A Narrative Week in Review

by Dash Elhauge

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published March 6, 2015

In 2013, Slate published a piece entitled “You Won’t Finish This Article.” Using a web analytics software called Chartbeat, Slate discovered that by the third sentence of a typical online Slate articles, 38 percent of readers were gone. The average reader made it halfway.

Slate isn’t the only publication having this problem. The American Press Institute reported this May that 59% of adult Americans don’t dive deeper into a particular subject than the headlines. In 2008, the Nielsen Norman Group, which does large-scale studies of user experience for businesses, found that Americans read 20 percent of the average web page.

So what does this mean for our understanding of particular news topics? We are a nation of skimmers and, as such, our understanding is often cursory—or at least, based on what can be gleaned from the first sentence or paragraph of an article. This makes it especially difficult to nail down how Americans are developing their understandings of particular topics. Some years ago, Americans read most news stories from their local paper. Tracking down how we were informed (or ill-informed) could be done with relative ease. But today, we read an amalgamation of headlines and early-appearing sentences from a variety of news pieces. Our understanding of news topics isn’t crafted by particular authors or particular news sources, but by piecing together segments of the news stories we’ve elected to read. In essence, the news story narrative that Americans know is a sort of metanarrative that they form on their own.

What do we mean by narrative? In his book The Poetics of Prose, the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov hypothesizes that narrative is composed of two episodes: “those which describe a state… and those which describe the passage from one state to the other.” Based on this, one definition of narrative is any series of events with logical consequence. From this it follows that there must also be a temporal dimension to our definition as well: the sequence of events must give some sense of the passage of time.

The American reader spends time with various bits and pieces of articles rather than the full narratives of the articles themselves. So the question we need to ask is: what narratives are they forming as they read the news?

What I’ve constructed below attempts to answer that question. It’s a representation of the metanarrative Americans might have read on the subject of terrorism the week beginning February 22, as if all the bits and pieces of information about terrorism that week were part of one giant article. Since research suggests that Americans rarely read deep into news pieces, it is constructed entirely from first sentences of articles.

Here’s how I formed this metanarrative: I began by running a Google News Search with the word “terror,” restricting results to articles that ran the week of February 22 in American publications. With Google News Search, this also ended up searching for articles that contain the words “terrorist” or “terrorism.” This search returned about 500 results. I then took the first 50 of these results, which had been sorted by “relevance” according to Google News. I took the first sentences from these 50 articles and compiled them into a list. Then, I went about trying to form a narrative from these first sentences.

In the process of forming the narrative, I allowed myself three operations. (1) I could organize the sentences into paragraphs as I saw fit and put them in any order I thought formed a narrative. (2) I could cut any sentence, generally to prevent redundancy or irrelevance (for example a piece on a band called Terror). I cut 15. Anything else that didn’t fit the narrative had to be placed in a field below labeled “outliers.” (3) I could add section headers in bold to try and give readers a firmer sense of the narrative I was trying to form. Every sentence in the metanarrative below is a sentence that actually appeared in an American publication.

One might argue that the first two operations give me too much editing power; can’t a narrative be formed from any random set of 50 sentences, if I’m allowed to pick and order them to my liking? With a significant quantity of cuts or outliers, it would certainly seem I had formed a dishonest representation of the narrative. But I’d argue that, in any 50 sentences that center around a particular topic, there’s actually very few narrative interpretations that make sense. Narrative arcs are inherent to certain sets of events. Imagine if I told you: “the cat climbed the fence; the cat saw the bird over the fence; the cat ate the bird; the cat was looking for food.” Isn’t there a clear narrative to be formed here, even though there are 120 ways to order this sequence of events? Similarly, while my narrative interpretation may not be the only one, it’s probably one of the few options that fits, and certainly seems like it’s one that is present in the minds of many American newsreaders.


The Metanarrative

A Calm, Mystic Day

A mysterious, well-built underground tunnel found along a Toronto university campus near a venue to be used during this summer’s Pan Am games has authorities on high alert for a possible terror threat.1 The Pentagon let slip that one of its training camps to help fight Islamic State terrorists is in Jordan—information the pro-US kingdom had specifically requested be kept private, and the latest gaffe in a series of sensitive leaks coming out of the Department of Defense.2


Darkness Looms

The terror groups are getting more ruthless, their attacks more brazen.3 Today al-Qaeda-type movements rule a vast area in northern and western Iraq, and eastern and northern Syria, several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama bin Laden.4 The latest disturbing video from ISIS shows what the Islamist group touts as the next generation of jihadist killers, pint-sized terror trainees who appear to be as young as 5 participating in drills and reciting verses from the Koran.5

