To Break the Story, You Must Break the Status Quo
Rebecca Solnit on Why Journalists Need to Cause Trouble
This essay is adapted from the 2016 commencement address for the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, Solnit’s alma mater.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
One thing to keep in mind is the lifecycle and food chain of stories. The new stories, the stories that break the story, tend to emerge from the margins and the edges. Gandhi didn’t actually say, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” but that’s how activism generally works. And when activism wins, it’s because, at least in part, the story has become the new narrative, the story the mainstream accepts. Journalism plays a crucial role in this. You can see Black Lives Matter changing the story in our time by shedding light on the epidemic of police killings and the way those killings of young people of color exclude whole communities from their rights, including the right to be protected, not menaced, by public officials. You see how this story originated with activists, caught fire on social media, got picked up by the news media giving extensive coverage to stories that might otherwise have been a little note in the back pages rather than hotly debated national news. We know their names now: Eric Garner, Mario Woods, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice. The story has been carried from the edges to the center, and enough people who are not affected directly have gotten on board with those who are. And in my own city, San Francisco, a hunger strike has called more attention to police killings of brown as well as black people, namely Alex Nieto, Amilcar Lopez-Perez, Luis Gongora, and on May 19th, Jessica Williams. Thanks to public outrage a police chief lost his job the day the unarmed Williams was shot dead.
Part of the job of a great journalist, a great storyteller, is to examine the stories that underlie the story that you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making in this kind of writing. Lots of writers have mooned around saying that the world is made out of stories as though this is a lovely thing, but it’s only as lovely as the stories. There are stories that demonize female anger and black anger and revere white male rage. There are stories about the inevitability of capitalism, stories that there are two sides to the reality of climate change, a host of stories that don’t get told because they rock the boat, discomfort the powerful, unsettle the status quo. Those are the stories you are being sent forth to tell this lovely May day, stories that will make you wildly unpopular with some people it’s great to be wildly unpopular with and beloved by others it’s even greater to be beloved by.
Lots of writers have mooned around saying that the world is made out of stories as though this is a lovely thing, but it’s only as lovely as the stories.
Eleven years ago this August, a triple disaster struck New Orleans. The hurricane was the least of it; the failure of infrastructure and decades of bad planning and worse implementation made it an accurately predicted largely manmade disaster, deepened by the failure of the social contract. Poor people were left behind to drown or suffer. Then the mass media showed up to criminalize people trying to survive and obsess about the possibility that someone was stealing a tv set, making it clear that they considered protecting tv sets more important than rescuing dying grandmothers and traumatized toddlers. They fell back on a clutch of cliches that were already well-established when the 1906 earthquake happened here in San Francisco.
By luck of timing, I was fairly well equipped to be skeptical about the narratives of mobs of raping, looting, murdering humans gone savage. I had just completed some research and writing on the 1906 earthquake. Those urban legends weren’t true in 1906 and they weren’t true in 2005, even though the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, CNN and many other media outlets reported on them. “They tend to travel in herds and report the same story,” Adam Hochschild recently said of journalists in the Spanish Civil. Don’t be a herd animal, whatever you do. If there’s a herd over there, someone’s already got the story. Go someplace else and find the story that’s not being told.
I wrote in Harper’s for the tenth anniversary of the manmade catastrophe called Katrina,
A vast population of mostly African-American New Orleanians was trapped on rooftops, elevated freeways, and the Convention Center and Superdome in the sweltering 80% underwater city, demonized by government and mainstream media as too savage and dangerous to rescue or allow to leave the city. Would-be rescuers from outside were turned back by officials, as were people attempting to flee from inside. New Orleans had, at the hand of malevolent authorities, become a prison. Given how the people of Baltimore were demonized for rising up last April, and how chain stores and a predatory check-cashing outlet suddenly became the holiest of holy sites for many Americans, it’s easy to imagine another disaster like it.
The unindicted coconspirator in the dehumanization, imprisonment, and death of so many people, mostly African-Americans, many of them elderly, in New Orleans was and is the mainstream media. They fell back on the usual disaster stories about looting, raping, marauding hordes, eager to demonize Black people as monsters who were enemies rather than as the vulnerable, needy victims of a catastrophe. They invented new stories that turned out to be entirely baseless about people shooting at helicopters and great piles of corpses from imaginary bloodbaths in the Superdome.
