Avoiding the trap of shadow narratives

“When we elevate immediate reactions to the same level as more measured narratives, we spring a trap on ourselves and our readers.”

This is a prediction in the guise of a book report.

tiff-fehrThis year, I read Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. It’s literary journalism very much in the vein of Studs Terkel and worth reading for that fact alone, even with 20 years passed since the chemical weapons attack on a mass-transit system.

Murakami interviewed victims as well as current and former cult members. His goal was to dispel the “slick, seductive narrative” of villains and victims in “formulaic glosses,” as he describes it, in favor of richer characters “with real faces,” so readers could identify as the interviewees talked beyond the commonly accepted narrative to their individual stories. Combined, they provide a contrast to what was depicted in conventional media coverage.

Murakami’s book presents their testimonies with minimal framing, letting each interviewee bring up on their own the miasmic fear, cultural distrust, and secondary victimizations that linger. Each story is compelling in its own right. Yet cutting across the book, Murakami challenges rewritten narratives where he sees them, both with his interviewees and in Japan’s larger narrative of the attack.

Analyzing the rewritten narratives make up the “psyche” part of the book. Couched in a mashup of literary and Freudian vocab — “if you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self…humans can’t live very long without some sense of a continuing story” — Murakami describes our personal narratives as a recurring dream, endlessly rewritten, yet critical to providing our sense of self.

“Mind control” is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It’s a two-sided affair…At this point you receive a new narrative from the person to whom you have entrusted your ego. You’ve handed over the real thing, so what comes back instead is a shadow…

Just what kind of narrative? It needn’t be anything particularly fancy, nothing complicated or refined. You don’t need to have literary ambitions. In fact, rather, the sketchier and simpler the better. Junk, a leftover rehash will do. Anyway, most people are tired of complex, multilayered scenarios — they are a potential letdown.

Murakami alleges — like the cult members acquiescing control — that Japan, too, gave up its shared narrative of the attack for the media’s “formulaic glosses” and cultural pressure to “forget the whole incident” even within weeks of the attack.

This idea of a shadow narrative struck a chord, for me, with 2016 looming on the horizon. Certainly the emerging narrative of a breaking news event is more frantic than it was in 1995, with social media providing continual amplified feedback. As The New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote recently, “the Internet’s reaction to the situation becomes a follow-on part of the story, so that much of the media establishment becomes trapped in escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction”.

That may be obvious on the whole, but there’s an edge to the word “trapped” that’s worth exploring in Murakami’s language.

It’s unfortunately easy to imagine the coverage of a mass-transit chemical weapons attack today. On one hand, we have the funhouse mirror of the Internet. Our best fact-gathering may not be as compelling as the outrage and half-truths fueling the Internet’s immediate reaction. On the other hand, we have demagoguery and xenophobia playing a louder role in political elections at home and abroad. Politicians offering up stories to voters in effect exchange the complex, multilayered world depicted in the news for a simplified narrative that can go so far as to reject journalism outright.

When we elevate immediate reactions to the same level as more measured narratives, we spring a trap on ourselves and our readers. I believe by the end of 2016, we will know if a “trap” is the right description. 2016 is going to be turbulent for news and news-reading audiences, which will add to the temptation to chase traffic via social-focused follow-on stories, and perhaps more of clickbait’s “leftover rehash.” Maybe we’ll even tweak them so they’re not “a potential letdown,” too: “Nine Good Things in the SCOTUS Brawl at the State of the Union.”

If we are trapped, journalism’s multilayered narratives and veracity are exchanged for a shadow narrative. The value of news will be lost in the miasma.

Tiff Fehr is a data journalist at The New York Times.