Get the Story: Why We Misunderstand Swine Flu, the Financial Crisis, and other Non-Narrative News

Yesterday, I took a flight from Nashville to New York. A week earlier, my flight to Tennessee had been packed, but now the plane was almost empty. I knew why, of course: The Swine Flu Pandemic, and the fear it has brought in its wake.

As of this writing, there have been 25 confirmed deaths from swine flu, and 985 cases have been reported worldwide. Yet during the same seven days of global news alerts and useless surgical masks being donned in public places, over 68,750 people have died as a result of diseases due to dirty drinking water.

Yawn. For most of us, these statistics are just that -- statistics. As every writer knows, you've got to tell a story. Sure, the swine flu story has traction because it might affect me, as opposed to poor (and brown) people somewhere far away, and because it seems scary, new, and unpredictable. But it also got its legs because it's a tale, with twists, turns, and a villain with an odious name.

This happens all the time in the news business, because human beings are creatures of narrative. Our myths, our everyday lives, and our political minds all are built upon stories; narrative is how we organize ourselves as human beings, and it has been this way, it would seem, forever. We love human-interest stories, where we can empathize, sympathize. And of course, we in the press like to tell stories that people are interested in hearing.

Yet this reliance on narrative misleads us today, in a world of enormous structures, hidden villains, and forces which are not conveyed adequately in tales. Swine flu versus boring water-borne diseases is one example. Another is how millions of Americans were infuriated by executive pay at AIG and the big banks, even though these payouts are nothing compared to the structural problems that really underlie the current financial crisis. They're red herrings: they catch our attention and divert it from the real issues.

In fact, the real issues are deadly boring. Overleveraging. Derivatives markets. Zzzzz.

So too with the great humanitarian issues of the last few years: they are all big events with important human narratives: Hurricane Katrina, Darfur, Iraq. But in terms of sheer volume of tragedy, these events pale in comparison to AIDS in Africa or preventable disease in the developing world. For that matter, the number of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina is nothing compared to the number displaced by urban gentrification and other macro-economic trends. Our reliance on narrative misweights the importance of problems. In today's world, the silent, systemic killers are the deadliest.

Narrative also miscasts the true nature of tragedy. Nameless trends, faceless economic forces -- these are the true villains in today's most pressing dramas, yet they are almost completely unrepresentable on screen.

Even those events with clear-cut good guys and bad guys aren't so clear. For example, take the genocide in Darfur. Who are the bad guys? The Janjaweed? The corrupt leadership of Sudan? Well, it's complicated. The current crisis (though not the civil war itself) was precipitated by the construction of a Chinese oil pipeline -- and, some evidence suggests, deliberately incited by opponents of the pipeline seeking to destabilize the region. Sure, deep ethnic resentment is part of the picture -- but it was stirred up and activated by global petro-politics and the Chinese economic boom. These are complicated issues, not reducible to black hats and white hats. But this is how tragedy really unfolds.

Not surprisingly, since our bias toward narrative misweights and miscasts the nature of global problems, it also misdirects the nature of our response to them. Sorry, but installing that one fluorescent light bulb just isn't going to do a whole lot to stop climate change: we need meaningful, binding emissions limits ratified in the U.S. and China. Oh, and for that matter, while it's good to volunteer at the soup kitchen, it won't do much until we address the yawning wealth gap in our country, reinstitute the notion of a true progressive tax code, and get serious about educational opportunity for everyone. Alas, these now become yet more statistics, policy issues, and eye-glazing details, rather than stories.

Obviously, you can change a light bulb and also support changing the law; the two are not mutually exclusive. But warm, fuzzy actions do have a tendency to delude. Soup kitchens are important, but they are band-aids. The continued mess in the wake of Katrina is awful, but the real issues are systemic, structural problems in our country and elsewhere. The story distracts.

Similarly, as is now well known, a majority of Americans believed, on the eve of the Gulf War, that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. This is mostly because of Bush-era propaganda, but it's partly because Saddam was a bad man, and bad men do bad things. That's how stories go. Once again, the search for a narrative distorts the messy reality.

The state of global health, Iraq, the environment, economic injustice, and the world financial crisis are not reducible to personal stories. All of them are big, thick messes, and the more we continue to hunt for black hats, the more we miss the structural factors which are really causing things to happen: the "invisible hands" that have brought our economy to its knees, the quiet inequalities of capital. There is no story to get -- not in the conventional sense. That's the story.