To me, those were broken stories, or stories that needed to be broken. I realized, as I kept returning to New Orleans after Katrina, that there had in fact been horrific crimes and the armies of reporters swamping the city had utterly avoided them or been unable to see them: these were the crimes not of the underclass against the status quo, but of the status quo against the underclass. These were police killings and white vigilante crimes. I gathered up sources and contacts, photographs and leads, scraps that had been hidden in plain sight, and gave them over to a truly great investigative journalist, A.C. Thompson, who took the material and ran with it and originated other stories when he got to New Orleans, notably on the police murder of Henry Glover, an unarmed black man shot in the back. That story sent policemen to prison, something that rarely happens. I did some more reporting myself and wrote a book about how people actually behave in disaster, called A Paradise Built in Hell.
At some point in this process, I was leaving a radio station, where I’d been talking about what really happened in Hurricane Katrina. I turned on my own car radio to hear A.C. talking about the same thing on another station. Sitting there I thought: we actually broke that story, turned the official version inside-out and upsidedown. The history people remembered ten years later was not the story the mainstream media used to smear black people and human nature generally in 2005. We didn’t do it alone, of course. Breaking a story is usually a prolonged, collaborative, process. It usually begins with activists, witnesses, whistleblowers, and with victims, the people affected, the people on the front lines. The next step is often carried out people with storytelling powers, media people, who are willing to listen. No journalist is the first person to know anything, if they’re reporting on what happened to another person, though you might be the first person to listen. It’s always someone else’s story first, and it never stops being their story too, no matter how well you tell it, how widely you spread it. That responsibility to the subject, the audience, and the historical record is part of why I’m glad I studied at a journalism school and not a writing program that proposes nonfiction is a novel in which you don’t have to invent the characters or the plot.
This year one of the great journalists of our time died, Ben Bagdikian. He broke the story on the tremendous threat to democracy media monopolies posed, back when I was his student at the Graduate School of Journalism. Long before that, he was the journalist that Daniel Ellsberg trusted to receive the Pentagon Papers that exposed four presidents’ lies about the war in Vietnam and broke the story about the war. I was lucky to be in his class on ethics, where he taught us, “You can’t be objective but you can be fair.” Objective is a fiction that there is some neutral ground, some political no man’s land you can hang out in, you and the mainstream media. Even what you deem worthy to report, who you quote is a political decision. We tend to treat people on the fringe as ideologues and those in the center as neutral, as though the decision to not own a car is political and the decision to own one is not, as though to support a war is neutral and to oppose it is not. There is no apolitical, no sidelines, no neutral ground; we’re all engaged.
“Advocacy journalism” is often used as an incriminating term, but almost any good exposé is that. If you’re exposing a president’s lies, as Bagdikian and Ellsberg did, you probably think presidents shouldn’t lie; if you’re exposing a corporation’s contamination of the water table—by fracking, say—you’re probably not in favor of poisoning. It’s surprising how many people will defend poisoning people, animals, and places, usually by denying that poison is poisonous; this makes being against poisoning a controversial position at times. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald had a position on whether the National Security Administration should amass vast quantities of data on us all, aided and abetted by Silicon Valley corporations we are all entangled with, but they put the data out there in ways that let us decide ourselves about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations.
The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. It is a tendency of journalism to focus on what changed yesterday rather than ask what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo. A policeman shoots a black man; what do you need to know beyond the specifics of the incident—to know about how often this happens or how it affects communities in the long term or what the usual justifications are? This is why you need to know your history even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into familiar patterns: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering.
Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper to our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous women, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, that feminists just made up all this unfairness and violence stuff, because otherwise we have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.
I have looked into the question of lies and rapes, and you know who lies about rape incessantly? Rapists. Which is an insanely obvious a thing to say, except that no one ever says it. It’s an unbroken story. They lie about it routinely, constantly, reliably, with rare exceptions. There’s a journalistic aphorism that man bites dog is news, while dog bites man is not, but what if we never ever reported on dog bites, what if people denied that dogs bite or even have teeth or were dogs at all? Thus Rolling Stone’s horrifically misreported story about an alleged rape at University of Virginia was recycled as evidence of general female mendacity, while the fact that the school had so severe a sexual assault problem it was under federal investigation fell by the sidelines. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights noted in 2015 that between 2008—2012, the school failed to take appropriate action in 22 reported cases of sexual misconduct, 21 of which “alleged sexual assault, some including rape and gang rape.” There are, of course, no numbers on unreported cases in what the OCR called a hostile and unresponsive environment for victims. Victims often describe the process of reporting a rape as a second round of violation, trauma, and degradation.
