The Dangers of Narrative Journalism


OPINION by Kip Hansen — 31 July 2020

featured_image_climate_migr“Narrative journalism is a genre of feature writing that combines rigorous reporting with fiction-writing techniques and eschews dramatic, news-making events to focus on everyday life and ordinary people. “  [ source ]

“The narrative journalism style requires that the author put him – or herself into the article; thus, the piece may be written from a first-person perspective. ….  Of course, it’s tricky to write a true narrative if you’re accustomed to sticking to “just the facts” and not adding any extraneous adjectives or adverbs to the mix, let alone personal opinions. ”

Some Narrative Journalism Concerns:   One of the biggest worries editors and publishers have about narrative journalism is that because it’s a blend of facts and feelings, problems can occur. Recently, many authors have been nabbed for stating mistruths in their pieces. Though some of the journalists accused of making up details were in fact guilty, others claimed to have simply misinterpreted situations. Because narrative journalism makes fact-checking challenging, it is still considered taboo in most news rooms.” [ Narrative Journalism ]

A narrative does not depart from the cardinal rule: Make nothing up or you’ll be out of here and working at the Sunglass Hut so fast it’ll make your head spin around. A narrative is a journalistic form that has fallen into considerable disfavor in the wake of our craft’s ceaseless, self-flagellating credibility crisis” — Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman  [ source ] [ my bold –kh ]

[READERS TAKE NOTE:  This is a LONG essay – 3,000 words.  Those with no particular interest in the ongoing “death of journalism” can safely skip this piece.]

So, narrative journalism is basically reporting the news by telling a first-person (usually) narrative about the topic.  A narrative is simply “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”  In narrative journalism, the journalist writes:  what’s happening, how I went there, who I talked to, what I saw, how I felt, how the victims and participants in the news felt, what they told me and, for most stories, what I (the journalist) think it all means.

The Patrick Beach quote above is important  – – he insists, no excuses,  that narrative journalists follow the first few points from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

“Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

– Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.

– Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

– Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”

There are many famous cases of Narrative Journalists going astray.  One of the most famous is that of Rigoberta Menchú’s autobiography, which  was part of the  basis for her receiving  Nobel Peace prize in 1992.  Unfortunately, her narrative of her life and the civil war in Guatemala contained many points that were nonfactual:

“A younger brother whom Ms. Menchú says she saw die of starvation never existed, while a second, whose suffering she says she and her parents were forced to watch as he was being burned alive by army troops, was killed in entirely different circumstances when the family was not present. Contrary to Ms. Menchu’s assertion in the first page of her book that I never went to school and could not speak Spanish or read or write until shortly before she dictated the text of I, Rigoberta Menchu, she in fact received the equivalent of a middle-school education as a scholarship student at two prestigious private boarding schools operated by Roman Catholic nuns.” [ source ]

Menchú later responded:

“I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people.”  — Menchú

An even more egregious example was that of Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

“Like most journalists worth reading, she [Erdley] approached the story with a passionate purpose, a sense of injustice, of a wrong that needed to be righted. In Erdely’s case, she wanted to expose the “culture of rape” on college campuses, and she went looking for a case so vivid and gripping that no reader could dismiss it.”

After the story had been splashed all over the front pages of America’s newspapers, a careful review discovered that the story:

 “….is not at all supported by independent facts. Erdely [Sabrina Rubin Erdely] never located the supposed ringleader of the gang rape—“Drew” in the story, a lifeguard and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brother—and his existence cannot be established. Erdely never approached the three friends whom Jackie quoted as sounding coldly unsympathetic after she told them about the rape, and all three deny saying the things attributed to them. Records show that Phi Kappa Psi held no social event of the kind Jackie described on the night she said she was raped there.”

“The magazine retracted the article following a Columbia University School of Journalism review which concluded that Erdely and Rolling Stone failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice“.[ source ]

And then there is the case of Jason Blair, formerly of The New York Times.  In May 2003, an internal NY Times investigation revealed:

“A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.

The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.”

Jason Blair was writing narrative journalism – and “making things up”.

In the media today, and here I mean newspaper, magazine and television news, we find lots of this type of “reporting”  – narrative journalism.

The New York Times Magazine featured this piece on 23 July 2020:

The Great Climate Migration by Abrahm Lustgarten | Photographs by Meridith Kohut.

