I’ve been puzzling over something for the last year or so, gentle readers, and it doesn’t have obvious or easy answers, but sometimes noodling things out gives me something to grab hold of. The thing is this: We have a fixation with relying on personal stories/narratives to force people to care about things, and that’s something that really bothers me. I believe that we shouldn’t have to serve up personal lives on a platter to get people to recognise that we are humans who value and deserve equal rights, no matter what the context.
Yet usually when I read stories about social issues, they are personalised — and I am a perpetuator of the problem because editors routinely push me to do that. It’s not enough to interview experienced, competent experts about a subject, I also have to come up with some sort of human interest angle, personalising it — think of the number of stories you’ve read about social issues that have opened with an anecdote of some form or another.
Usually there’s a relatable description and a quote, a way to draw the reader into the story. It’s not enough to say ‘readers should be concerned about Medicaid block grants,’ because that is boring and sterile. Instead, we have to say: ‘Maria, 27, relies on her Home and Community Based Services to accomplish activities of daily living — without Medicaid she’d be lost. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without Medicaid,’ she says. ‘Probably just die, I guess.”
I’m troubled by the repeated pressure to humanise stories with personal narratives and anecdotes for a lot of reasons, but one is that they tend to distract from the substance of the story, and they feed back into my larger body of work on the institutional and the personal. Do I care that Maria might die without Medicaid? Of course I do. Do I think that telling her story instead of providing readers with concrete information about what is happening and what it means is a distraction? Yeah, I do.
For a few reasons. One is my general distaste with the idea that marginalised people have to expose their most vulnerable and sensitive parts to be treated like humans — I should understand, for example, that shooting people because they are Black is wrong without demanding a personal story from a member of the Black community who has experienced police violence. These demands reiterate ownership and control, suggesting that people need to dance on command to be treated with dignity, and that is, bluntly, bullshit.
The other is that we live in an extremely individualist society, and when we routinely reduce structural problems to the personal, we reinforce and echo the meme that institutions aren’t the problem, people are. When we hear about Islamophobia through the lens of a single woman who had her hijab ripped off in public, for example, what we’re hearing is that individual Muslims are oppressed because of part of their identity and expression of faith. What we’re not talking about is the larger institutional and social structures that cause that — it’s like focusing on concussions and not mentioning that they’re extremely common in NFL players. We cannot fix the individual oppression without talking about the institution.
I repeatedly hear that things shouldn’t be ‘wonky’ and that it is ‘dry’ and ‘boring’ to refocus on institutions, drawing upon expert sources to give a story depth and body. I’ve had countless pitches turned down for my lack of interest in exploiting personal narratives to get people to care, and I’ve had pieces killed for the same reason — sometimes in extremely unprofessional ways. Thus I’ve been slowly drawn into the personal narrative industrial complex because I don’t have a choice, because it’s the only way to tell stories that I care about, and it’s infuriating.
It’s also something that I really don’t know how to fix. I believe that readers are pretty sharp, thoughtful people, and that they can figure out how to handle pieces that are wonky and thoughtful and policy-based, rather than personalised and surprisingly thin on actual policy. (You don’t even want to know how much policy ends up being slashed to make room for more ‘money quotes.’) We ought to give them a chance, rather than assuming we know what they want — and perhaps by creating a landscape for things that don’t revolve around tragedising personal narratives, we will also create a demand for them.
Clearly some media are already on it with this, and a lot of them are thought of as stuffy and kind of wonky by people who demand that they want to ‘see the effects on real people!’ But what they don’t seem to think about is that those real people are being asked to talk about things that may be private, uncomfortable, dangerous — and they’re frustrated with having to turn everything into a personal story to get society to pay attention. We shouldn’t have to read sob stories about people who can’t afford cancer treatment to understand why providing coverage for cancer care is a net public good with tremendous benefits. We should be able to bring stories and policy to life through vivid, thoughtful commentary from experts, and statistics, without needing to single out individuals.
Am I asking too much? Am I in the minority with my desire to have a media landscape that doesn’t exploit people to discuss policy issues? Am I giving people too much credit when I assert that it’s possible to read stories about policy that aren’t personalised and still care? I’m not sure I know, anymore.
Image: silhouette, David, Flickr