Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Too Much Human Interest

Antiquarian
Antiquarian, Beirut, 2003

Media turns problems into human interest stories. An attempted assassination turns into a tragic story of the child struck down before her time; the grandmother heroically tackling the shooter; the surgeons fighting for the targeted politician's life. And, of course, a meticulous examination of everything that went wrong in the would-be assassin's life. A bidonville in a third-world city turns into an examination of a suitably doe-eyed slum child's daily struggle for existence. A threatened whale population turns into a story of a whale caught in a hole in the ice and the enormous effort of attempting to rescue it. The problems of an impoverished neighborhood become a story of one inhabitant's struggle to better himself through education and honest work, as another takes to crime, dealing drugs and hustling for position in a gang.

Human interest stories aren't all bad, of course. At their best, they can turn an abstract, hard to understand, and complex problem into something you can relate to. Human-interest stories can put a face on poverty, war, deprivation, drug abuse, corruption, or political instability. They can educate and agitate and help us make sense of the incredibly complex web of life we live in.

Usually they don't.

Instead of illustrating the larger issues it's supposedly about, the human-interest story slides into trite sentimentality and dangerous oversimplification. Instead of mobilizing us to do something about those larger problems, we may be moved to do something about the particular humans—or whales, or cute furry creatures—the story is about. Once the doe-eyed slum child is out of the slum and at school, everybody feels all nice and warm inside and can sleep peacefully, even if a hundred children just took her place, outside the frame. The bad neighborhood story will leave us feeling suitably edified about the good kid going to school, and suitably saddened, with a touch of outrage, about the one packing heat and dealing dope. Most human-interest stories aren't about what they're supposedly about at all. They're just about getting our emotional rocks off and then forgetting about it.

It's quite natural for us to latch onto these stories. A doe-eyed slum kid has a face we can relate to. Progressive taxation just feels like some corrupt politician wants our hard-earned. The kid is always more compelling. This is even more compelling if the underlying mythos is that of the self-made man; the triumphant individual in charge of his own destiny, making his fortune with grit, hard work, and determination. This combination will steer us toward simple, clear-cut explanations, and get us to reject—violently, even—any attempt to relate individual stories to social structures; they're dismissed as 'society made me do it' style abdication of responsibility.

There's no way to create a rock-hard evidential chain showing that just this particular kid wasn't actually born in a slum because of just this particular redistributive policy. We can't create such a neat chain of causation between Sarah Palin's electoral target practice and Jared Loughner's mental landscape either. The world just doesn't work in neat, clear-cut ways like that. Karma matures in complicated and unpredictable ways.

Getting caught up in a vicarious emotional storm whipped up by human-interest stories in already emotional events doesn't help. It's not compassionate, only sentimental, and it's a huge distraction that stops us from looking at the big picture; the social, political, ideological, rhetorical, tribal, and other structural features that make our society what it is.

We have way too many human-interest stories being told, and most of them are just emotional porn.

14 comments:

  1. I have noticed over the past 5 years or so as well the emotionalization of news broadcasts as well. When announcers want to spin something a certain way there are vocal characteristics and facial expressions that they employ, even with factual data, to indicate how it is supposed to be received on an emotional level.

    The first time this was really obvious was when one person actually interjected "Awww" as one might do seeing something really cute and fuzzy, after a story. I thought "is that in the script" and then began to notice it a lot more. And I compared old news clips with newer ones and it is a marked change.

    Emotional appeal or disgust will almost always over ride rational, analytical and factual elements unless people are a lot more media and emotionally literate. Seeing what is right in front of people is becoming more difficult as the levels of social over stimulations of emotions get higher.

    In the media today we are awash in this emotional goo to such a point that there's almost nothing else. And it's addicting too.

    That emotional "hit" or ejaculation seems to be the only thing that matters. Doesn't matter if it's sentimentality, "cuteness", anger and wrath or whatever gets someone off. And any appeal to take that away from them by rational means will be met with a reaction similar to that one gets by pouring an addicts drugs down the toilet.

