October 20, 2020

It’s no accident that the cultural touchstone that’s incited reactionary panic at the highest levels of media and government is a work of journalism.

In just the last month, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” has inspired a critical piece by a columnist from the project’s own New York Times, faced calls for Hannah-Jones to be stripped of her Pulitzer Prize, and prompted the president  — egged on by scandalized white historians and infuriated white supremacists nationwide — to unveil the 1776 Commission. Described as an effort to promote “patriotic education,” the commission is in fact an attempt to reassert white folks and their institutions as the protagonists of the American story after “The 1619 Project” claimed the center of the nation’s narrative for Black Americans and, in the process, shook the old fairy tale to the core.

But while the project represents an existential threat to the white-centered version of the story of America, on the whole journalism has more often adapted and reinforced it.

Now, as journalists collectively reckon with racial justice both in coverage and in newsrooms’ demographics and power dynamics, examining the power of story — and the way narrative devices have shaped the ways the industry has understood and reported race in America up to this point — can reveal how we arrived here and where we ought to go next.

Stories have a powerful impact on the brain, and can inspire empathy, teach community values, foster a sense of belonging, and move us to action, whether for good or for ill. The most familiar examples of stories’ impact come from pop culture. Many of us can readily rattle off a list of novels and movies that have transformed American culture through the sheer force of the stories they told: “The Jungle,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Birth of a Nation,” “Beloved,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Black Panther.” What’s missing is an understanding of how journalism functions in the same way.

Journalism is many things. It’s a crucial tool for delivering information people need to make choices about their lives; it’s a mechanism for holding powerful people and institutions accountable. But beyond that, journalism is an act of collective storytelling. The sum total of all the individual news articles, op-eds, and analyses is a meta-narrative — the overarching story we’re telling and being told about ourselves and our society. And the story is unfolding out loud, in public, and in real time.

If that sounds messy, it’s because existence is messy. And so, just as other storytellers do, journalists — collectively and individually — rely on narrative devices to impose the sense of order our human brains crave.

Those devices will be familiar to anyone who’s ever consumed a piece of Western popular culture. There’s the hero’s journey — where a protagonist leaves home for adventure, faces trials, and returns transformed. That journey often overlays the three-act narrative structure, which begins with exposition, follows the main character through rising action and a moment of crisis, up through a third-act climax where the hero uses all she’s learned to dig down deep and find the resources to win the final fight; followed by the denouement.

Sure, the hero’s journey will be familiar to you from “The Matrix,” and the three-act structure from “The Hunger Games,” but consider the American story as portrayed both by Western historians and legacy media outlets today.

Part of the reason white-led media seems so confounded by racism is that in the three-act structure story of America — opening with the revolution, rising action and conflict through the Civil War and world wars, then climaxing with the civil rights movement — the (white) “heroes” are supposed to have won the final fight in the 1960s and vanquished racism. The election of Barack Obama, of course, was the victory lap; hence the cottage industry of stories and thinkpieces that sprang up about “post-racial America.”

Essentially, coverage that treats racism as a relic from a bygone part of the narrative is asking, “If we’re in the denouement, why does all this keep happening?”

But even more than structure, character is at the heart of how narrative devices have distorted coverage of race in American journalism. Critically, according to research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, “No matter how a narrative is expressed — through words, gestures or drawings — our brains relate best to the characters, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist of each story.”

And who’s the protagonist of the media industry’s collective story, judging from coverage at major outlets? White Americans, elected officials and the institutions through which they wield power. That means coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic framed around the impact on the president’s chances for reelection; it means covering legislation in terms of what wheeling and dealing took place to get it passed, rather than its potential impact on the people whose lives will be affected. A protagonist’s state of mind is assumed to be inherently noteworthy, so it means feature stories and profiles carefully plumbing the psyche and motivations of every midwestern white Trump voter. It’s stories about Black Lives Matter that center on polling to assess white people’s feelings about the movement. What is the millionth “Trump struck a newly serious tone and finally became president today” news cycle but a widespread yearning to impose a redemption narrative on the main character, enacted across the psyche of the press?