Abrahm Lustgarten is a longstanding, well respected journalist.  He is not, as we say in the Real World, “an unbiased observer” or a  fair-handed journalist.  Lustgarten has been an anti-fossil fuel, anti-Exxon, anti-fracking warrior at ProPublica for well more than a decade.   His NY Times Magazine climate migration piece is truly a masterpiece of propagandistic narrative journalism.  The Editorial Narrative [ and see here ]  of the NY Times on climate migration apparently requires frightening images of hordes of poor starving Latinos storming US borders.  The Times story misrepresents the World Banks 2018 report on climate migration repeatedly in the current article but in the end, the World Bank found the almost all “climate migrants” just moved within their own countries, moving from the countryside to the cities, finding specifically:  “The report finds that internal climate migration will likely rise through 2050 and then accelerate unless there are significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and robust development action.”

That just didn’t fit the bill for ProPublica, The New York Times and Lustgarten – it doesn’t fulfill the required narrative.  What to do?  They paid someone to give them a different result!

“ProPublica, with The New York Times Magazine and funded by the Pulitzer Center, hired geographer Bryan Jones at Baruch College to build an extended version of a climate migration model that Jones had done with the World Bank for its 2018 report, “Groundswell.” The model aims to understand how climate change might lead to population shifts in Central America and Mexico, including how people may move across borders between these countries and to the United States.” [ source = the Jone study’s  methodology document ]  [Note:  I have been unable to find a full copy of the actual report – I only find the methodology supplement ]

Here’s the propaganda pitch [from the methodology]:

“We focused on changes in Central America and used climate and economic-development data to examine a range of scenarios. Our model projects that migration will rise every year regardless of climate, but that the amount of migration increases substantially as the climate changes. In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years. “

One has to admire the audacity of using this weasel language:  “…would head toward the U.S. border .. “ – meaning move in a northerly direction.  The report’s finding is not that these migrants would attempt to move into the United States, or even cross the US border, but that they may move north towards the border.

Lustgarten , having made such an alarming, headline- producing statement, then gives us the real finding, the small print,  of the purpose-bought study:

“Migrants move for many reasons, of course. The model helps us see which migrants are driven primarily by climate, finding that they would make up as much as 5 percent of the total.

Even that five percent, that 1 out of 20, is mostly imaginary. They are claiming that the coffee blight (coffee rust) was “worsened by climate change“ [which is not true],  so the 5% includes every coffee planter/worker  laid off since the Coffee Rust hit:

“Central America, where smallholders with less than 7.5 acres of land produce 80 percent of the region’s coffee, has been particularly hard hit by rust. Some 70 percent of the farms have been affected, and over 1.7 million coffee workers have lost their jobs. Many are leaving the coffee lands to find work elsewhere. “

“The problem is not just the rust; it’s the rust and catastrophically low coffee prices,” says Stuart McCook, author of the upcoming Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Rust. “It’s difficult for farmers to weather both.” [  source ]

This entire Climate Migration piece is filled with examples of this kind of misleading information.

But it gets worse.   Like the stories of Rigoberta Menchú, Jason Blair and  Sabrina Erdely, Lustgarten’s climate migration story contains reportedly factual statements that are obviously either “mistaken” or simply made up.

Lustgarten begins his narrative with this heart-breaking story about “Jorge A.”:

“Early in 2019, a year before the world shut its borders completely, Jorge A. knew he had to get out of Guatemala. The land was turning against him. For five years, it almost never rained. Then it did rain, and Jorge rushed his last seeds into the ground. The corn sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope — until, without warning, the river flooded. Jorge waded chest-deep into his fields searching in vain for cobs he could still eat. Soon he made a last desperate bet, signing away the tin-roof hut where he lived with his wife and three children against a $1,500 advance in okra seed. But after the flood, the rain stopped again, and everything died. Jorge knew then that if he didn’t get out of Guatemala, his family might die, too.”

There is a photo of the “tin-roofed hut” that was reportedly “signed away” for $1,500 (that’s one thousand five hundred dollars).

Link to the photo on the NY Times site.

This is, at best,  a hovel with a mud floor from which the rocks have not even been removed to make it smooth.  It is incredibly sad that this family of five had to live in such a place.  But there is no way that anyone would give this desperately poor sustenance farmer, who, according to Lustgarten’s story, had not returned a successful crop for five years, the incredible sum of $1,500 – either as cash or in valuable seed in exchange for this house.

