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Preferred narratives

January 13, 2011

Happy New Year! A recent “Morning Edition” segment discussed how newspapers in England are more openly political than ours. In that story, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen opined that we should know more about the biases and beliefs of reporters, rather than rely on their supposed objectivity (which Rosen referred to as “The View from Nowhere”). I think Rosen has a strong point. So, although I’m a columnist rather than a journalist, let me start this year by sharing some of the experiences that have led me to my present positions.

Of course, as consumers of media, our own biases and beliefs also affect the way we see things, and it’s good to bring those to the surface as well. Each one of us has what I call a “Preferred Narrative”—a framework through which we interpret the world around us. Information that reinforces this narrative is attractive to us, and we may accept it without question; after all, it “makes sense.” Information that contradicts our particular narrative is difficult to even see or hear, much less evaluate dispassionately.

This concept explains why two people can look at identical events and come up with two entirely different, mutually exclusive and seemingly irrefutable interpretations. It’s easier to remove your own appendix than to get someone to abandon their Preferred Narrative, particularly if they’ve been working under its assumptions for a number of years.

Our Preferred Narratives are mostly subconscious—we may not even know we have them, or where they came from—but I think I can point to a couple of sources for my own.

In spring 1978, I was a senior at Harvard College during the “divestment” controversy. Student activists were trying to convince Harvard to discard any investments that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. As an undergraduate, I had been pretty apolitical up to that time, preferring to focus on my studies, theatre, and other, um, extracurricular pursuits. So I didn’t know much about the issue, or about the realities of life in South Africa.

As it happened, some of the top officials of the Harvard Corporation—the folks who handled the money—decided to hold an “open forum” where they could hear opinions about what they should do. Out of curiosity, I attended. One of the speakers was a journalist from Soweto who was at Harvard on a fellowship that year—and he spoke in moving, first-hand detail about the suffering that apartheid inflicted on the people of his community.