And when a historic, long-serving Supreme Court justice dies and conservatives seize the chance to further cement their majority, it means coverage that positions the Court as the pivotal figure benevolently granting or taking away the rights and power of BIPOC, women, LGBTQ folks, and others who just anxiously wait in the wings.

Coverage that centers powerful institutions as the story’s protagonists — and whiteness itself may be the most powerful institution this country has — by necessity assigns any group outside that institution another role. As a result, Black, Indigenous, and people of color have too often been cast as bit players at best, and outright villains at worst. That’s a problem for more than just the representational issue of “who gets the spotlight.” Rather, it’s about how we understand, interpret and respond to violence.

Character-driven storytelling has a way of conveying that violence against a villain isn’t violence at all, and simultaneously that anything villains do to harm or even discomfit the protagonist is unacceptable. The very same narrative impulse that shapes “The Wizard of Oz” into a story about an irrationally angry witch harassing a kind little girl and her friends — all but erasing the part where said little girl drops an entire house on the witch’s family member — generates pearl-clutching news stories that effectively say, “Why are these Black Lives Matter protesters so upset? How terrible that they’re destroying property and blocking traffic for our main characters!” What’s in fact a natural, human reaction to centuries of white-led abuse, most recently at the hands of police, is reduced to wanton, irrational violence in service of a narrative that sees the “protagonist” as the arbiter of moral righteousness.

Treating BIPOC as bit players also warps what gets reported on. If what’s happening in our communities is relegated outside the narrative frame until we happen to do something that directly impacts the protagonists (white people), journalists can — and often do — miss years of organizing, strategy and resilience within social movements and otherwise.

“The 1619 Project” is powerful and disruptive because it responds directly to the way these narrative shortcuts have propped up a meta-narrative that shunts Black people aside. In pop culture terms, it’s the “Wicked” to the 1776 Commission’s “Wizard of Oz.” Or, more appropriately, it’s “The Wind Done Gone” to their “Gone With the Wind.” It’s a better, truer, story, in large part because it doesn’t insist on placing white folks at the center, or structure the story as an uncomplicated march toward heroic progress. As such, “The 1619 Project” offers an example of how journalism can operate as both culture creation and culture change. Understanding our role as journalists that way can inform how the industry forges ahead from here.

That means, at a minimum, reimagining who our protagonists might be, and also pushing back on the notion that spotlighting a single “character” — rather than diffusing the light to shine on many — is the most interesting, useful or just way to tell a story. It also means rejecting the “hero’s journey” version of this country’s narrative, which BIPOC have long known to be sharply at odds with reality.

Indeed, in this moment, affirming the leadership of BIPOC journalists is critical to the project of shaping new meta-narratives that are rooted in truth. We’ve never had the luxury of being unaffected by the worst policy impulses and failures of the “main characters,” and we recognize that our communities aren’t villains or passive side characters frozen in time while we await the return of the white gaze. Rather, many of us know intimately the stories of innovation, resilience, creativity, struggle, and care that go unreported as national media instead dutifully reports the next story beat in the presumed hero’s journey of white America.

That hard-won expertise means no one is better situated than we are to engage in storytelling with a wider, truer frame. Changing not just the stories, but the storytellers, can unlock journalism’s potential to reckon with race as we chart a new course for the country, and for the media.

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Ashton Lattimore is the editor-in-chief at Prism, a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. Follow…
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  • Thanks Ashton, thoughtful and important piece. Much like the 1619 Project took a new look on our history, I know there’s a treasure trove of historical stories, mostly local, in the Black Press (NNPA, 80+ years) and Hispanic Press (NAHP, 50+ years), not to mention so many other outlets run and owned by BIPOC publishers. Every local community should reframe its history with these perspectives. It would be a really good starting point and give these publishers the long overdue recognition they deserve.