How Can We Bring ‘Restorative Narratives’ to the Forefront of News?

    by Sonia Paul
    February 23, 2015
    A longstanding mantra in newsrooms has been "If it bleeds, it leads." What would it take to bring the other side of this picture to the forefront? Photo by Montecruz Foto on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    It’s the old news adage that continues to dominate the priorities of American newsrooms: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Hard news and tragedies tend to dominate headlines, and we rarely see the other side of the coin — what happens after the fact?

    While niche news outlets like Upworthy and the Solutions Journalism Network have made producing and sharing more positive news part of their missions, the non-profit Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH)  hopes to help more mainstream news organizations do the same thing — through a “Restorative Narratives” fellowship program. The program aims to enable journalists to pursue these stories of resilience and have them published at their home news organizations.

    "You have a tragedy, or a negative event. You hear about the first part, but you don't necessarily hear about the recovery." -Jake Harper

    The fellowship launched last December. The five fellows work at different outlets across the country and were invited to join the program to test it out in its first year.


    “These are stories that need to be told but often come out overlooked,” Mallary Tenore, IVOH’s managing director, told PBS MediaShift.

    What makes a ‘Restorative Narrative’?

    Screenshot of the Newtown Bee, whose story during the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings helped inspire the idea for a restorative narrative fellowship.

    Screenshot of the Newtown Bee, whose story during the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings helped inspire the idea for a restorative narrative fellowship.

    The staff behind IVOH got the idea for building a momentum around this kind of storytelling genre from a New Yorker article detailing how the community newspaper The Newtown Bee reacted to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.


    “The shootings caused him [the editor] to rethink the purpose of his paper,” Tenore said. “He wanted the paper to be a place where people could find a community of support.”

    Bringing these stories of restoration — of the rebuilding, survival and resiliency following a tragedy — isn’t necessarily new to journalism, she said. It’s just that often, these stories haven’t always been given a good name, nor have they been the priorities in newsrooms. That might be because of the pressure newsrooms face to chase stories that will attract the right numbers of clicks and engagement or, it might be that some journalists might fear judgement for pursuing “advocacy journalism.”

    “I think it’s easy to lump it all together under ‘positive news.’ That term would probably make a lot of journalists cringe,” Tenore said.

    ‘Sort of like the second half’

    But documenting the resilience and restoration after a tragedy is not meant to put a one-dimensional face on these types of stories. And not every story details “restoration” either.

    “Some stories aren’t restorative narratives,” Tenore told MediaShift. “You never want to assume that every tragedy is going to yield a story of resilience, and you don’t want to force it.”

    Jake Harper, a healthcare reporter and programmer at WFYI in Indianapolis and one of the five fellows of IVOH’s inaugural six-month fellowship, said restorative narratives often fill in the missing pieces of a puzzle when it comes to understanding a story from start to finish.

    “It’s sort of like the second half,” he told PBS MediaShift. “So you have a tragedy, or a negative event. You hear about the first part, but you don’t necessarily hear about the recovery.”

    How can we get audiences and newsrooms interested in the recovery?

    Photo by Flickr user Charles William Pelletier and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Flickr user Charles William Pelletier and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Arianna Huffington recently made headlines when she announced that the Huffington Post would be partnering with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to deliver more solutions-oriented journalism on the nearly 10-year-old news website.

    “As journalists, our job is to give our audience an accurate picture — and that means the full picture — of what’s going on in the world,” she wrote in a blog post about the new initiative. “Just showing tragedy, violence, mayhem — focusing on what’s broken and what’s not working — misses too much of what is happening all around us. What about how people are responding to these challenges, how they’re coming together, even in the midst of violence, poverty and loss? And what about all the other stories of innovation, creativity, ingenuity, compassion and grace? If we in the media only show the dark side, we’re failing at our jobs.”

    That strategy is along the lines of IVOH’s purpose with the Restorative Narrative fellowship, Tenore wrote in a blog post. But trying to monetize these stories outside of partnerships like the Huffington Post one is a bit trickier. IVOH, for example, offered each of the fellows this year a $2,500 stipend from the organization’s existing funds to work on their projects. The fellowship also sets out to explore best practices for telling these stories and and different curriculum and training methods.

    That each of the fellows already had funding to pursue these restorative stories from an individual entity probably made it easier for editors to jump on board with the project, Harper told MediaShift. His editors at WFYI, for instance, hired him knowing that he had received the fellowship and were excited for it, he said. But it was a different ballgame before joining the newsroom and partnering with IVOH.

    “At the time I was a freelancer, and pursuing stories like that — it was a lot of effort to even find them, and then pitching them was another story,” Harper said. “I think it’s just the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality is sort of pervasive, and it’s hard to get attention and readership to those [other] stories.”

    Photo by  Rocío Lara on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Rocío Lara on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    IVOH, meanwhile, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in December to raise funds and build awareness and momentum around the fellowship. While the campaign fell short of its goal of raising $25,000 — it raised $18,396 — Tenore said it definitely helped generate a positive buzz around the fellowship and the emergence of the genre. But she also found herself wondering how to make it sustainable.

    “The question I found myself asking was: How do you move people along the spectrum from sharing, to caring, to giving?” she wrote in a follow-up email to MediaShift. “I found that it was easier to get people to share the link to our campaign and care about it. Helping them see why they should give/donate required a lot more time and dedication.”

    IVOH’s inaugural fellows will present their restorative narrative stories at IVOH’s annual media summit in June, which is currently open for registration. For an example of the restorative narrative genre, check out the stories from Ben Montgomery (one of the fellows) in the Tampa Bay Times.

    Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

    Correction: This story has been altered to correct Ben Montgomery’s last name. 

    Tagged: funding genre grans impact journalism ivoh positive news restorative narratives
    • Kara Newhouse

      A similar project is The Aftermath Project, http://theaftermathproject.org/, which gives grants to photojournalists to work on series on the theme of rebuilding after conflict. The guiding idea is that “war is only half the story.”

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