January 1, 2007

         Healing the World With Words
                             By Douglas McGill
                          The Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism
                                                  Harvard University
                                                 November 17, 2006


At a lecture given by a Buddhist meditation teacher recently on the topic of moral speech, one after another audience member rose and confessed to the group the event that had inspired them to attend this particular talk. It was the fact that as a child they had once or more times been harshly spoken to, or lied to, by a parent or a loved one. Sometimes the event described was no more than a single short sentence, or even a single word. Yet the words had burrowed into their hearts with a seeming infinite capacity to be re-spoken as if for the first time, and to freshly vex and afflict. The audience had come to the lecture to learn how language could be at once so ephemeral and yet so capable of inflicting such lasting bafflement, confusion and hurt.

Was it possible, some asked, for language that was morally employed to exert a healing power that was equal to its obviously darker powers to bruise, confuse, lacerate and destroy? Some members of the audience were now parents themselves and were eager to avoid the unskillful use of language, lest the wounds that they received as children be unconsciously passed to new generations.


Journalism is a cultural parent to the masses. What it feeds to the masses is not only, or even primarily, information, so much as language. Every piece of information served by journalism is wrapped in language that bears its own deeper meanings, and triggers its own chain of causes and effects. This language has an agenda that is separate from the specific data being conveyed, and is often buried so deep in culture and tradition as to be unconscious even to the author. But the agenda is no less effective for that. Indeed, it usually is all the more effective by acting through unconscious agents, namely editors and reporters who “objectively” and “neutrally” transmit to the general public the harsh, lying, idle or distracting language of their sources. In so doing, journalists may be little different from a parent who shouts “Stupid!” to a child, imprinting a confusion that may live on for generations.


From society’s perspective, the main consequence of such unskillful speech is not its wounding effect on individuals, but how it distorts the common set of facts upon which democracy depends.

Because of its role as a cultural parent, a noxious and noisy news media inexorably drives those destructive habits of public discourse throughout society.

All conversation becomes a shout. Dinner table conversations, modeled after cable TV “news” shows, erupt in bouts of breathless accusation. The pithiness of slurs replaces the acuteness of observations in all public forums. Every letter to the editor is an outraged, spittle-spewing rant.

Such talk is uncomfortable, but the graver threat to society is that nothing is learned. Threats, rants, broadsides and tirades are inefficient carriers of fact and reason. Like a constricted artery, they choke the stream of facts that a democracy needs to live.


Language purveyed by the media is consumed just as people consume food.

Consumed language inevitably transmutes into the substance of our lives. It becomes the solid yet flexible web of cultural meaning that directs our every decision. These decisions shape our politics and our personal lives.

For the global news media to remain ignorant of the effects of the consumed language that they purvey is therefore a grave professional lapse, on the order of a cook serving meals of poisoned food and drink to the public.


A mood of helplessness about the news media reigns in society today, and in the profession of journalism. In the freest of nations, we feel enslaved by an apparently unstoppable excess of harsh, trivial, divisive, or blatantly manipulative discourse.

The feeling of helplessness is a symptom of the lack of proper skills to see the problem clearly. One such set of tools are principles of ethical speech as found in the world’s great religious and moral traditions. At their core, all these traditions show how morally skillful speech heals individuals, families, and whole societies.


Journalism ethics has traditionally been more situational than universal in its outlook; more derived from legal than from moral principles; and more focused on solving local disputes than on considering journalism's role in solving complex global problems.

As a step towards becoming a truly useful global institution, free-speech journalism needs to embrace a moral philosophy that envisions public speech as socially healing.

Such a maturation would place in the hands of journalists, and consumers of journalism, the tools to improve a public discourse that is now destroying the very freedoms it is meant to preserve.

This paradoxical outcome is the inevitable result of a public discourse that is properly unrestricted by laws, but is morally unskillful.


Journalism has long been skeptical of religion and morals, and rightly so.

Moral hypocrisy is the general rule in human society, and journalists properly envision themselves as exposers of it. One might almost say that the exposure of all forms of public hypocrisy, most of which results from amoral or immoral action, is journalism’s main public purpose and value.

