining and visualizations have become more fluid and accessible, it’s no surprise that the tension between numbers and narrative has not disappeared.

Yesterday, I was talking with an MIT new media researcher who showed me a project that incorporated individual narratives. He felt the need to reassure me that they were not just stories but “stories with teeth.” Dan Conover over at Xark (see item 4 in this post) has for a while now been calling for an end to what he refers to as “narrative-based” news. And Los Angeles Times education reporters caught minor flak in September on Numbers Rule Your World, a statistics blog that has taken to shouting “Story time!” when they think a reporter has jumped the shark, going from data to inventing explanations or causes.

Late last month, John Allen Paulos of Temple University wrote on “Stories vs. statistics” for The New York Times’ philosophy blog, referencing the inevitable C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture and considering how the literature/science divide plays out with regard to what kind of information we prefer. Outlining the tension between stories and hard numbers, Paulos summarized two kinds of errors in statistics: “we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there.” A bit later he writes that which error we worry most about may determine how we want to receive information:

People who love to be entertained and beguiled or who particularly wish to avoid making a Type II error might be more apt to prefer stories to statistics. Those who don’t particularly like being entertained or beguiled or who fear the prospect of making a Type I error might be more apt to prefer statistics to stories. The distinction is not unrelated to that between those (61.389% of us) who view numbers in a story as providing rhetorical decoration and those who view them as providing clarifying information.

Narrative fraud

As early as 2007, Nassim Taleb noted “the narrative fallacy” in reasoning, which he suggested might be better titled narrative fraud. While not knocking narrative nonfiction directly, Taleb indicted our human tendency to link events by creating stories that explain them, the comfort we derive from thinking we understand why something happened if we make a story out of it.

In a TEDx talk from last year, which we covered on Storyboard, economist Tyler Cowen encouraged listeners to distrust stories in proportion to the very degree they find themselves moved by those stories, to understand that when a story begins to convince them of something, a sales job is underway. There are only a few story templates, he noted, and stories tend to leave out conflicting or messy stuff that doesn’t fit the pattern. “The more inspired a story makes me feel,” said Cowen, “very often, the more nervous I get.”

I have no issue with Cowen teaching us to be more critical consumers of story or to ask what information is being left out. And at root, it’s true that stories can be reduced to a few basic themes. If you’ve read one dramatic medical narrative in a newspaper, it’s not hard to find a dozen similar ones on the same topic in other papers that use more or less the same machinery. At times they can be reductive, generic or manipulative. But sometimes something else is happening.

A narrative like Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas Curwen’s “Ana’s Story” might on a surface level have a lot in common with Tom Hallman’s Pulitzer Prize winner “The Boy Behind the Mask.” Both are about coming of age with a facial deformity and undergoing harrowing medical procedures to address the problem. But the two stories’ subtler aspects are more complicated and different than their common template would lead you to believe. Looking at the broad story, it’s easy to miss the specifics that can matter to a given community at a specific point in time. Curwen informed me that when his piece on Ana came out, it was the second most viewed story for the Metro section in the paper’s history.

Not all narratives are the same

People have a tendency to create their own narratives out of stock stories, which includes adding their own meaning to the stories they view and read. It’s worth realizing that those meanings aren’t automatically irrelevant or wrong.

But even if we concede the existence of a buffet of empty-calorie narratives, highly-engineered true stories that engage readers but don’t offer the kind of information that might appear in breaking news reports or policy stories, it doesn’t mean that narrative can’t be useful in conveying news. One celebrated example is This American Life’s “The Giant Pool of Money” episode. Jay Rosen did a good job of explaining why such a narrative was important—the idea that without background on the financial collapse (and, I would argue, recognizable characters to follow through it), many of us were unable to understand individual hard news updates about the economy. Narrative journalism can provide context in ways that not only educate people but that they also value (check out Nieman Lab’s post from this summer about how Slate racks up visits with long-form journalism.)

Narrative as a vehicle

The most important thing, however, may be that narrative appears to be the most efficient vehicle for getting people to understand, remember, or accept new information. Studies done within journalism and outside it have confirmed the power of narrative in conveying information. Previously on Storyboard, we also noted a Kaiser Family Foundation study that looked at the real-world effectiveness that even fictional television characters and narratives can have with regard to conveying public health information.

I recently interviewed Safra Center fellow Michael Jones, who is melding the worlds of statistics and story by analyzing storytelling’s effectiveness in policy arenas. (For his purposes, he identified a story as anything that involves characters, a plot, a setting and a moral to the story or a solution to the problem.) Jones noted that when it comes to policy, not surprisingly, that “even if the narrative is incomplete in a news story, people will fill in the blanks with what they already bring to the table.”

He later added that “[t]he biggest obstacle is believing that you have to communicate narratively to begin with, as opposed to just conveying scientific information to people and letting them fill in the blanks. You have to tell people a story.” As for worries that structuring a story for maximum impact is somehow cheating, Jones noted that most reporters probably want people to read and understand their stories, and suggests that having tools to do that more effectively is not a threat.

If statistics and studies help us better understand how narrative works, and reveal the mechanics by which narrative techniques persuade readers, pretending that we don’t have that information isn’t an option — though that knowledge may add urgency to the journalistic questions of objectivity, transparency and advocacy. And wishing that people didn’t have a tendency to want things tied together in stories won’t make it so.

Story partnered with statistics

It’s worth remembering that researchers and journalists alike are capable of overstating their conclusions or misinterpreting why something happened. And numbers fans dismayed by stories have their own critics: scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson has been trying for years to get scientists to understand the value of storytelling in sharing research.

Both researchers’ and journalists’ work involves focusing on a limited topic, investigating it, and then presenting information about it in ways that can be understood by target audiences. This doesn’t mean that narratives have to pander or oversimplify, though different audiences will have different thresholds for how general or specific information can be.

Simple tools like hyperlinks have made it possible to effectively embed data in narratives and allow readers to evaluate source information for themselves. Comments and social media outlets have given readers options for giving critical feedback that more clearly defines the story. And with tools like IBM’s Many Eyes and Gapminder, which now allow data visualization to combine some strengths of stories with hard numbers, the distance between story and statistics may not be such a vast divide. Even Nassim Taleb’s book criticizing our worst narrative impulses is filled with instructive stories that illustrate his points, make his arguments and entertain the reader.

[I wrote this post in part to prepare for an MIT Communications Forum panel on covering slow-moving crises. For more about the session, check out the full-length podcast or read the summary by Megan Garber over at Nieman Lab.]

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