The power of narrative is profound. Communications are a vital element of the area I have worked in for a long time, and I know that they can be the difference between the success and failure of ideas and situations. Unfortunately, at a time when it seems we should all be working towards collective, positive goals, it doesn’t feel as though those with the most powerful platforms for commentary are using them for the common good.
We all have a voice, but what are we doing with it?
What’s interesting about the current circumstances, is that we all have a role to play, and can individually choose how we want to contribute. It is my assumption that we all want to find a way through the Covid-19 health crisis with the minimal harm possible; that we want to navigate a path to positive outcomes in terms of health, the economy and our civil liberties. When we add our bit to the public narrative, it seems to me that’s the goal we should all be keeping in mind. Sadly, it doesn’t generally feel that way.
One of the wonderful things about digitisation is that we are all in a position to add our own little bit of influence to the conversation. Whether it’s our own social media platforms, we are union leaders, world leaders, or TV personalities, or in business, we can all contribute to the narrative in a way that can have a significant impact on how people feel about circumstances and the path ahead. Few are in a more powerful position in that regard, than journalists, and yet so much of what seems to be published at the moment appears to hinge on sensationalist one-liners, the seeking of ridiculous ‘guarantees’, and the click bait value of a spurious fact, rather than contributing to a forward-thinking sense of purpose.
There are those who feel that journalists just don’t go negative because they like too, but because they don’t think they are getting straight answers from our leaders as they shape and contribute to the debate. I agree. Transparency, integrity and character starts from the top, but it doesn’t finish there.
The impact you have on the people around you
Lou Tice of the Pacific Institute talks about the importance of positive wizards. To paraphrase, if you surround yourself with negative people then everything will seem grim, but if you surround yourself with people who radiate energy and empathy, you can see the same situation in a new positive light. As a nation, the UK is filled with positive wizards; the many, many volunteers we’re so lucky to have, the key workers, the scientists racing against the clock to find a vaccine and the business owners who get up, get dressed and work like the clappers to keep their companies going – to name a few. For some reason however, the news and media seem to veer (largely) towards criticism and blame rather than seeking solutions and success stories, with little balance between the two.
We all have our reasons for saying what we say, when and how. From that reactionary Tweet to the quota of daily news articles needed to appease the endless online appetite for content. It is one of the great liberties afforded to us in the UK that we do have the right to freedom of expression. However, in the words of Voltaire, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Freedom to say what we think is a great power, so we must use it wisely and with intent, thinking beyond the words we write and towards the impact that they might have on others.
I live next door to a fiercely independent woman in her 70s; she has the energy and determination of someone half her age. She is highly intelligent and is actively engaged in society. However, when I saw her across the garden fence last week, she told me she couldn’t watch the news anymore because of the way it made her feel. She would watch the headlines, get the facts, but as soon as journalists came on to discuss, dissect and debate, she needed to switch off because it caused her so much anxiety and sleepless nights.
A question of balance and the bigger picture
It wasn’t the facts of the matter that were getting to her, it was the endless ‘gotcha’ questions journalists were presenting, the unleashing of one specialist against another, the almost gleeful hunt for tenuous facts and obscure studies for the purpose of sensationalist headlines, the constant questioning of peoples’ voracity and the voyeuristic pursuit of the saddest of stories in order to broadcast individuals’ personal pain across public platforms.
She is not alone in being overwhelmed, and it is not to say that these stories should not be told. However, how they are told and the balance of information with which they are contextualised is also imperative. It is important to think about how we present the information alongside what we hope to achieve with it in the long term, and to be honest with ourselves about whether we are simply seeking to antagonise or if our ultimate goal is to put aside personal vendettas and help one another forge a path ahead.
As Lady Macbeth proffers ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’ and, although Anne Frank adds much later “but we can prevent it happening again”, given we don’t yet have the full facts, now is probably not the time to seek the silver bullet nor allocate ‘blame’.
This isn’t a plea for positive propaganda, a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability or censorship by any stretch of the imagination – far from it. It is however a proposal that we stop and think before we add our contributions to the conversation, re-circulate things or add those witty quips – especially if we’re in a position of influence like media outlets. What outcome are you working towards? Does your contribution add to that effort? Are you looking at the bigger picture?
It is not about what you say, but how you say it and why. Of course, we should hold our leaders to account, but by the same token we should also question our own motives when contributing to the national discourse – for our own sakes as well as the collective good.