More on Stories and Facts

In my last post, which itself was inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s post on overcoming polarization, I pondered whether stories could help bridge contentious cultural and political divides, and if so, how. I was interested in how storytelling actually functions.

Just after publishing that I came home to my most recent edition of Orion Magazine, and to an article on listening to the music of water by Ginger Strand. In her article, Strand explores some of the differences between sight and sound. The discussion is a useful complement to my own thinking about facts versus narrative. Here is a piece of that article:

“Sound connects us to things in a way that looking doesn’t: it’s more immersive, more corporeal. […] And listening generally takes longer that looking, because sound unfolds over time, rather than being there all at once. we can take in a landscape at a glance; we can even reproduce it in a snapshot. But a sound can never be captured in a n instant. To hear something, we have to hear it out.”

While she is talking about listening to water, it’s easy to see how her observation is relevant to thinking about stories and political polarization. Facts are often snapshots, whereas stories are something we have to “hear out.”


Creating Productive Space: Storytelling and Overcoming Polarization

“Our narratives transcend fact, for they are formed from the delicious emotional nuances of sensation: sound, smell, moods, sensuality, taste, color, shadow, texture, rhythm, cadence, tears, laughter, warmth, and coolness all experienced here, at a place on this earth.”  — Robert Archibald

The Inadequacy of Facts

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post up this week mulling over how we might address and overcome our increasingly polarized politics and culture. The post hinges on the inability of facts to bridge and mend the polarization that is increasingly driving an insurmountable wedge into the most important debates of our time.

In end, he says “the path that leads from polarization towards common ground is rooted in understanding values as well as facts.” Building on that idea he zeros in on Bill Moyers’ recent interview with David Simon (a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire). In the interview Moyers asks Simon “Can fiction tell us something about inequality that journalism can’t?” and Simon replies, “[As a journalist] I would think, ‘Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.’ When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

“Is America on the wrong track? Are things getting better or worse? Has our political culture become so toxic that compromise is no longer possible?” asks Zuckerman. “These aren’t questions we can answer through marshaling collections of facts. They’re questions that force us to tell stories about our values, to listen to the stories our fellow citizens are telling, and to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional society.” Be sure to read his post in its entirety – it is far richer than I can summarize here.

How Do Stories Work?

From 2004 to 2007 I studied the question of how storytelling can help communities catalyze change. One of the people whose work was vital to this project was Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities. Peter has spent the last decade arguing that land conservationists, environmentalists, and activists across a range of issues need become better storytellers and better listeners. Continue reading

Congress Eliminates Learn and Serve America

In 2004 I helped start a new coalition to lobby for federal funding for service-learning funding, which helps faculty and students connect their coursework to meaningful community work. I just found out that the budget deal struck last week and voted on yesterday eliminates Learn and Serve America (AmeriCorps funding was also cut, but not eliminated). Congratulations members of Congress, you just shaved a whopping $40 million off our budget, and made it dramatically more difficult for schools and colleges to support programs that build civic engagement and support social justice.

As I read about these cuts I was reminded about the last major Congressional attack on AmeriCorps funding, almost ten years ago. At the time, a small group of organizers put together 100 consecutive hours of testimony on Capitol Hill where lawmakers and press could hear the voices of people whose lives and communities had been impacted by national service programs like Learn and Serve and AmeriCorps.

I was there at 8pm on day one, here is what I saidContinue reading

The New York Times Paywall, Collaborations and the Hybridization of News

There has already been volumes written about the New York Times paywall, but of all those posts, the one that most captured my interest was David Cohn‘s post over at MediaShift entitled “Why the New York Times‘ Pay Model is Similar to NPR and Spot.Us.” In it, Cohn examines what the meaning of a paywall is when it is so clearly not about access to the content.

“The subscription plans are not enough to sustain the entire organization, but it is a new revenue stream that didn’t exist before. You can call it a ‘pay wall’ or a ‘metered wall’ but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don’t want to refer to ‘metered walls’ as ‘donations,’ and I understand why. I’m happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it’s a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.”

In this way, Cohn argues, the new pay scheme for the New York Times resembles something akin to NPR not the Wall Street Journal. And, he argues, it could morph into something like the crowd-funded Spot.Us model that Cohn himself founded. If we extrapolate David Cohn’s argument, what he hints at but never says is that the Times new paywall may begin to blur the lines between what we traditionally think of as the revenue models for nonprofit and for-profit news.

Continue reading

Americans Estimate Full 5% of US Budget Goes to Public Broadcasting and Still Support It

Americans radically overestimate the amount of federal funding that goes to NPR and PBS, but still have overwhelming support for that funding.

This weekend, Talking Points Memo reported on a new CNN survey assessing Americans’ understanding and perceptions of the US budget and government spending. The poll comes just days before a potential government shut down as the House and Senate battle over spending cuts for the rest of 2011.

One of the most staggering statistics emerging from the report was the dramatic misperceptions many Americans have about the amount of money the federal government spends on public broadcasting. TPM reports that the median guess was that our government spends a whopping 5% of its total budget on public broadcasting. “With a $3.55 trillion budget last year,” TPM notes, “that would put funding for the CBP at approximately $178 billion.”

In reality the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives around $430 million in taxpayer support. That equates to roughly one one-hundredth of one percent of our nation’s budget, or less than $1.50 per capita, per year. (TPM also notes that “Further, 20% of respondents thought CPB funding made up over 10% of the entire budget, including 5% who said it made up at least half.”)

However, this to me was not even the most important fact of the CNN survey. What was perhaps most astounding was that even though the majority of people radically overestimate the budget for NPR and PBS, they still support that funding and many want to see it increased.
Continue reading