We Need a Media That Tells All of Our Stories

Having just one story is as dangerous to our community as having just one kind of corn is to our crops.
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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

To understand the danger of a single story, start with a seed.

It could be any seed, but a kernel of corn will do. In 1970, the genetic make up of corn in America had become so uniform that a fungus, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight, wiped out nearly 25 percent of corn in the United States. Since that point, industrial agriculture has only exacerbated the problem, further diminishing the genetic diversity of major crops like corn. And as more and more farms rely on a few kinds of seeds, a new blight has begun to devastate corn crops around the country again.

Having just one story is as dangerous to our community as having just one kind of corn is to our crops.

In his essay "What is a Whole Community?" conservationist Peter Forbes writes, "Stories help us imagine the future differently. Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others... Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us hope of creating it."

Why Media Is A Life And Death Issue

I spent most of the last decade organizing in local communities around media justice and digital rights. Early on, I was holding a meeting at a community center on the south side of Chicago in advance of an upcoming Federal Communication Commission hearing on media consolidation. I asked everyone why they had come out that night, and one young man said, "Media is a life and death issue for me."

He described how the media portrayed his community -- only reporting about his neighborhood when there were shootings or violence -- and how that single story shaped the way police, teachers and employers saw him and his friends. At the time, four companies controlled more than half of Chicago local news. People of color owned only 5 percent of Chicago radio and TV stations even though they made up more than 40 percent of the population.

No matter where he turned the dial there was only one story being told about his community, and he felt the weight of that story every day.

A few weeks later, more than a thousand people turned out to tell the FCC they wanted a media that reflected the diversity of their lives and their experiences. And when many of those people took the mic for their two minutes of testimony, they didn't talk just about media, they talked about power.

The Power To Tell Our Own Stories

In her TED Talk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says "It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power." In this case, she says, "Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person."

For a long time, a few media institutions have held much of the power to define our stories. But that is changing. I'm hopeful about the future of media and journalism because in the last decade I have seen a profound shift in this balance of power, this balance of story. The Internet and new technology are putting storytelling tools in the hands of more people, and social media is providing a platform to disrupt dominant narratives and bear witness to the diverse stories that connect us.

"I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person," Adichie says in her talk. "The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."

Just days after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, social media erupted with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The hashtag was a way of talking back to a media that many saw reinforcing one dominant narrative of how young black men are portrayed in the media. Responding to the question "If you died, which picture would the media use?" people around the country posted side-by-side photos of themselves that highlighted how our lives are made up of many different stories.

If you died, which picture would the media use? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown #MikeBrown http://t.co/lJMM9a0owk pic.twitter.com/YYxIbPB0xA

-- The Root (@TheRoot) August 11, 2014

In response to the events in Ferguson, long time media justice organizer Malkia Cyril wrote that "black bloggers, photojournalists, digital organizers, and citizen journalists are a new generation of civil rights leaders," and said that they "are using the open Internet to shine sunlight in the darkened corners where anti-Black violence thrives. We need them to tell our stories."

Engineering Change

Increasingly, search engines like Google and social networks like Facebook rely on algorithmic filters to determine what news and information we see. These kinds of algorithms, which try to predict what we want based on our past actions, run the risk of reinforcing single story narratives. In an article on "self-segregation on social networks" MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman points out that Facebook posts about the Ice Bucket Challenge were eight times more likely to be promoted by the company's algorithm than stories about Michael Brown's shooting and the subsequent protests.

Looking at the role of algorithms in journalism and public debate, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute writes, "Algorithms control the marketplace of ideas. They grant power to certain information as it flies through the digital space and take power away from other information." Increasingly, just as genetic engineering is reshaping our seeds, algorithmic engineering is reshaping our stories.

The author and environmentalist, Barbara Kingsolver, calls genetic diversity, "nature's sole insurance policy." "A population will persist over time," she writes. "If, deep within the scattered genetics of its ranks, it is literally prepared for anything." For too long, our media has been a monoculture, lacking diversity in the stories it tells and the business model upon which it relies. In the last 10 years, the economic downturn and the rise of the Internet hit the mass media advertising model like the Southern Corn Leaf Blight, wiping out tens of thousands of journalism jobs in the process.

We are in an age of "post industrial journalism." Alongside the old institutions new networks of local news sites, citizen journalists and a range of other non-traditional storytellers are emerging to fill the gaps and serve their local communities. The best newsrooms are approaching their communities as collaborators, listening deeply and creating spaces where diverse and divergent narratives can intersect and coexist, not in tension but in strength. To paraphrase journalism professor Jay Rosen, the more people who participate in journalism, the stronger that journalism will be.

Looking Ahead

While I'm optimistic about the potential of new tools to shift the narrative power in our culture, we still have a long way to go. This new journalism ecosystem is still in its early days, and too many people are still circumscribed by a single story. Adichie's talk is a reminder for all of us to listen more carefully for the stories we may not be hearing, to seek them out and to share them.

"The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete," Adichie says. "They make one story become the only story."

Seeds and stories are not so different. We need genetic diversity in our fields, we need narrative diversity in our stories, and we need media diversity in our communities.

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