It would be easy to assume that because NCPR is in the news business, that we are in the data business, the fact business. But actually, we are primarily in the story business. More, I think, than in most media, radio reporting is storytelling. A scene is set, characters are introduced and speak, a narrative arc is created along a progression of time, and a resolving point is reached.
Data–facts–flesh out the story, but the radio news story shares its skeleton with fairy tales, memoirs and epic poetry as well as non-fiction. What separates the story from the experience is the inclusion and exclusion of various elements so that coherence is achieved amid the clutter of reality.
Neuroscience posits that this is how our brains actually work with the data they receive. In Your Storytelling Brain, Jason Grots says:
“Cognitive science has long recognized narrative as a basic organizing principle of memory. From early childhood, we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is not the main objective – coherence is.”
The theory is known as “narrative identity.” A Wikipedia entry defines narrative identity in this way:
“The theory of narrative identity postulates that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self, which provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life.”
So storytelling puts information into the same form in which the listener’s brain will use it. In a NY Times article, Your Brain on Fiction, Annie Murphy Paul says:
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
Stories can have a similar effect on groups, shaping widespread attitudes through vicarious experiences. A common set of stories shared among large numbers of people is one of the binders that define a culture. Our world view may be held largely in common with those who have absorbed the same stories about the world that we have. For example, the assassination of JFK 50 years ago is a story that has burrowed deep into the DNA of American culture. Among those of us of a certain age, shared stories of that experience form a reliable touchstone.
Recognizing this connective effect, one fear that many have about the new era of media fragmentation is that fewer of us will hold the same stories in common, leading to an ungluing of our culture. As similar sets of data are used to generate competing and conflicting stories about the world, our recognition of who the “we” in we actually is will change and become increasingly exclusive.
Others take the same set of facts and see an unfolding story of richness and diversity that will lead to a more nuanced and sophisticated view of who the “we” in we actually is.
Which story do you buy? Let us know in a comment below.