Not long ago I was reminded of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, which first started making the rounds some five years ago. As I re-watched it, I was struck by the continued relevance of her message:
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
We absorb stories in many different ways, but it has occurred to me lately that one of the most formative ways that stories take shape in our imaginations is through news headlines. In truth, few of us read entire news stories in print or online, and even fewer of us have the attention span that so-called “long-form journalism” requires. And for what it’s worth, I’m not aware of many people who actually watch the evening news in any sort of intentional way. But if you’re like me—someone who is on Twitter and Facebook with some regularity—you have a pretty good feel for what today’s headlines are. And when it comes to shaping the way we see the world, that’s a dangerous thing.
Adichie reminds us that no person, place, or issue can be understood through a single story—much less through a single headline. Without the broader picture that multiple overlapping stories provide, we’re left with stereotypes. Stereotypes, of course, generally aren’t entirely untrue. But they are always—yes, always—incomplete.