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How Pre-Determined Narratives Are Ruining Journalism for Everyone


Image by LGX via Pixabay. Image by LGX via Pixabay.

It's long, but the Columbia Report on what went wrong over at Rolling Stone is worth reading.

It shows how the writers, fact-checkers, and editors at Rolling Stone failed by any standard of acceptable journalism. What most upset me, however, was not the reliance on one source, the decision to use pseudonyms to disguise possible gaps in research, or even the failure to question the accused (or to confirm their existences), but something else. Because these are really the symptoms of a greater problem—that the whole story was produced with a narrative in mind. The Rolling Stone story had to correspond accordingly, so the staff avoided any additional work that would have hurt the desired narrative.

In short, the people at Rolling Stone allowed their preconceived idea of campus culture to shape the story, instead of letting the story shape their understanding of the culture.

While the Columbia Report calls attention to many of these problems, it's clear that the original reporter, Sabrina Erdely, never intended to question her source more fully. In fact, the investigators from Columbia begin their analysis with this point:

Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show "what it's like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture," according to Erdely's notes of the conversation.

Let me be clear. I do believe that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses. I am not a friend of the Greek system. And, in general, I believe when we glorify the use of drugs and alcohol in the pursuit of sexual encounters, we'll see terrible crimes including, but not limited to, those of a sexual nature. But the existence of these problems does not vindicate a reporter’s decision to single out an emblematic case just to make a broad point. One example isn't evidence enough to prove the existence of a cultural problem. More importantly, however, one example should not be sought, especially by a journalist, to reinforce preconceived notions. Journalism is not the place for pandering.

But my rage is not directed only at Rolling Stone. The hunger for indexical cases is a perennial problem, and it is increasingly fueled by all mainstream media on both the American Left and Right. For example, after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, conservative outlets proliferated with examples of unreported black-on-black or black-on-white violence. The narrative had to be fulfilled, and so it was (just read the examples here, here, and here). But in these cases, stories were found that fit a narrative, not the other way around. Yes, blacks kill whites, but to act as if that situation has precisely the same context as black-on-white crime is to miss activists’ points (and I'm not even running around with a “Black Lives Matter” sign).

A similar case could be made for the way in which the American Left deals with abortion. Every now and then an extremist kills an abortion-providing doctor. These stories are often spun to support the narrative that a sizeable number of anti-abortion activists are religiously-motivated fanatics who are willing to resort to violence. In reality, anti-abortion activists, while prone to excesses of rhetoric, are peaceful enough. At my school, they do little more than pray the Rosary near abortion clinics.

The problem, then, is not strictly a political one. Instead, it is a cultural one, a result of the increasing technologicalization of the media. As Jacques Ellul puts it: “Again I want to emphasize that the study of propaganda must be conducted within the context of a technological society. Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.”

What does Ellul mean by “technological society?” Not just the devices produced by modern science. Instead, he defines “technology” (what he calls “technique”) as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity”; in other words, a society devoted to an efficient and productive mode of being. But this emphasis on the quantitative has serious consequences for qualitative concerns. The apparatus of technique means that “propaganda” becomes all the more efficient. Again, to quote Ellul:

First of all, modern propaganda is based on scientific analyses of psychology and sociology. Step by step, the propagandist builds his techniques on the basis of his knowledge of man, his tendencies, his desires, his needs, his psychic mechanisms, his conditioning—and as much on social psychology as on depth psychology. He shapes his procedures on the basis of our knowledge of groups and their laws of formation and dissolution, of mass influences, and of environmental limitations. Without the scientific research of modern psychology and sociology there would be no propaganda, or rather we still would be in the primitive stages of propaganda that existed in the time of Pericles or Augustus.

Journalism has largely become propaganda—the attempt to use the most efficient means of information dissemination (the Internet, 24 hour news cycles, etc.) to fulfill particular, pre-determined narratives. People demand grandiose examples to corroborate the ideas that already exist in their heads. Black people kill white people, and so we reduce the issue of black-on-white violence to white-on-black violence. Anti-abortion activists are motivated by religious zeal, and so obviously they must be willing to murder in the name of their god.

The most efficient means of reinforcing these narratives is images. Whether videos of rioters, stills of starving children in bad neighborhoods, or pictures of raucous fraternity parties, image-driven journalism has given us both the listicle and the impressionistic text-based article (à la “A Rape on Campus”). And, as Ellul notes, image-driven thinking is dangerous because it plays on deeply-seated prejudices, bypassing our rationality in the name of primal instinct:

The word, although prevalent in our day, has lost its reasoning value, and has value only as an accessory to images. In turn, the word actually evokes images. But it does not evoke the direct images related to my personal experience. Rather, it calls up images from the newspaper or television. The key words in our modern vocabulary, thanks to propaganda and advertising, are words that relate to visual reproduction. They are stripped of all rational content, so they evoke only visions that whisk us away to some enchanted universe. Saying "fascism," "progress," "science," or "justice" does not suggest any idea or produce any reflection. It only causes a fanfare of images to explode within us: a sort of fireworks of visual commonplaces, which link up very precisely with each other. These related images provide me with practical content: a common truth that is especially easy to swallow because the ready-made images that showed it to me had been digested in advance. Make no mistake here: this is how modern people usually think. We are arriving at a purely emotional stage of thinking.

We should not, then, simply be mad at Rolling Stone, though it should suffer the consequences for its irresponsible actions. The problem is a society, even a world, governed by very particular forces devoted to very particular principles, which then manifest themselves in very particular modes of thought. If we want better journalism, journalism that does not just play to pre-conceived notions, we must develop a more robust critique of the society in which we live. Propaganda has always been a problem, but the technological world makes its reach all the wider, and its potential to wreak havoc through demonization and polarization all the more terrifying.


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