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University of Basel

Controlled loss of control.

Text: Alexander Fischer

Storytelling remains an important part of social discourse – even in an age of fake news, conspiracy theories and fabricated feature stories.

Dr. Alexander Fischer. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Dr. Alexander Fischer. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities,” wrote the US journalist Walter Lippmann in his 1920s work Public Opinion. With these neutral words, he expressed something that was not exactly new, but had always been feared. Bluntly put, what he meant was that fictions – provided they are told skillfully enough – can be used to lead people by the nose, as they will sometimes simply be accepted as fact. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, this fear justifiably became more concrete. Accordingly, the need to keep at least sociopolitical discourse (in contrast to the advertising industry, for example) factual, rational and as fiction-free as possible was widely emphasized. We were once again painfully reminded of the validity of Lippmann’s premise when the scandal surrounding Der Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius broke, sending shockwaves through the world of journalism.

What was it all about? Relotius enchanted readers and jury panels with his artfully told feature stories. However, a great deal of the material used in his writing, which centered around social issues, was fabricated – deceiving readers, colleagues and award bodies alike. With his use of fake content, this journalist was not simply being deceptive, but manipulative as well: He played on his readership’s susceptibilities, serving up emotional scenarios, black and white contours and simple solutions – worrying strategies, not least in light of the shift in social discourse that can be observed in Western countries. The case goes right to the core of public communication: In an age in which it is fashionable to denounce the “lying press”, in which Trump & Co. brand criticism by the media as “fake news”, in which the concept of truth is regularly undermined and conspiracy theories are seen as the world religion of the third millennium, the Relotius affair has profound ramifications. For one thing, it plays into the hands of those with an interest in pushing social discourse into the realm of the irrational, in renouncing rationality and constantly fabricating “truths” that fit the needs of the moment to promote themselves and/or the group they represent – and who therefore want to see the downfall of the established media, which plays a key role in our construction of reality.

The medium chosen by Relotius for his deceit and manipulation was the feature story, that much-discussed genre enigmatically residing at the border between journalism and literature. Or, more accurately, storytelling – in this instance of a rather more fictional than factual nature. Although the Relotius affair was discussed with remarkable fervor, very little attention was devoted to the role played in it by storytelling – even though this perspective can be a fruitful one.

The journalist made use of storytelling to fashion convincing realities that never actually existed, but nevertheless found their way into his readers’ minds. Stories create worlds, and their effect on us often transcends rationality. This carries the risk of a loss of control. Sometimes we simply want to believe the stories we are told, and skillfully crafted stories encourage us to do just that. Should we therefore banish stories from social discourse, of which journalism is a crucial element? I would like to propose a thesis in this regard, which may at first appear counterintuitive in view of the current situation: Even though advocates of rationality have long sought to banish nonrational elements from social discourse, we need storytelling – here and now more than ever.

It has become something of a truism that humans are storytelling beings. The environment in which these beings orient themselves is filled with stories. To purge it of these stories, to create a rational “bare space of individual sentences or even norms,” in the words of the German political scientist Rainer Forst, would be to deny reality and our fundamental human condition. The importance of storytelling as an elementary aspect of what it means to be human has often been discussed. Against this backdrop and given our present situation, understanding how storytelling works and differentiating how and where it can flourish remains an urgent matter. First and foremost, storytelling is a defense against sensory overload: The human brain does not simply store all the raw data with which it is bombarded, but compresses and combines it – into stories. We assign events and persons a place in a narrative structure that proceeds from A to B, we omit or rearrange things in such a way as to suggest that it all makes sense. In other words, the act of storytelling creates meaning. In this process of creating meaning, stories are notably distinct from rational arguments. Essentially, rather than being impartial, they allow particularity; rather than making precise statements, they succinctly show us something, relying on the appropriateness of the representation of an object (such as an emotion); in short, rather than being entirely rational, they play on our feelings.

Journalism at least purportedly considers itself on the side of rationality, with rationality as the basis for its work. Yet, in feature journalism in particular, this role is taken over by narrative character, with its emphasis on the subject and their perception, feelings and thoughts. Relotius exploited this to the full.

What makes his actions problematic is not his storytelling, but his deceit – the untruths he told. It would be somewhat rash, however, to call for the complete elimination of storytelling. It is only through storytelling that we can holistically envision what it might be like to experience the civil war in Syria, to be a refugee crossing the Mediterranean, or to be homeless in Berlin. That said, storytelling in journalism – and in feature stories in particular – must be practiced with greater awareness: The journalist must constantly reflect on the role of the “I” in the story; their position as narrator, their subjective view and personal perception must be proportionate to the story. The same is true of social discourse, which should be about conveying what is wrong in the here and now, about what our future should look like, and why we should support certain people. Storytelling has the power to move us and to affect us beyond our rationality, and this is something we must consider and make use of – while remaining firmly in the domain of what can be verified.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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