Why stories refuse to die

28 December 2017
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As media outlets of all shapes and sizes produce the inevitable litany of “year in review” stories, columns, features and podcasts, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that stories often live on long… long after the event they’re about is over and done with.

There are three important factors which contribute to this often-annoying reality – one inevitable, one cynical, and one a part of how stories shape our world.

Incidents naturally have lengthy tails of commercial disputes, court proceedings, investigations etc. and as these processes work themselves out over years or decades, new developments will attract attention and keep the story alive, which is almost inevitable as the subject of the story is still developing and changing – the subject is not yet dead.

However, even once a situation is well and truly resolved, the story may live on through those who stand to profit from the retelling. Most obviously, this is a journalist or the editor of a news website who returns to the story year after year knowing that it will attract clicks and advertising dollars. Less obviously, an emergency responder includes it on his/her CV, a communications professional (yours truly) talks about it over cocktails, and a professor who has no connection with the original case uses it as a case study in his/her class year after year. Rarely is any ill will intended, but the continual revisiting of the story can have a lasting impact (good or bad) on the story’s subject.

Finally, and I think most interestingly, there is the story itself which becomes part of how we understand events in the world around us – the story becomes part of the zeitgeist, part of the essential background to any story even vaguely related to the original situation – this happens in both the short and long term.

On 21st August 2017 the United States warship USS John S McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors. Initial coverage of the incident was predictably massive, but died away after a week. Then on 1st November when the investigation report about the incident was released, there was again a spike in coverage – the story was being kept alive by developments in the story. However, this spike was dwarfed three weeks later by a spike on 22nd November, but there were no developments in the story on that day, so why the spike? On the 22nd a US Navy plane crashed off the coast of Japan. I will leave it to the reader to decide how much of a legitimate connection there is between a ship collision and an aircraft crash three months later and over 4,000km away, but because the story of the collision took on a life of its own as part of the context for the US Navy, a large proportion of the coverage of the aircraft crash also dedicated significant space to retelling the story of the USS John S McCain.

Graph of daily media mentions of the USS John S McCain colision during November 2017.

Much longer term, incidents can also come to take on a life of their own. The Costa Concordia was widely compared to the Titanic, despite the similarities between a grounding on the Mediterranean Coastline and hitting an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic being limited. But most people making the comparison were not actually thinking of the events of 1912, rather they were thinking of a story popularised by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Similarly, in North America, oil spills are often compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill because the story itself has become a cultural reference point, despite the fact that it was neither particularly recent nor even one of the largest tanker spills in history at only number 35.

Stories come to define companies and entire industries. Apple is defined by Steve Jobs’ struggle against conformity. Union Carbide is defined by the tragedy at Bhopal, and Newton is inexorably linked to an apple which probably never fell on his head. The mechanics which lead some stories to become part of our cultural narrative and others to fade from memory are complex, but the process can be influenced – don’t be defined by a story you didn’t write.


Dustin Eno
COO & Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467
E: dustin.eno@navigateresponse.com

Twitter: @dustineno

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