Friday, October 16, 2009

Human Interest Story? Sorry, Not Interested

I admit that I have always been skeptical and unaffected by the majority of human interest stories. It's not that these efforts to tug at America's heart strings leave me cold and uncaring, but rather I rightly see them as an attempt to tug at our purse strings as well. Every so often a story, such as the brave pilot who quite incredibly landed a commercial aircraft in the Hudson river will come to light; situations like those deserve every mention and every laudatory bit of praise. However, for every one genuine story of high drama and unselfish heroism, there are four which are cynically lept upon and patently designed to hook in viewers. These are then given the hard sell by the excited, tension-building cadences of television anchors, compelling us, if not begging us to watch the story develop in front of our faces.

Though the Media (and certain members of the Obama Administration, if the story is to be believed) will chide us for our irresponsibility in jumping to conclusions or not taking into account the whole picture, in situations like the recent story regarding the six-year-old little boy who was said to be dangerously being carried by a runaway balloon when he was in fact hiding in his family's attic, the media looks more foolish than the most clueless blogger. Attempting to save face, the media is now questioning whether the entire matter was a cheap stunt. Whether it was or not is largely immaterial. News reporters rapaciously jumped aboard this story when only the most basic of facts had been confirmed, and the most glaring offenders were the twenty-four hour cable news networks. Child + perilous situation + novelty + human interest + potentially heroic rescue = media catnip.

Teachable moments™ like these can be directed at a variety of offenders. I might start with a few news outlets whose desperation to use this non-event for their own ends led them to play a bit fast and loose with journalistic restraint. Everyone stands to gain from a particularly juicy story, of course. Still, pardon my skepticism, what would have been accomplished if the matter had turned out to be true? What if there had been a stirring rescue followed by at least an hour's worth of self-congratulatory talk from the active participants in the rescue effort? A three-day-dialogue on bad parenting skills? A picture of the young boy on the cover of People? A satellite interview with the family and the child himself on the morning pseudo-news/variety hour of one's choosing? An eventual appearance on Oprah™? Aside from a nice distraction from our lives of not-quite-desperation, how does this help?

It did not, of course, turn out this way. As it stands, the media does not like to be punk'd, yet the irony in this instance is that the mainstream players unintentionally punk'd themselves. It is for reasons like these that the phrase "human interest" elicits yawns rather than heightened curiosity within me. I suppose maybe I see news purely in terms of substantive critique and a presentation of important information. My life is boringly normal enough and I don't need validation of mutual humanity in the form of the latest person who has bravely faced some challenge or distinguished himself or herself from the rest of the pack. Most of my personal heroes never faced a television camera in their whole of their lives and, if they ever exist in the public consciousness at all, they are often mere footnotes and shadowy phantoms in someone's forthcoming book or dissertation.

Fame is ephemeral enough, but soft news fame is its own kind of ephemeral cotton candy---here now, gone quickly, likely never to return. Those who court it know that the quickest way to maintain attention is to resort to sensation and to devise their own means of achieving it. When I was in undergrad, the Mass Communications 101 class I took taught us each of the ways which could be employed to grab the attention of the media. Those whose stated internal agenda is to achieve the spotlight would be well to memorize them, since they are truer now than ever, especially in a time of great transition. In a different time, this whole child in balloon facing great danger story would not have been instantly transformed into an established motif of vulnerable child fighting against a harsh environment. Facts would have been checked more judiciously. With three main cable networks fighting for the attention of an audience, each seeks to outdo the other. Competition can be good for everyone involved, but while each has carved out its own particular niche, one can still plainly observe squabbling over the coveted title of number one. A media with egg on its face again would be wise to not invest in eggs, since they have a way of boomeranging back to their thrower.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I flipped past this when you first posted it. (Oh no, even Kevin has something to say about the balloon boy.) Returning to it now, I think it's the only worthwhile comment I've run into about the whole affair. And the expression "media catnip" is one I may have to steal.