Tell me a story

One of the fringe benefits of journalism is that you occasionally get to talk with extraordinarily smart, talented and/or inspirational people.

One of the smartest, far-reaching truths I’ve ever heard came to me while researching a story on religious aspects  of the Y2K scare. I asked Richard Landes, medieval history professor at Boston University and an expert on apocalyptic thinking, why ludicrously overwrought worst-case scenarios of Y2K repercussions were overshadowing far more modest and well-grounded predictions. His response was a model of pithy wisdom: “The more entertaining story is the one that gets retold.”

Since then, there’s hardly been a week gone by that I haven’t thought of that insight in relation to some new development in social dynamics or media literacy. Right now, it’s the Rolling Stone date rape fiasco, an obvious case of the natural bias toward compelling narratives overwhelming rational judgement.

But that bias is all around. We worry much more about terrorism than cars and booze, even though the damage wrought be the latter vastly dwarfs the former — but terrorist plots make for a more exciting tale. Kansas just passed a law banning the use of food stamps on cruise ships, an entirely non-existent problem that nevertheless makes a compelling story for anti-gummint types. McDonald’s has a much better chance of killing you than Ebola ever will, but nobody’s ever going to make a summer blockbuster about arteriosclerosis.

You get the point. When the media, friends or anyone else is trying to get  you excited about something, it always a good habit to spend a moment pondering why. Is it because they’ve discovered something true, meaningful and relevant? Or more because it’s an entertaining story?

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One thought on “Tell me a story

  1. of course, the question is “what’s entertaining?” is the RS story entertaining bc of its prurient content? or because it feeds fear-mongering. my guess, the author was thinking explicitly in the latter political as justification, while feeding the former (cheap excitement).

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