It’s no small thing that a US court has confirmed that two groups often lauded as “moderates.”6 The Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization were found liable on Monday by a jury in Manhattan for their role in knowingly supporting six terrorist attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004 in which Americans were killed and injured.7 The head of Homeland Security is urging shoppers to be vigilant after al-Shabaab, a terror group tied to al-Qaeda, named Mall of America among potential targets for attacks.8 After a siege at a Kenyan mall two years ago, the FBI started staging mock attacks in US shopping centers during off hours to test their readiness, an official said.9

With a workplace shooting this week at an armed security company in New Jersey and a terrorist threat against Minnesota’s Mall of America, shootings and terror attacks are becoming a real threat in the United States.10


Al Shabaab Strikes Terror

Heavily armed police and security forces were deployed at shopping malls in Paris and throughout London after a video by a terror group in Somalia threatened attacks.11

A video released by Somali militant group al Shabaab this weekend threatening terror attacks against shopping malls in the West boosted claims by the Obama administration that a possible government shutdown this week could leave the United States vulnerable to such attacks.12 Law enforcement authorities in the San Diego area sought Monday to assure the public that they were taking all possible security steps in the aftermath of a Somalia-based terror group’s threat to do violence at malls in the United States and other Western countries.13 All malls in America are increasing security measures after a terror group called for attacks similar to the one in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013.14 Video surfaced Saturday purportedly posted by the Somali terror group al-Shabaab, calling for attacks on the Mall of America and other places.15 A terror group with ties to al-Qaeda released an online video Saturday appearing to call for attacks on Western malls, including at least one US shopping center.16 At shopping malls across South Florida security was visible, but typical, two days after a Somali terror group issued a call for attacks on shopping malls in the US, Canada and Britain.17 The terror group that carried out the deadly attack at a shopping mall in Kenya is calling for a similar attack on a western mall, specifically mentioning the Mall of America, among others.18 The Rogue Valley mall has addressed the recent terror threat on US malls by the terror group Al Shabaab, responsible for the 2013 attack at a high-end shopping mall in Kenya.19

Are our malls secure?20


American Bravery

New threats made by terrorists to attack malls, including in the United States, have not stopped people from going to local malls.21 As she sat at a table outside the Starbucks in the Jersey Gardens mall today, Karen Robinson said her background gives her a unique attitude toward terrorism.22 As a mother and grandmother, I am concerned about the current direction our use of power in securing my family’s safety is taking us, and the world at large.23 There have been no threats specifically targeting the Westfield Old Orchard mall, but Skokie police say they are aware of the video that calls for attacks at shopping malls in the US, Canada and United Kingdom.24 Threats made by a terror group won’t stop Garden State shoppers from heading to the malls.25 Residents of Bergen County say they aren’t scared of threats against Western malls made this past weekend.26


The Crackdown–America Won’t Back Down

New anti-terror laws will see 100 million cellphone users in Pakistan forced to submit their fingerprints to a national database or get cut off from the network.27 French authorities on Monday seized the passports of six people suspected of trying to join Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, the first such confiscation under a measure adopted in November as part of a new, stricter, counterterrorism law.28


Judgment Day

A federal jury in New York has found the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable for a series of terrorist attacks that killed or wounded Americans in Israel during the early 2000s, officials announced Monday.29 A federal judge on Monday sentenced two Inland Empire men to 25 years in prison for plotting to travel to Afghanistan, join al Qaeda and commit a violent jihad against American military and government targets overseas.30 Two Californian men were sentenced Monday to 25 years in prison for conspiring to support terrorists and kill Americans overseas, federal prosecutors said.31 A British man accused of plotting a terrorist attack has gone on trial for a second time under unusually secret conditions.32 The Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization were found liable on Monday by a jury in Manhattan for their role in knowingly supporting six terrorist attacks in Israel, between 2002 and 2004, in which Americans were killed and injured.33




Terrorism is a complex issue—there are terrorist cells all around the world that antagonize the United States. Some have allegiances with particular regions or religions; others have none. Some of them operate within our borders. Their motivations aren’t always clear-cut enough that we can categorically declare them evil. So then why does a metanarrative with an extremely clear moral binary emerge? One explanation might be that the media purposefully tries to satisfy our desire for a hero-epic narrative by running stories that fall within this familiar structure so they’ll be more memorable to readers. For example, perhaps the piece that opened with “As a mother and grandmother, I am concerned about the current direction our use of power in securing my family’s safety is taking us, and the world at large,” was meant to engage the American desire to see the “American Bravery” section of the narrative I’ve outlined filled. Maybe understanding that Americans now interpret the news through metanarrative, combined with their desire for the hero-epic narrative, is the best way to find out why the news landscape surrounding terrorism looks the way it does.

