Use narrative-market fit to judge the merit of a news story.
Silicon Valley investors look for product-market fit. Markets have certain problems that haven’t yet been solved. To identify a solution to market problems, founders tinker with their products until they catch and enter and start growing fast. When the puzzle pieces click, founders say they’ve found product-market fit.
Media narratives are governed by an analogous idea: narrative-market fit. The closer an article’s topic reflects the zeitgeist, the better narrative-market fit it has. Just as companies with product-market fit are more likely to be funded, stories with narrative-market fit are more likely to be written. When a topic is in the public eye, writers are incentivized to focus on them at the expense of more important but less popular stories. Instead of fitting the narrative to reality, they fit the narrative to their readers’ demands.
For example, as I write this sentence, stories that condemn billionaires, stock buybacks, and Silicon Valley technology companies are near-guaranteed to receive clicks. Like an airport walkway, these articles can spread across the Internet with no effort because they fly with the tailwinds of public opinion.
The media runs on narratives because narratives sell better than facts.
To increase the reach of their stories, journalists often identify emerging narratives and look for facts to support the story they want to tell. For example, a reporter at a major newspaper recently interviewed me for a story about the decline of higher education and the subsequent rise of online learning. True to the thesis of this essay, her questions focused on narratives instead of specifics. Instead of asking questions like “what’s the biggest challenge online education faces?” she asked questions like “Will Coronavirus lead to the death of universities?” The reality was too complicated to give a yes or no answer. State colleges and Ivy League institutions will be just fine. Nevertheless, enrollment will fall if schools cancel the upcoming semester, which will hurt small liberal arts colleges the most.
I stressed nuance in every answer. One month later, I received the following response: “It was a pleasure chatting with you and I apologize that it wasn’t possible to quote you directly on this occasion. That’s just how it goes sometimes when an editor has a particular vision for a story.” In short, my answers weren’t printed because they lacked narrative-market fit.
To be sure, even if narratives shine the spotlight on a fraction of reality, they aren’t all bad. They glue a society together. People can’t coordinate without a shared vision for the future. A society without narratives is one without shared projects or faith in the legitimacy of its institutions.
Futurist Peter Schwartz calls this “the Official Future,” the shared assumptions about what is going to happen in the future. Here’s how he summarizes the history of America’s narrative:
“The United States was destined to remain what it had always been: a two-party multicultural federalist democracy, dedicated to capitalism, technological optimism, and creating better lives for our children; likewise, internationally, the United States would remain the center of the global order as well as the world’s greatest military power, what Madeline Albright called ‘the indispensable nation,’ dedicated to promoting economic growth, democracy, and human rights the world over.”
The Official Future is a unifying idea, even if the map of history unfolds as a series of surprises. After all, history is a record of important, but unexpected events. Nobody knows what tomorrow will look like, but stories that match the Official Future are more likely to have narrative-market fit.
Media narratives have positive feedback loops. The more a narrative captures public attention, the more journalists write about it, and the more a narrative continues to capture public attention. Eventually, everybody is focused on the same story. That isn’t to say that all narratives don’t get the facts wrong, but cultural trends often get blown out of proportion like a friendly wrestling match that turns into a brawl.
The market for potential narratives numbers in the thousands, but national media outlets tend to focus on only a handful at a time. Most dominate the public consciousness for a week, only to be forgotten shortly thereafter.
But other narratives change the undercurrents in the waters of society. Pulling like a riptide, they’re dangerous because they’re hard to see. For those, we should be careful about the narratives we accept because they have recurring feedback loops and don’t self-correct.
In a cycle I call the Narrative Trap, bad narratives lead to bad policy, and bad policy leads to bad outcomes, which further bad narratives.
In that way, society is like a cruise ship. It turns slowly but moves with force once it settles on a direction. It won’t self-correct unless you turn the wheel, so traveling too far in the wrong direction could send it into a cliff. Looking for narrative-market fit is like holding a compass in your pocket because even though it can’t tell you much about where you are, it says a lot about where you’re going.
Whenever you read the headline of an article, ask yourself: “Does this story have narrative-market fit?”
The more fit it has, the less you should pay attention to it.
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Note: This essay was inspired by this tweet from 2017.