Storytelling that Goes Beyond “What Happened” to “What’s Possible”

December 30, 2014   |   Bruce Trachtenberg

Few things grab our attention more than news about disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and even mass shootings.  The more tragic the event, the greater the interest and the volume of news coverage.

But as time passes—no matter how gripping or galvanizing the tragedy—our attention (and the news media’s) eventually wanes. With the exception of news and feature stories pegged to anniversaries of these horrific events, we often hear or see little more about people in the affected communities.

Yet, while the “story” might be over for most of us, is it really over? Or is there more to learn from watching as people rebuild their lives and communities? Can lessons of hope be gleaned from tragedy? Can stories of spirit and resilience provide some hope and guidance?

One person who thinks so is Mallary Tenore, managing director of images & voices of hope (ivoh), a nonprofit dedicated to “strengthening the media’s role as an agent of change and world benefit.” Tenore is championing what she calls “Restorative Narratives,” a form of journalism that features stories of “how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover after experiencing difficult times.”

According to Tenore, what primarily sets Restorative Narratives apart from more traditional news and feature coverage that follows disaster and tragedy is that these kinds of stories:

Mallary Tenore

Mallary Tenore

Capture hard truths. “These narratives don’t ignore the difficult situation that a person or a community has endured,” says Tenore. “They explore the rough emotional terrain of the situation, but instead of focusing on what’s broken, they focus on what’s being rebuilt. They reveal hope and possibilities.” Tenore cites the work of photographer Oksana Yushko, who has visited the Russian city of Beslan 10 times since a school hostage crisis in 2004 that claimed 331 lives, including 186 students. Other photographers also descend on Beslan for anniversary stories, and typically they take pictures of the school’s ruins and of the surviving children, many who are photographed looking sad and dejected, “Yushko’s photographs reveal a different narrative,” says Tenore. Though she captures moments of sadness and grief, she also reveals moments that often go unnoticed in the mainstream media — those of hope and resilience.”

–Highlight a meaningful progression. “Restorative Narratives show progressions — from heartbreak to hope, tragedy to possibility, suffering to recovery.” Tenore adds that it’s “important to focus not just on where someone is today, but how they got there.” For example, Katharine Q. Seelye’s New York Times article,  last April, “A Year After the Boston Marathon Bombings, Injured Brothers Endure,” profiled how P. J. and Paul Norden — who each lost a leg in the blast — had been “slowly, achingly,” rebuilding their lives.  Describing how the bombing had changed Paul, Seelye writes, “before the marathon, he was complacent about life and didn’t see much purpose in it. ‘I didn’t care,’ he said. Now, he sets goals — getting out of the wheelchair, losing the crutches, walking the dogs. ‘Me and my brother, we’re happy and motivated to do things every day because we’re obviously lucky to be alive,’ he said.”

–Are sustained inquiries. “Restorative Narratives,” says Tenore, “are mindful of the fact that recovery is a process that takes time. These narratives may not come to fruition until months or years after a tragedy or period of disruption. Pursuing these narratives requires patience.” As an example, she cites an eight-part Dallas Morning News series that ran earlier this year about Lauren Kavanaugh — a 20-year-old woman whose mother and stepfather tortured, sexually abused, and starved her for six years when she was a child. Tenore notes that it took reporter reporter Scott Farwell nine months before Kavanaugh was willing to talk with him about her recovery over the years since her 2001 rescue.

Are authentic. “Restorative Narratives are true to a person’s or a community’s experiences,” notes Tenore. “Sustained inquires into a person’s life or a community enable us to determine the authenticity of the narrative. Tenore points to a story by the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow about how parents coped after losing their children in the Newtown shootings six months earlier. Talking later about his reporting for the Post story, Saslow said:  “You feel naturally in some ways in debt to them, but the truth is, the best way to pay that debt is by writing the most honest, complete, best story that you can—a story that will due justice to what they’re going through.”

–Are strength-based. “Restorative Narratives speak to people’s strengths and help others find strength,” says Tenore. “Instead of focusing on the most dismal aspects of a situation, these narratives get people to care and listen by highlighting what’s possible.” After Scott Farewell’s eight-part series on kidnap survivor Lauren Kavanaugh appeared in the Dallas Morning News, readers donated $14,000 to help her deal with her financial struggles. Says Tenore, “Scott’s story made people care enough to want to help others.”

Tenore also argues that Restorative Narratives can do what straight news reporting can’t. “Restorative Narratives can compel people to become more engaged in their community and act in ways that benefit society. This type of engagement is especially important in the aftermath of tragedy.”  That story of coping after tragedy is at the core of Eli Saslow’s Washington Post article about the parents who lost children in the Newtown shooting.

Another benefit of this form of storytelling is how it can help alleviate some of the stress shown to result from a preponderance of negative news coverage. Tenore points to a study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health, which found that one in four people say they experienced a “great deal” of stress over the past month. Consuming news, they said, was one of the biggest contributors to their day-to-day stress.

“When people are overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed, they often feel paralyzed. News coverage of disruption and breakdown, then, may actually interfere with a community’s or a person’s ability to respond to crisis in creative and effective ways. By shifting the traditional journalistic focus from devastation and despair to resilience and recovery, we can create a world where people are mobilized by the news, rather than paralyzed by it – a world where people are brought together by the power of narrative.”

ivoh is already taking steps to build support for the Restorative Narrative genre. Last month, it launched a new Restorative Narrative Fellowship and selected the first five fellows. The fellowships run for six months and each of the five selected journalists will receive a stipend to help them tell Restorative Narratives in various communities.

  • Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times reporter and Pulitzer finalist
  • Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press columnist
  • Alex Tizon, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author, and University of Oregon journalism professor
  • Jake Harper, freelance public radio journalist in Washington, D.C.
  • Elissa Yancey, journalist & University of Cincinnati journalism professor

According to Tenore, stories the fellows produce will be published on their news organizations’ websites and on “With this fellowship, we want to deepen our understanding of the Restorative Narrative genre so that we can help journalists and others in media learn how to develop stories that bring strength and resilience to the communities they cover. We also hope to develop some curriculum and training around this genre.”

ivoh also recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the fellowship program, with the hope that Restorative Narratives can be integrated into newsrooms in the U.S. and abroad.

Tenore feels the time is right for Restorative Narratives. As she puts it, “People’s appetite for news is changing, and with that change comes opportunity — to tell stories that shift the traditional journalistic focus from tragedy to recovery.”

Bruce Trachtenberg
Bruce Trachtenberg is executive producer and editor for The Atlantic Philanthropies. He previously served as executive editor for frank and before that as executive director of the Communications Network.