Yet the skillful response to moral hypocrisy is not to adopt a morally neutral stance, as embodied by the journalistic code of objectivity. Rather, destructive moral actions must be countered by morally skillful ones. When a negative meets a neutral force, the negative always wins. But when a negative meets a positive force, the positive at least has a fighting chance.

Journalism must never become moralistic.

But it must quickly become moral.


Harsh speech is only one unskillful public speech mode. Lies are another obvious category of damaging public speech. So is speech that doesn’t lie outright but nevertheless manipulates the masses on behalf of special interests, such as political propaganda, PR, and “spin.”

But today, possibly the biggest category of damaging public speech is neither harsh, nor lying, nor even manipulative speech, but speech that in one way or another simply distracts us from facing critical problems that deserve immediate public attention.

Escapist entertainment, gossip, and sensational “news” that monopolizes thousands of hours of newsprint and electronic media time, are all examples of harmful distracting speech.


A responsible journalism, as a cultural parent, understands that the language it uses becomes a model for the whole society. Therefore it will craft its language according to moral guidelines, avoiding when possible harsh, lying, divisive, manipulative, or distracting public speech, in favor of speech that is pleasing, timely, truthful, useful, and for all these reasons, healing.


Journalism that accurately reflects all the passions as well as the reasoned arguments of all members of society; that exposes itself to everything that is said yet exercises wisdom in how it conveys back to the public what it sees and hears; and in these ways tends to unite as opposed to divide society; is a healing journalism.


The idea that language can serve deeper purposes than are made explicit is an ancient notion, classically called rhetoric. In recent decades, political propaganda and corporate public relations have thrived by updating Aristotle’s rhetoric to the present day. Corporate propagandists and political spinners are effective precisely because they are conscious of the ancient principles of their craft. Meanwhile, journalists, who convey to the mass public the language crafted by modern-day propagandists, have perversely, and even at times proudly, remained ignorant of these basic principles. To some degree, journalists’ own ethical code of objectivity has led them to this error. Because by remaining objective, journalism may unwittingly transmit the language fashioned by propagandists to stealthily trigger mass action, without leaving a trace of its true intent.


Journalists need to be at least as smart about language, if not smarter, than their government or corporate sources.

It is my argument that journalism needs to mature in its understanding of the cultural sources of language to a degree that at least equals, if not surpasses, those who would learn such skills primarily to amass political or corporate power.

If journalists don’t become at least this smart they’ll inevitably remain as pawns, not masters, of the arts of skillful public speech. They’ll never be able to serve the whole of society, including the weak and the poor and the dispossessed, as many journalists will avow they got into the profession to serve.


Free speech journalism is a crown jewel of American culture. Its origins are as unique to America as jazz or the civil rights movement or Broadway or the ideals of preserving wilderness and protecting endangered species.

Yet free speech journalism in the United States is limited in having developed mostly on the plane of pragmatic professional practice, as opposed to following a more universalizing, principles-oriented course.

Free speech journalism historically has developed in direct support of, or in result of conflict with, U.S. laws on the role of the press in a democracy. Journalism ethics were shaped by an absolutist view of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In this sense, American journalistic ethics are essentially legalistic.

Various other ethical principles of journalism, such as the sacrosanct nature of words placed between quotation marks and a maniacal attention paid to typographical detail, are not so much legalistic as pragmatic in a commercial sense. They tend to prevent arguments between journalistic institutions and their customers, and to end those arguments quickly when they occur.

Present conditions in the American media and society reveal the limitations of journalism ethics formed by the legalistic and pragmatic views. The limitation is readily seen in the widening gap between the ideal of journalism in a democracy and its actual achievements in daily American newspapers, television, radio, and on the Internet.


Journalism needs to embrace a moral theory of social healing to complement its theory of the press in a democracy, and its ethics of objectivity.


The definition of “citizen” has varied widely since America’s founding, but there’s been remarkable consensus on journalism’s primary purpose.