How much okra seed can one buy for  $1,500?  Even at the high prices paid here in the United States for fancy okra seed, $1,500 will buy over 800 pounds of okra seed. That is enough to plant more than 110 acres, depending on plant spacing.  Needless to say, it would be improbable that Jorge A. actually had over 110 acres of fields suitable for okra available to him or that he, his wife (with babe in arms) and one 7-year-old son, would be able to plant or care for 110 acres of okra.

This part of the story – the narrative tale – is simply not credible.

Lustgarten doubles down in this story by continuing with:

In March, Jorge and his 7-year-old son each packed a pair of pants, three T-shirts, underwear and a toothbrush into a single thin black nylon sack with a drawstring. Jorge’s father had pawned his last four goats for $2,000 to help pay for their transit, another loan the family would have to repay at 100 percent interest. The coyote called at 10 p.m. — they would go that night. They had no idea then where they would wind up, or what they would do when they got there.

From decision to departure, it was three days. And then they were gone.

Lustgarten has exceeded  my ability to suspend disbelief with that.  How much do you think a goat is worth in rural Guatemala?  Lustgarten claims that Jorge’s father  “pawned” four of them for $2,000.

I have checked with my friends from nearby El Salvador.  They assure me that a nice fat goat can be purchased for $40 to $50, ready for slaughter.  If these goats could be sold for $500 in nearby Guatemala, the Salvadorans would all drive their goats up there and sell them at ten times their real value.  The Save The Children organization will gladly give a family in Guatemala a goat  in exchange for your donation of $60 (out of which comes all their administrative and delivery  expenses as well).

In short, no one would give Jorge A.’s father $2,000 as a loan against $200 worth of goats.  This part of the story – the narrative tale – is simply not credible.

Do these two incongruous little pieces of the story “matter”?  In the sense of the disaster that has befallen Jorge A. and his family:  No, they do not matter.  However, when looking at Lustgarten’s article through the eye of critical thinking, critical reading, we see in the first two pages he has included story elements that simply cannot be true —  that are “mistruths.”  And if he has intentionally included these nonfactual elements in the simple stories, how can we possibly trust the overall story that depends so much on his personal opinions and his understanding of very complex issues?  How many more “mistruths” and “misrepresentations” has he been willing to include in order to move his story forward – to convince his readers of his viewpoint?

Has Lustgarten gone the way of Menchú,  Blair and Erdely?  Has he stepped over Patrick Beach’s inviolate line – “Make nothing up” – into territory strictly forbidden to journalists?  The territory of invented stories?  Drifted into stating “mistruths” in his stories?

Have ProPublica and The New York Times, like the Rolling Stone before them,  failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice“?  Have their editors failed to even read the Lustgarten piece to see if the simple facts of his narrative, like those above, pass even the basic common-sense test?

I invite readers to read the entire Lustgarten article – vaingloriously labelled Part 1 – as an example of what goes wrong when journalists abandon the strict but necessary rules of journalism and are allowed to let their imaginations rule to fill out and punch up stories with nonfactual information — written not to inform us but to advocate for some social or ideological goal.

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Author’s Comment:

This is an OPINION piece.  If WUWT had   a dedicated Opinion Section it would appear there.

I have stopped short of expressing my full opinion on what I think accounts for the discrepancies in Lustgarten’s narrative.   It is enough to point out that in the story he presents about one family there are elements that are not credible and, yes, you may read this to mean “obviously false”.  How and why they have been incorporated into this ProPublica/New York Times Magazine article is only know to Lustgarten and his editors.

I don’t think his misstatements are just a problem of failing to make proper currency exchange calculations.  Guatemala uses the Guatemalan Quetzal, which is denoted as “Q” or “GTQ”.  The conversions are US$  1,500 = Q 11,550.    US$ 2,000 =  Q 15,400.

Lastly, let me point out that in the last few years Narrative Journalism has sadly become an almost comical double-entendre – it is Narrative Journalism written to satisfy the requirements of its Editor’s Narratives.  [ ref: Bari Weiss ]

Lustgarten’s piece is full of caveats but only the most skilled critical readers/thinkers will understand that they nullify and make moot  the majority of his claims about climate migration. The vast majority will be fooled and mislead.  Another sad day for journalism — a black-arm-band day for science journalism – science bought and paid for in support of a lie.

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