Master narratives are journalism's cure-all for Reporter's Complaint, a lump of facts growing chaotically on the soul. Journalists get dizzy at the raw fear incited by this lump; our cherished master narratives promise relief.
But we must be careful. Imbibing a narrative, if it dulls our pain, may also dull us to the truth.
The melting pot, rags to riches, bad seed, heart of gold, the war on drugs, fat girl, evil empire, supply side, dark horse, front runner, hand in the cookie jar, city on a hill, fell through the cracks, gender gap, culture clash, smart kid, dumb kid, global warming, gentrification, liberation, silver spoon, Third World, arms race, rat race, race to the bottom, race to the top.
The toughest thing is to see with fresh eyes, then to stick by what you've seen. These are the hardest stories to tell.
We read and write our cherished narratives over and over. It's not a matter of lacking the resources to report and write new narratives, or lacking the time to read them.
It's a matter of choice, values, and courage. Telling the hard stories will get you killed in lots of places around the world.
There are stories in our rich country that could get us killed if we wrote them. But it's our job as journalists to tell these stories, because if we don't, then society dies.
Stories like the reports of an impending Al Qaeda attack that circulated before 9/11, but never in the mainstream press. And the stories of the growing poverty gap in the U.S.; the growing species extinction around our world; and the France-like division of American society into ethnic enclaves with their own languages, customs, and plans for the future.
Our attachment to simple narratives -- the campfire story, the quilting bee yarn, the page one piece -- may be among the most destructive forces ever to visit our species.
But if journalists among others can learn new ways to write and read narratives, that could become a saving grace for mankind.
Practically speaking, human beings need narratives and always will. They are the species' explanatory mode par excellence. They pan across great vistas of life and landscape, while also permitting microscopic views. They put a voice in the machine. They offer a framework that accommodates rambles, rants, and jokes along with facts, arguments, and reason.
Yet the fierce way we become attached to our stories, as security blankets and pleasure machines, may doom us as a species.
Humankind may destroy itself because people and nations would rather die than shed their cherished narratives of progress, freedom, separatism, democracy, independence, or Sharia law. If humanity self-annihilates in this way, it will be the species equivalent of a man who commits suicide because the loss of his life's settled narrative is simply unbearable.
We might think of an athlete who wants to die after having a limb amputated. It is not detachment from his limb, but rather from the fulfillment of his heroic life story, that causes his greatest despair.
Old master narratives explain the present in terms of the past. When you rub them, wonderful memories, sparkling visions, and magical thoughts arise. These are alluring but possibly deadly, because old maps don't show new minefields. At a minimum, journalism must avoid producing such narratives.
At a time when new minefields -- environmental, military, national, ideological, religious, ethnic, etc. -- are being sown around the globe with unprecedented speed, not only the narrating skills of journalists must keep pace. So must the skills of readers at adopting, and more importantly letting go, of essential narratives when more useful ones come along.
Journalism still depends heavily on outdated workhorse narratives. These are patently unable to explain today's global, technological, environmentally threatened, socially writhing world.
Mawkish narratives are old stories that use tried-and-true techniques to instigate a welling up of emotion. That's always boffo for a newspaper's circulation, but why not, instead, use narrative as a means to explore, identify, name, penetrate, and explain the truths of life today?
Old political narratives, such as the Cold War, continue to be peddled by the media because they sell (just as mawkish narratives do), and because journalists fail to keep working on the harder story to tell -- which is the new but initially subtler story, the emerging narrative of today.
The former Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, went to jail because The New York Times, working with federal prosecutors, was bent on pursuing the Cold War narrative of ''nuclear spy.'' It was so compelling a story that its factual falseness was time and again swept aside by the dramatic imperatives of the old narrative.
Then the U.S. went to war in Iraq because the old narratives of a progressive liberating nation (favored by liberal hawks), and of a morally righteous nation (favored by conservatives), together made it impossible for Americans to see the new reality forming on Middle Eastern ground.
Reporters don't keep their attentions focused on creating new narratives for our new world -- truly the hardest stories to write and publish -- for many reasons.
Some of these are practical and straightforward. A global story can be expensive to report. New narratives are also hard to pitch in the few seconds reporters usually have to get their story ideas approved.
Journalists may also think (although they are wrong if they do) that new narratives don't please readers. In fact, it is precisely the new narrative that makes the biggest splash, because readers immediately respond when new narratives accurately explain their lives. But somehow, for journalistic storytellers, the allure of the old narrative usually trumps the authentic, if initially confusing, newness of reality, especially on deadline.
A deeper reason journalists avoid creating new narratives to fit new realities is that even under ideal conditions, fashioning new narratives is major-league creative work.
It has traditionally been the task of great novelists, scientists, and other grand-scale thinkers to offer the public fresh narratives of how our world is organized, how it works, and where it is going. But today, the world can't wait for the next Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, or Adam Smith to tell us where we are and where we are going.
Change is happening so fast that journalism is virtually the only intellectual discipline able to create and disseminate written narratives at the speed required to keep the public informed, while at the same time placing these rapid-fire changes into accurate and useful context.
Today, even our overarching paradigms can change from day to day. So our narratives, master and minor, must change that quickly too. That's a mighty tall order for daily journalists.
Journalists today have lost touch with their craft's origins in literature. A journalist in the literary tradition tells stories of the whole -- the whole person, whole community, whole society, whole world.
But today's journalists work mostly in the ''objective'' tradition whose working models come not from literature but from the social sciences, the hard sciences, and bureaucratic practices.
Objective journalists see themselves as specialized interpreters standing midway between knowledge fields (e.g., government, politics, health, education, business, etc.) on one side, and the public on the other. They believe their essential task is therefore to translate the specialty languages of these knowledge fields, into the vernacular of average readers.
While this is surely a useful journalistic role, it's much different from the older role of the journalist as an independent interpreter -- i.e., storyteller -- of society as a whole.
We need to recapture and redefine the role of the journalist as literary storyteller.
We need journalists today who can tell stories that illuminate the hard facts -- not the fuzzy ideals but the objective facts -- of humankind's interdependence, oneness, and unity.
This kind of journalism would offer a realistic worldview and as an inevitable side-effect would bountifully produce many practical and useful life strategies for readers.
It's an odd fact that human society's interdependence across borders and nationalities is an objective fact, yet is mostly overlooked by ''objective'' journalism until a crisis hits (e.g., 9/11, SARS, or avian flu).
But maybe not so surprising, considering that journalists are trained not as heirs to literature, but to various branches of soft science. They are like amateur social scientists with a laboratory view, not a global one. Their essential act is to reveal a micro-level development in a specialized field, which when translated into the vernacular yields a deliciously exotic narrative.
Contrary to the ''news'' these journalist-translators thus generate, society's biggest problems today, even at the local community level, are not essentially rooted in local conflicts. Rather, they are local manifestations of global problems shared by all people of the earth -- environmental degradation, fanaticism, poverty, inequality, and so on.
These are the hardest stories to write, because they report on a new reality that has not yet been told in a master journalistic narrative. Since it has not been so reported it cannot, by the rules of journalistic narratives, be said yet to even exist. This new reality is the unprecedented level of interdependence of all human societies and all living beings on the earth.
The old narratives of our religions, nationalisms, identity groups and political ideologies are worn by their owners as suits of armor, padded with leaden arguments and bristling with spikes for attack.
Can journalism learn to fashion narratives that breathe a little easier? Whose design offers a greeting of non-aggression? Which open to the world instead of shut it out?
Can we learn not only how to weave our narratives better, but also to wear them more lightly, modestly, humbly?