“We proceed best as a society if we have a common base of information,” the former TV news anchor Tom Brokaw told Bill Kovach and Bill Rosenstiel in their handbook of free speech journalism ethics, The Elements of Journalism. In that book, Kovach and Rosenstiel defined journalism’s primary role in democracy as “providing citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

That excellent definition needs no tinkering. Yet the shortfall in its application is glaring.

A press that enables our society to be free cannot be faulted. But do we really understand what we mean by “free?” Is the definition that is used by journalism today a wise and inclusive enough one?


As stewards of the news media of world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, American journalists have an added moral responsibility to model a journalism that is grounded in the socially healing use of public speech.

This responsibility stems not only from the direct impact of the U.S. news media on those who consume it globally, but also because the U.S. news media plays a critical role in enabling so many critical global processes.

These include how people throughout the world imagine each other as either friends or enemies; how global crises such as wars, epidemics, or environmental trends resolve for good or ill; how our government makes foreign policy, practices diplomacy, and supports or blocks international treaties; and how day-to-day relations unfold between America and other countries in international tourism, finance, commercial trade, scientific collaboration, student exchanges, etc.


In 1922, the newspaper columnist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann wrote an essay called “The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads.” The essay described the essential problem faced by all democracies that depend on a mass media for their information about the world.

The problem is that the media puts a picture of the world into citizens’ heads, upon which citizens then act whether by voting, by writing a letter to the editor, by buying European stocks, or by deciding to vacation in Japan.

This is a problem because the world is complex, while the pictures that the media put into our heads inevitably must reduce that complexity to cartoonish oversimplifications. These oversimplifications, Lippmann said, are “pseudo-environments” and “fictions.”

“Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities,” Lippmann wrote. “In many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.” Which in turn leads, he warned, to “the worldwide spectacle of men acting upon their environment, moved by stimuli from their pseudo-environments.”


No more accurate a diagnosis has ever been offered the citizens of media-dependent democracies. Yet Lippmann’s proposed cure – the formation of a special class of symbol manipulators to communicate to the masses a picture of the world devised by the government and its branches – has been discredited by history.

Lippmann's special class of symbol manipulators is exactly what has materialized in the form of the corporate and government public relations industry, lobbying groups, political spinners and propagandists, and other experts in mass media manipulation.

Special interests, in other words, have had their chance to wield the skills of public speech. They’ve squandered their chance and shown the futility of Lippmann's prescription. They have done little with their knowledge but extend their fortunes and power, deepening and widening the gaps between rich and poor, the healthy and the sick, the advantaged and the despised.


A socially healing journalism sets a much different course than the one envisioned by Walter Lippmann.

Such a new journalism would be created not by a class of experts serving the government, but rather by a mature and educated group of journalists who imagine themselves as citizens serving citizens.

These new journalists would model public speech that is uttered to all, for the benefit of all, with globally healing effects.


The challenges of a healing journalism on a global scale are substantial.

How news reports are translated into other languages is one level of the problem. Another is that in cross-cultural speech the non-verbal elements of language such as tones, postures, and moods play a greater role in mass communication.

The role of English as a de facto global language is another area of concern.

Just because English is the global language by no means ensures that American journalism, because English is its native tongue, holds any special claim on the global journalism of the future. Already, the news media of India, the world’s second-largest population, has a news media that is largely published in English but is in many ways more of an Indian language than an American (or British) one.

Bogus news stories published in the U.S., such as in the satirical newspaper The Onion, are sometimes published in the foreign press as news. Likewise, major news events in the U.S., such as the attacks of 9/11, are sometimes played in the foreign media as government propaganda or sensational entertainment. Such cases argue for journalists and the public becoming more skilled at cross-cultural readings of global news texts and images.


Journalism that reaches across international borders can be read in a manner similar to viewing the optical illusion of a beauty who becomes a hag.

During the cold war, when Chinese or Soviet journalists wrote about the United States, American readers often detected a not-so-subtle political agenda at work.

Similarly, for today’s readers in China or Russia, American news media stories written about their countries often read as a critique of their national political or cultural systems.

