I just love the following statement by Evan Thomas, Newsweek editor, concerning his periodical’s reporting of the Duke rape case: The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.
Thomas actually was one of the writers who wrote early on that there was some doubt about the lacrosse students’ guilt. But, unfortunately, that didn’t stop him or his magazine from pushing a different “narrative,” one that made an assumption of a heady and titillating mix of rape and racism.
Thomas’s words about narrative vs. facts would be laughable—a sort of Onion-like parody—if they weren’t meant so seriously, and if they didn’t represent a perversion of what journalism is meant to be about. Thomas is actually describing the sensibility of fiction writers rather than of reporters. The former make up facts in order to get at a “greater truth.”
But everyone knows that fiction is an act of creative writing, whereas journalism is supposed to be its exact opposite, a discipline in which the facts should be paramount. “Narratives” help people make sense of and order facts and put them in perspective and context. They give those facts meaning, but they must never supercede them,
Of course, reporters are often merely reporting facts that others are feeding them. But investigative reporters are different; they are supposed to question those facts and do independent research to see whether they are corroborated. If not, the story—the “narrative”—shouldn’t hold together.
In addition, in criminal cases, the media is supposed to preserve the presumption of innocence as much as possible in all its reportage. But that isn’t very “sexy.” It’s the more sensational “narratives” that sell magazines and newspapers, and get people watching the cable networks.
We all maintain “narratives,” arrived at from our observations over time. This is as true of conservatives as it is of liberals. Most people have a tendency to filter out or discount facts that don’t agree with their already-formed worldview, which is why change of opinon is so difficult to accomplish.
I’ve written many words on the subject of how people end up changing their minds (see all the posts on the right sidebar in the category “A mind is a difficult thing to change”), and probably will write many more. But one thing necessary for such change to occur is a mind open to the assimilation of new facts, and flexible enough to change in response to an accretion of supporting facts.
How many supporting facts are enough to cause that “leap” into a new point of view? The tipping point is different for different people. Some hold so stubbornly to their belief systems that no amount of “steenking facts” can dislodge them. If a person can’t change even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (see the last part of this post for a good example) then his/her set of beliefs is impermeable to the challenge of facts, and resembles an act of faith rather than a matter of cognition.
I’m not meaning to knock faith, which inherently transcends the rational (Pascal’s very logical “wager”—which is based, paradoxically, on the idea that the existence of the deity cannot be decided by reason— notwithstanding). But politics should not be religion, and court cases cannot be decided on faith—or “narratives.”
[ADDENDUM: If you want to read a wonderful book that explains how the Left came to rely less and less on facts and more and more on narratives, please read this wonderfully lucid explanation.]