What’s a Narrative Analysis?

The articles you normally come across on the internet usually address a particular news event. We take a different approach. Instead of talking about the news directly, we talk about how people are talking about the news. In that sense, our narrative analyses are a bit like meta-news.

Our aim for these analyses is pretty straightforward: we seek to faithfully summarize how either side is talking about a given topic and briefly explain how those differences came about. 

Our goal is to help media consumers better understand the discourse surrounding particularly divisive news stories. When presented with our political opposition’s interpretation of an event, we often instinctually ask “How can anyone think that?” We provide an answer to that question.

Different people interpret news differently based on their priors and values. Our analyses explore and illustrate these differences.

Why is this important?

Our broad political discourse is very antagonistic. We believe that by pointing out the mechanisms of fundamental disagreement, we can turn the temperature down a little bit. 

But we’re not fact checkers, we’re not trying to get everyone to agree, nor are we trying to prevent “misinformation.” We’re just trying to help media consumers better understand the narratives emerging around them.

We hope that our analyses, when combined with a usual media consumption diet, can help us better understand the things we feel strongly about.

This is a little weird.

It’s definitely a little weird. Particularly the way our analyses are written. We’re very conscious about the power of framing and biased word choices, and so our prose can seem a little more distant than most red-meat online articles. 

However, when we’re summarizing a particular side’s position, we frame-switch into their perspective, and describe it as though we believe it. This split between internal and external analysis is odd, and is unlike anything else out there. But its utility is clear. 

What’s a narrative?

Clifford Geertz once described a trap we often fall into when thinking about politics: “I have a social philosophy; you have political opinions; he has an ideology.” The idea is that we often regard other’s perspectives as much less important, rigorous, or authentic than our own.

So too with narratives! We might modify this maxim to “I have the objective truth, you have political opinions, and he has misinformation.” The further away we are from the perspective, the more false it appears.

A narrative is a story we tell about something. It’s a tool for information optimization — it makes a particular event easy to comprehend and share. Narratives exist because we are limited creatures with limited cognitive resources, and so we need to distill complex things into simpler forms. 

The important thing to remember here is that narratives are not meant to be true, they’re meant to be useful. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective truth or that objective truth is inaccessible. It merely means that we employ cognitive shortcuts such as narrative to render complex information easier to understand.

This is natural and unavoidable. However, we believe it’s a good idea to practice a conscious, reflective awareness of these mechanisms and dynamics so we may better understand not only  those we disagree with, but also ourselves. 

And that’s where the Narratives Project comes in.

Shaun Cammack is the Founder and Director of the Narratives Project

Shaun Cammack July 15, 2021