That all stories are meaningful in multiple dimensions, some more so and some less, is by no means a bad thing. It is inevitable and in skillful hands adds enormously to the value of a piece.

A Wall Street Journal article about the spread of AIDS in Chinese villages is rightfully read as containing lessons that might apply to AIDS in America.

Because the “optical illusion” feature of global journalism can have both positive and negative potential outcomes, learning how to create texts that minimize the risk of negative outcomes, while maximizing positive ones, becomes a moral imperative of the modern global journalist.


A mature journalism understands that in the depths of any language it is not English or Spanish or Chinese that is really written or spoken or heard. It is the vastly richer language of ordinary human life, a language of experiential sensations and feelings and wisdom and not of words.

No matter what language we journalists use, it is this deeper language that every reader strains to listen for, and makes her decisions upon. Therefore this is the language that we as journalists must attain the highest fluency in, if we are to act in a socially healing way.


Addressing a group of teachers in 1964, the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye urged them to teach their students to always read in the universal human language that lies behind and beneath words and sentences.

The language of human nature, Frye said, was the language that all practitioners of public speech must master. This was “the language that makes both Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi.”

We hear this language only when we quiet within.

"It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure,” Frye said. “It speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer heaven, and that it is time to return to earth.”


A story circulates in Buddhist circles of an American psychologist who once traveled to Tibet to study Buddhist meditation. He had heard of monks who, by sitting for months in undisturbed meditation, had learned precious lessons about the subtlest workings of the human mind.

Before the psychologist could start asking questions, though, the monks had some questions for him.

“What is a psychologist?” a monk asked.

“A psychologist is a scientist of the human mind,” the psychologist answered. “He uses tests and measurements and probes to learn the mechanisms by which people feel and think.”

The monk smiled approvingly.

“Do you meditate?” he asked the psychologist.

“Well, no, I don’t,” the psychologist said.

The monk frowned. “Is that ethical?” he asked.


All the great moral teachers – from Socrates to Buddha to Frye – agree on the source of the wisdom of those who speak in a socially healing way.

It is an inner light accessed through calm and quiet.

No less than all the other artists who write the public scripts that become our private lives -- novelists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, etc. -- journalists need to learn how to find and follow this inner light.


Jesus talked about clearing the big logs from our own eyes, before we start looking for specks in the eyes of others.

This is the universal path of moral inquiry. The truth that matters we find inscribed in the pages of our own lives, not in the words of any teacher, writer, or book.

Socrates spent a lifetime, and died for his troubles, by teaching his fellow Athenians one essential thing, which was “to look within.”

“Be lamps unto yourselves,” Buddha said.


The crush of constant deadline pressures in newsrooms makes it difficult for journalists to sustain reflection on matters other than getting the facts straight in a hurry. The pressure to meet circulation and ratings targets also limits the time available for moral reflection.

Combined with how the neutral objective stance blunts moral inquiry, these forces have all delayed the day when journalism comes to grips with the cultural impact of the very medium from which it fashions its daily bulletins, squibs, and stories – language.


Surely, the time has come. The stakes are global life or death, and the media’s potentially enabling role in solving global problems is too critically important to ignore.


The global news media today is a thoroughly integral part of global decision-making in all critical areas – war and peace, global warming, HIV/AIDs, oil and alternative energy, poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, etc. Only a healthy global press will help create the conditions of transparency and trust that will enable solutions to be found by global collaboration across all critical areas.

Likewise, a failed global news media will hobble all attempts at global collaboration by major institutions to heal global problems.


Envisioning journalism as an art of social healing has several significant precedents in the U.S. and international news media.

This is especially true in the field of narrative journalism, where writers spend longer periods than usual reporting stories, and write in a style that employs such literary techniques as dialogue, scene-setting, plots, and characters that evolve over time. Many such narrative pieces, often published as serial installments in newspapers, are stories of medical tragedy, heroism, and healing – of young women facing breast cancer, of children coping with disfiguring illness, of surgeons battling their emotions and fatigue like Top Gun pilots.