Nevertheless, many people assume and assert that there are a lot of false rape accusations. In fact, cases in which women have untruthfully claimed a particular man raped them are rare. The most reliable studies suggest that about 2% to 6% of rape reports are false, which means that 94-98% are real. Even that statistic doesn’t mean that that single-digit percentage represents false rape accusations, because the category covers various circumstances beyond someone claiming that a specific person did something he didn’t. It’s also worth noting that even true accusations of rape rarely result in convictions. I reported in Men Explain Things to Me, “A 2000 US Department of Justice report cite these estimates for the United States: 322,230 annual rapes, resulting in 55,424 reports to police, 26,271 arrests, and 7007 convictions—or slightly more than 2% of rapes counted and 12% of rapes reported to police resulted in jail sentences.” There are many reasons for the low conviction rate; unbroken stories are one.
I have looked into the question of lies and rapes, and you know who lies about rape incessantly? Rapists. Which is an insanely obvious a thing to say, except that no one ever says it. It’s an unbroken story.
Every bad story is a prison; breaking the story breaks someone out of prison. It’s liberation work. It matters. It changes the world. Percy Bysse Shelley famously noted that poets are the true legislators of the world; journalists are the storybreakers whose work often changes the belief systems that then drive legislative and institutional change. It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it’s done with passion and independence and guts. What made Spotlight such a great movie was not that it showed how a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe broke a story about widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It was that it also showed how the Globe had long turned away from breaking the story because it meant shattering comfortable relationships and beliefs.
I think of the mainstream media as having not so much a rightwing or leftwing bias but a status-quo bias, a tendency to believe people in authority, to trust institutions and corporations and the rich and powerful and pretty much any self-satisfied white man in a suit, to let people who have been proven to tell lies tell more lies that get reported without questioning, to move forward on cultural assumptions that are readily disproven, and to devalue nearly all outsiders, whether they’re discredited or mocked or just ignored. Thus the smoothing over of the transformation of our economy into something far more inequitable over the past third of a century; thus the many major media outlets who went along with the pretence that Iraq had something to do with Al Qaeda and 9/11; thus the long craven pretense that fossil-fuel-corporation-funded climate denial represented a legitimate position to be given equal time to the consensus of the great majority of qualified scientists.
For journalists and for human beings generally, the elephant in the room has been there for a long time. It’s not even the elephant: the elephant in the room is the room itself, the biosphere in which all life currently known to exist in the universe is enclosed, and on which it all depends, the biosphere now devastated by climate change, with far more change to come. The scale is not like anything human beings have faced and journalists have reported on, except perhaps the threat of all-out nuclear war, and that was something that might happen, not something that is happening. Climate change is here, and it changing everything. It is bigger than anything else, because it is everything, for the imaginable future.
Inhabited parts of the earth will become uninhabitable; crop failures are rising, and they creates famine, climate refugees, and conflict (climate played a role in the Syrian civil war); the Greenland ice sheet is melting at a gallop; the West Antarctic ice sheet is also melting far faster than the models a few years ago predicted; sea level will rise so dramatically by the end of this century every world atlas ever made will be obsolete and we will have entirely new coastlines in the lowlying places; New York City is likely to be doomed in the long run, as is a lot of Bangladesh, Egypt, and Vietnam, along with southern Florida and other parts of the Atlantic seaboard; the oceans are turning into acid baths; the coral reefs that serve as nurseries for fish that feed a significant portion of the earth’s human beings are dying rapidly; extinction is accelerating; and turbulent weather like we’ve never seen is going to be the new normal, producing catatrophes like this month’s mega-fire in Alberta, the biggest disaster in Canadian history (one that has been, incidentally, appallingly underreported in the United States).
All this news has a hard time competing with whatever fleeting human drama best sows righteous indignation and harvests clicks. This is partly the failure of human nature, but partly the failure of the media to put things in perspective and to report on the scale and menace—and on the shrinking option to minimize rather than maximize climate change’s impact. The stories that we are destroying our home—mostly by slowmoving, indirect, complex means—are largely overlooked and underplayed. Since it’s an ongoing process instead of something that erupted yesterday, it’s hard to get coverage at all, even when it’s coverage of what is normal news: scandals, lies, and money, as with the concealment of knowledge of climate change by Exxon and other fossil fuel corporations decades before the rest of us knew. The magnificent global climate movement and the remarkably swift and effective energy transitions underway are described in fragments when they’re discussed at all.
Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We makers and breakers of stories are tremendously powerful.
So please, break the story.
1. Of course some do a superb job of teaching nonfiction, but not all do. And that’s another story.