Friday, January 20, 2012

The need for narrative control

For years, media narrative has directly shaped public opinion. In its emphasis on certain stories rather than others, opinions are formed and a hierarchy of current events is created. The cadence and catchy one-liners of pundits and talking heads make their way into routine conversation. Many people walk in lockstep, whether aware of it or not, with how media has framed an issue. The fortunate can peer outside of the box, even while they embrace certain aspects of these presented truths themselves.  They may reject some of what they view, read, or hear, seeking to build their own opinion in contradiction to the conventional wisdom.

As the Presidential Race draws ever nearer, each campaign will spit out public relations bullet-points that play up the favorable sides of their candidate. We will likely parrot these arguments amongst ourselves because, competitive being that we are, we'd like our chosen candidate to win. We're aware that campaign spin routinely stretches the truth, but we'll still disregard strict logic for victory. We'll support our team and its own rationale. We'll be cheerleaders for each candidate's chosen strategy each step, day by day, month by month, until the bitter end.  

Where the media is concerned, where ought to be its role? In shaping information exchange, a few rules (unwritten or otherwise) have sprung up over time. As has been true with the recent tense exchange between Debate Moderator John King of CNN and Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich, media is often caught in the middle.  It can present an unbiased, fly-on-the-wall perspective, or a very partisan one intended to deliberately influence individual opinion.

Some believe that people are inherently capable of shaping their own conclusions without need for additional agitation. Following this line of thought, news reporting is rather impassive and businesslike. Other outlets believe their role ought to be vetting, jousting, and fact checking. Candidates routinely inclined to hurl their own spin into the mix, like Gingrich, make internal debate between media and candidate irresistible. It makes for great theater, though whether it serves anyone well is debatable.

On a much smaller scale, I understand this conundrum. I am one of the leaders in an house of worship. A recent problem became a time-consuming and frustrating controversy among members and regular attenders. We meant to equip for the hard-of-hearing a simple and cost-effective means so that all might be able to hear during Worship. The challenge before us is an eighty-year-old Meeting Room with its own massive sonic problems.

Seeking sufficient accommodations for the hearing-impaired, I admit that other leaders and I made mistakes. Initially, too many choices were provided the congregation. The selections facing us were broad and expansive, and no one single solution stood out as the best. Leadership regrettably concerned itself more with gathering everyone’s perspective, in the hopes that a wealth of opinion might lead to the best way to resolution.

What we should have done is, at the outset, advance specific possibilities for resolution. Nature abhors a vacuum and the discussion degenerated, I regret to say, into churlishness. Many were afraid, if not terrified that their particular concern was not going to be addressed by the rest of the Meeting. Others were merely petrified of change in any form. Regardless, any decision that leadership made was going to upend the status quo. This is not to take away from anyone’s right to be heard, rather that sometimes complexity for the sake of complexity is not especially effective.

Most recently, I think about this lesson learned in terms of the process of the Health Care Reform legislation. President Obama didn’t get out in front of the bill and guide its passage on easy-to-understand terms. Instead he left the matter wide open for Congress to debate, which provided frequent room for confusion and schism. Without a set of established goals and parameters, the void gave credence to opposition criticism. From then on, the pro-Health Care ranks often seemed to be on the defensive.

Debate can continue indefinitely, as a quick survey of any cable news channel can tell you. Eventually, decisions must be made.  Though we may complain about a media, mainstream or otherwise, that takes a heavy-hand in presenting news, we shouldn’t fail to recognize the need for the messenger. People make their own waves, but without the support of others to amplify those waves, most of us can’t hear them. And not only that, those who are familiar with the industry know the appeal and the benefit of building and following the story.

Simply put, attention is naturally drawn to a narrative. The mere accomplishments of anyone can be purely interesting, but put a person in the context of a compelling narrative, and watch the interest of the audience skyrocket. Communication is not merely a question of compelling details, but also narrative control. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has a workable solution.    

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