These stories are absorbed by readers at two distinct levels – as rich and absorbing tales in themselves, but also as metaphors for the level of sickness or health of the communities in which they happen.

Journalistic coverage of the War in Iraq offers many such instances of individual and social healing mirroring one another.

A story about the suffering or death of American soldiers makes gripping reading, but it’s also taken as a reflection of the vulnerabilities of society at large. To prevent soldier deaths, or to heal soldiers when they are injured, is likewise read as an indicator of society’s moral character and health.


Socially healing narratives, consciously understood as such by readers, are a staple in the journalism of many countries outside of the United States. In South America, magical realism, confessional genre stories, and much first-person narrative reportage is intrinsically understood by readers as attempts at social healing through the use of dreams, fantasies, and confession.

In South Africa, stories of apartheid brutality as told to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, played the same socially-healing role. These stories of injury-and-reparation arose not only from the tradition of Catholic confession as promoted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who played a major role in the TRC. They also were supported by indigenous cultural beliefs about the nature of individual and social disease, and their treatment through morally skillful storytelling. The South African media, as an indigenous institution in that society, became a natural outlet for the telling of those horrific – and yet truthful and socially therapeutic – stories.

In America, healing narratives are rampant in popular culture. Tearful, supposedly cathartic confessions are a staple on TV talk programs ranging from Oprah and Montel to Maury and Dr. Phil. All these celebrities argue that their epic tearfests are healing for both the confessors and for society. In book publishing, lurid personal memoir narratives are likewise booming.


There is legitimate skepticism about these exploitative media spectacles.

There is rightful doubt that such stories are skillful healing narratives.

At the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism sponsored by Harvard University, narrative journalists often debate where to draw the line between mawkishness and legitimate pathos in stories. They explore how to portray human suffering in a way that stirs genuine compassion in readers, as opposed to creating mere side-shows of horror and oddity.

We need to investigate so that we may become more skillful practitioners of journalism as a healing art. We need to learn why good narratives cause healing to happen, and why bad ones don’t. We need to learn how to create healing narratives, and to avoid making sentimental, manipulative ones.


Many professions other than journalism in the modern period have significantly advanced the theory of narrative’s role in human healing.

Psychotherapy links narrative to healing in a cause-and-effect relationship, the “talking cure.”

Psychotherapy is a foundation of modern western culture, including journalism itself. But in most journalism practice, the extent of the debt is not recognized. That a story itself is a powerful potential healer of social problems, for example, is a moral premise that underlies investigative journalism, generally regarded by journalists as the highest form of their craft. Yet the moral crusading impulse of the investigative reporter is effectively denied in day-to-day journalistic practice, where an objectively neutral stance is followed.

But if following an explicitly moral purpose is acceptable at journalism’s pinnacle, why is not insisted upon in the day-to-day news and feature stories that make up the vast bulk of journalistic practice?


Three kindred professions to journalism have theorized the social healing powers of narrative in ways that journalism can learn much from:

1)  Literary critics such as Wayne Booth, Northrop Frye, and Martha Nussbaum have described the power of narrative to allow readers to imaginatively explore dangerous ethical, moral, and foreign realms, and in this way to safely develop the broad range of knowledge needed to cope with a dangerous and complex world. Narratives in this literary critical tradition are said to exercise the moral imagination as the active agent of healing because it bridges the gap between “self” and “other.”

2)  The mid-20th century tradition of social anthropology produced dozens of ethnographers from Oxford, Harvard, and other academic redoubts who studied “native” societies in Africa, Asia, and Micronesia. Traditional healers in these societies commonly diagnosed individual physical illness as caused by social ruptures such as a theft, argument, or divorce. The disease was healed by repairing the social injury, usually by a ritualized public telling and re-telling of the story.

3)  “Narrative medicine” has blossomed in recent decades, in which physicians have focused on the role played by language and storytelling in every stage of illness from its onset, to its course in a patient’s life, to the cure. An enormous body of experimental evidence reported in prestigious medical journals such as Science, Lancet, and JAMA have measured the positive therapeutic effects of journals kept by patients suffering from asthma, fibromyalgia, depression, chronic pain syndromes, high blood pressure, and host of other complaints.


