The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.
There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.
The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice.
In the midst of conflict, our audiences are profoundly uncomfortable, and they want to feel better. “The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America.
Complexity counters this craving, restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting — and true.
Reporting depth is critical, but rarely found.
A few SIS examples:
Madison’s long term, disastrous reading results.
An emphasis on adult employment.
Expanding Madison’s least diverse schools.
Police calls, Madison area schools 1996-2006.