Narration and memory

When speaking of memory and the importance of narration in journalism, John Berger tells an anecdote about a story that didn’t make the international news:

Katia, his daughter, wrote him a letter telling of a local tragedy. The bus she usually took to work crashed, leaving 9 people dead and several were injured and sent to the hospital. The next day, she wrote, a group of old men gathered at the place of the accident to comment and analyze what had happened for the accident to have occurred while lamenting the current state of some of the injured people. Katia observed not only the need for the men to understand what had happened and why; she concluded that those men were the choir of the Greek tragedy.

The ability to understand a basic story in our life does not require anything more than access to the information. But to understand the impact of those stories in our collective destiny we require constant questioning of the causes, a closer look at the details. In the modern ever- changing world, John Berger sees narration as an alternative to our very-much-needed choirs as a way to maintain and preserve journalistic creation of memory.

Niklas Luhmann argues that mass media has the objective of creating discourse through the reproduction and irritation of the collective consciousness. Memory of society, as he calls it, is a system where data is absorbed in a centrifugal-like manner. Where the input information is spun into the system at the same speed as the outlet allows dispensable information to become forgotten while the system continues to receive new data continuously. What permits certain information to create a dent in the system and be remembered, contributing to the construction of common codes and values, is repetition. However, even though Luhmann’s schematic understanding of memory seems irrefutable, we can’t help but wonder if our collective memory media blender is really doing its job or just chopping up bits and pieces of our reality while leaving a nasty mess on the floor.

The truth is that people’s lives change very little in contrast to the amount of changes they are faced with in the media. We could say that the problem with mass media lies in the fact that it has taken away the capacity to understand stories as something that should be constructed in a way that allows people to understand how the events are related to them. Rather, mass media plays the role of a very loud blender that goes on in the background of people’s everyday happenings. The world is so big that the stories the media portrays for us cannot be seen as ours, as safe, as home.

Understanding that depicting reality is not pushing information from different angles but deconstructing the reasons why we are staring at one particular piece of data. If mass media cannot gather around our tragedies long enough for its public to understand what is happening and why, we might be in for a very bad play.

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