Journalists like physicians often meet people on the worst days of their lives.

What can we journalists learn from narrative physicians about how stories that are skillfully extracted and retold help to heal individuals, families, and communities?


How social healing compares to physical healing is another area that may teach journalists a great deal about their profession’s potential.

The English poet John Milton argued in 1644, in his classic free speech polemic Areopagitica, that the press should not be muzzled because reading in books was a safe way to learn about evil.

“He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian,” Milton wrote.

By this theory, learning through the imagination inoculates people against doing evil by giving them a taste of the serious consequences, without subjecting them to actual risk.


Medical researchers with an interest in narrative have extended the metaphor of journalism-as-societal-immune-system in concrete terms.

The body’s immune system is like a mirror image of a healthy human society, according to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and meditation teacher at the University of Massachusetts.

“There seems to be a continual conversation among all the members of the society of cells that constitute the body,” Kabat-Zinn writes in Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

This conversation is “carried on through the language of immune signaling and recognition. The conversation coordinates all the various functions of the body on a cellular level. Without it, even in the absence of infection, the body would degrade.”

In conversation with the Dalai Lama, the French neuroscientist Francisco Varela has described the human immune system as a neurochemical network that facilitates a continual “conversation” between the body’s many parts.

Just as the human immune system alerts the whole body to send healing chemical agents to a local wound, so a newspaper story about a local crisis alerts a whole community or nation to send resources where they are needed.

“What is the identity of France?” Varela asks. “Communication creates this identity, the tissue of social life, as people meet each other and talk. It is the life beat of the country. You walk in the cities and see people in cafes, writing books, raising children, cooking – but most of all, talking.

“Something analogous happens in the immune system as we construct our bodily identity,” he says. “From the perspective of network immunology, the immune system is nothing other than an enabler of the constant communication between every cell in your body, much as neurons link distant places in the nervous system.”


A similarly fine-grained analysis of journalistic narratives might reveal in greater detail the actual mechanisms of socially healing speech. The five main components of narrative – scene, character, voice, plot, and conclusion – could each be assessed for their healing potentials:

A) Scene: Journalists know that scenes can be made rich in symbolic associations that stir violent atavistic impulses; while others may be fashioned to exert a more pacific effect. Why shouldn’t this sensitivity translate into a journalist’s decision therefore to describe the scenes of a story based on their ability to heal social rifts and divides? Scenes could be both chosen and described in ways that heightened their potential to evoke a healing response in readers and their communities.

B) Character: Building characters in stories is about building trust, creating human beings whose authentic actions convince readers that they are being given a picture of reality as it is. A character in a story is healing to readers in the degree to which she is authentic, that is, reveals reality as it is and dispels harmful illusions.

C) Voice: Need we say much about the potentially healing properties of voice? Or its opposite potentials? How quickly most of us can remember the sound of a human voice that touched and eased our souls like a healing rain.

D) Plot: Plot invites inquiry into how “here” is connected to “there.” The loss of a wallet in Tokyo may warn of a murder in Minneapolis. By connecting the local and the global, by bridging the gap between here and there, you and me, self and other, plot therefore always carries the potential to train a mind in active social healing.

E) Conclusion: An enduring trait of much traditional narrative, a satisfying conclusion is also the most problematic from a healing point of view. Some narrative psychologies, such as one finds in Buddhism, explicitly warn against understanding reality through stories whose meanings are enforced by authority. Open-ended stories that allow multiple interpretations, these theories say, are more likely to exert a healing effect than ones that tie up all the loose ends. Narrative physicians emphasize that doctors who state their diagnoses in hypothetical and open-ended language often achieve better results than those who speak in conclusive, summary fashion. Journalists who wish to socially heal might well remember, similarly, that often it is best to let their readers write the endings to stories themselves.

Copyright @ 2007 The McGill Report