Finally, let’s take a look at the outliers to the metanarrative, those few sentences which didn’t fit into the metanarrative formed above:

Egypt is now on the front lines of the battle against ISIS, and some of its leaders are making new accusations about the Obama administration’s war on terror.34 Somali groups and leaders in Minnesota are uniting to condemn the recent al-Shabab video, which calls for an attack on the Mall of America—while also battling prejudices that may unfairly paint local Muslims as a threat.35

These are the stories that slip, that don’t fit in the narrative of being an American in the War on Terror this week. Egypt, despite being on the front lines, doesn’t like the way the US is handling terrorism. Muslim communities in Minnesota are distancing themselves from the Somali extremists. But neither of these stories fit within our tight, hero-epic narrative. They cast a shadow of moral doubt that makes the narrative too messy to read. It’s not that Americans are even necessarily unwilling to accept these ideas because they’re alien; it’s that, given the framing hero-epic narrative the news is presented in on a week-to-week basis, these facts aren’t essential. These ideas aren’t being dismissed; they’re just not being engaged, the same way we ignore the paragraph-long description of a petunia in the midst of a gripping mystery novel.

This serves as some explanation for why many Muslims in this country have such a difficult time distancing themselves from terrorists. It just doesn’t fit into the weekly narrative of the American reader. If the news narrative of terrorism was centered around conflict between Muslim communities in America and American views of Muslims, they’d at least have a place as one of the key members of a conflict—but the way the American discourse on terrorism seems to be organized, this is impossible. If we want to change the conversation surrounding terrorism, we have to start recognizing that.

DASH ELHAUGE B’17 loved it; went to the SciLi; read the Indy.


Citations for sentences (article title, source)

1. Mysterious tunnel found built near Pan Am games venue in Toronto sparks terror fears, New York Daily News

2. Jordan furious over Pentagon leak on secret anti-terror training camp, The Washington Times

3. Brazen, brutal: 5 terror groups making headlines this month, CNN

4. ISIS is proof of the failed “war on terror”, Quartz

5. Terror trainees: New ISIS video shows indoctrination of kids as young as 5, Fox News

6. Torts and terror, New York Post

7. Palestinian groups are found liable at Manhattan Terror Trial, The New York Times

8. Homeland Security chief: Be ‘vigilant’ at malls, USA Today

9. US staged mock mall attacks to test readiness after Kenya siege, official says, CNN

10. What to do in the event of a terror attack, CBN News

11. Malls in Paris, London raise security after terror threat, Bloomberg News

12. Warning of US vulnerability to terror attacks during DHS shutdown might be ‘playing politics’, Vice News

13. FBI, police monitor local malls amid terror threats, Fox 5 San Diego

14. Malls on high alert after terror threats, ABC 57 News

15. MOA named as possible target in alleged terror video, MPR News

16. Terror video encourages attack on mall chain with Chicago-area locations, CBS Chicago

17. South Florida malls mellow amid terror “threat”, CBS Miami

18. Terror group threatens mall of America, others, in new video, CBS Minnesota

19. Rogue Valley Mall addresses Al-Shabaab terror threat, Kobi 5 NBC

20. Somerset residents: We’re not too scared by terror threats to malls,

21. Mall terror threat fails to deter local shoppers, WKBN

22. Jersey Garden shoppers undeterred by terror threats against US malls

23. Our failed war on terror, Baltimore Sun

24. Local mall-goers respond to Al-Shabaab terror threats, WGN

25. NJ shoppers undeterred by terror threats to malls,

26. Bergen County residents not deterred by terror group’s mall threats,

27. Pakistan anti-terror laws force 100M cellphone users to be fingerprinted, NBC

28. Anti-terror measure gets first test as France confiscates passports of six would-be jihadis, Vice News

29. New York finds Palestinian groups liable for terror attacks, LA Times

30. Inland Empire terror suspects sentenced to 25 years in prison, San Bernardino Country Sun

31. 2 Californians get 25 years in Federal Prison for terror try, Associated Press

32. Retrial begins of UK man accused of plotting terror attack, ABC

33. Palestinian groups are found liable at Manhattan Terror Trial, The New York Times

34. Egypt: US playing ‘double game’ in war on terror, CBN

35. Minnesota Somalis unite to denounce Mall of America terror threat,