Outside Voices: Siobhan Darrow On The Value Of Storytelling
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to Siobhan Darrow, a former CNN correspondent and author of the 2002 book, Flirting with Danger: Confessions of a Reluctant War Reporter. Below, Darrow wonders how much more of an impact journalism might have if the focus turned to storytelling and away from the latest "breaking news" item. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices.
My life has changed a bit since my days as a war correspondent for CNN, back in the 1990s. I still find myself embroiled in conflict. Only now, instead of being on the front lines of a war, I am usually still in my pajamas, trying to keep my 3-year-old twins from all out battle. It does not leave me much time to view or ponder news coverage these days. But when I do get a chance to watch the news, I am often disappointed. I find the coverage so slavishly devoted to live shots of some late-breaking item that there is less attention to storytelling.
Live TV is great for a big breaking event. But it does not lend itself to giving the audience a deeper sense of any story. And that is what we need.
I began my career in Moscow, where I originally went on an exchange program as a college student to learn about the country that was supposed to be "the evil empire." In 1980, Moscow was the capital of America's sworn enemy and global nemesis. Back then, Soviet Communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, was considered the biggest menace in the world. It seems as if we always need an enemy. But when I got to know ordinary Russians, I saw that they were not evil.
When I first became a war correspondent, I found it challenging and exciting. I felt like I was at the center of the action. I got a chance to observe life-and-death situations up close. I learned a tremendous amount about the world and the nature of conflict. But the more war I saw, the less I understood how we could continue to let it happen. On some level I believed that if I kept bringing the horror of war to people's attention, it would in some way help force somebody put an end to it. Well, I certainly didn't stop any wars. But I did learn that those who were suffering benefited by having someone listen to their stories.
It did not bring back their loved one or rebuild their villages, but a simple moment of connection, when someone actually listened to their stories, seemed to make a difference.
After I left journalism, and went back to school to study psychology, I began to see it more clearly. Going to classes, so far from the fray, I could see that the origins of violence really lie in our own psyches. People who hate, and who hurt others in the name of a political cause, usually act out on insufficiencies of their own. I had seen war after war where each side said they were fighting for a noble idea. Yet when I think back on what combatants would say to me, it was that they felt profoundly misunderstood, unseen, somehow out of sync. They were people who for some reason didn't have the connections and relationships that humans need. There were invariably legitimate gripes on each side of a conflict. I found that every bully had once been a victim. I saw that war does not improve lives, it destroys them.
The desire for connection and community is so strong that if people don't have a community based on love and support, they often create a community based on hate – a community focused on an enemy, a community that demonizes our differences rather than celebrating them. Hatred empowers them. I remembered seeing how war brought some communities closer, even though it was in a false belief that their group was good and another group was bad. War, it turns out, is one of the easiest ways to create community. But it is based on a lie. The lie is that there is simple good and evil, and that groups are neatly divided into one or the other. The truth is that we are all human, and that we all have strengths and weaknesses, good and bad, within us.
In most cases, war is a con that governments use to distract citizens from what really matters: the health of our planet, the well-being of our children, the practice of developing compassion and tolerance toward each other. Sadly, we can see that kind of warped use of community not just in dictatorships and among disenfranchised guerrilla factions. Our own government has taken feelings of patriotism and nationalist pride and distorted them into hatred of another for being different – or for not seeing the world as we do. The media is often a somewhat unconscious perpetrator of this idea.
Instead of "fighting terrorism" by invading another country and destroying thousands of lives, not to mention the American families of soldiers who are killed or wounded, we should fight terrorism by building bridges and connections. We should fight hatred by showing compassion and understanding. We should help heal by telling better stories, stories that illuminate and celebrate our common humanity, not our petty differences.