    With that hit-seeking filter in place what is received is only valued for that kind of property and so perception is further distorted and what is really being said is lost.

    "emotional porn" is the perfect description of it.

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  2. All that is one part of why I stopped watching TV. Can't escape it, though; online and print is almost as bad.

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  3. I'm not sure how much this is happening elsewhere, but my local Florida news, as well as the national U.S. news, up to and including NPR, are over-sentimentalized and -dramatized. It's part of what has made me stop following such news in general.
    Everything in moderation, however. Last fall a close friend mine was tragically killed. At a press conference, the sheriff's spokesman recited the facts of the event, and added a few kind words to express how vibrant of a life it was that had been taken. To us who knew and loved the victim just that little extra dose of empathy and humanizing an otherwise procedural and analytical event made all the difference.

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  4. There is an appropriateness to emotional responses. When it is genuine and comforting that's helpful.

    Too often though it is manipulative and fake. (new speaker of the house in the US for example-cries at the drop of a hat)

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  5. Yes,it's the trend away from reporting facts clearly and responding with analytical thinking, hard thinking, into events as entertainment, all superficiality and show, style with only a sweet substance. Thinking is hard, and the dry but true products it tends to produce get little attention or respect, while the types of emotional parables and nursery rhymes you describe so well require no effort to understand and provide more of that bane of modern life, instant gratification.

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  6. thank you buddy for such a nice article. i always love reading you. please do me a favor and keep on publishing such work. i am one of your loyal visitor

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  7. Excellent post as usual. I think my (current) view on human interest stories is a bit more positive though. There are indeed a lot of them, and the share of bad ones of course heavily depends on the media one follows: articles and especially headlines in the yellow press may often be utterly pointless, ignore the important stuff or be downright disinformative. On the other hand, human interest stories can serve a lot of purposes.

    If you simplify things, news have two purposes: to entertain, and to make a difference. Being educational about something can be seen as both. Human interest stories may increase the entertainment value, but it doesn't necessarily take away from the other two. This is the case for example when the story - like you described - turns a complex problem into something you can relate to. And this is of course a prime example of a great human interest story.

    Let's consider the Chile mine workers. They are an interesting example of how reaching a critical level of interest stirs up an exponentially growing amount of interest. At first, one could think that it doesn't share the same characteristics as the examples you mentioned - being stories behind a bigger story that is. But it is a part of a bigger phenomenon: it gives a face to the safety problems in various mines around the world, and accordingly also spreads knowledge. In the process one might end up learning something about the society in Chile as well.

    Nevertheless, one might criticize that this being just one of many similar mine accidents around the world, it shouldn't have been given such special attention if many other similar accidents aren't given the same resources. But does special attention really matter, if the
    alternative is just less attention and resources to all accidents? Or does it even matter if companies take the opportunity offered by media and equip the mine workers with Oakley glasses and give them several presents? The mineworkers having to cope with all the media attention
    is probably the biggest downside to all this - or to some of the workers at least.

    The attention to the Chile case served in two ways: it increased awareness about safety issues and it gave a serious boost to the saving efforts. And as it, in human interest terms, turned out to have a happy ending, it was actually in a positive way a very rare piece of news, since usually it's the bad news that make the headlines.

    As for the rest of human interest stories, there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, even if a story didn't really raise
    awareness about something significant, it might manage to create the economical or social interest for helping a certain invididual or small group. Even if there are others who would need the help as much if not more, the harsh truth is that the alternative would often be that no-one would get the help. Thus, even some documentaries telling "shocking stories", which may be seen as exploiting someone with a nasty medical condition, may be for the good, if the person gets help through this focused interest. Secondly, if a pointless story behind a significant story has the effect of drawing the attention of someone who didn't otherwise pay attention to the real problem, the pointless story has been useful. Thirdly, even the independent pointless stories can often be regarded as harmless: if you don't like them, you don't have to read them.

    So, all in all, isn't the only real downside to human interest stories the situation when they truly take room from the important stuff, or when they mislead to simplified (like you suggested) or even false conclusions? But is that really only characteristic to human interest stories? Don't all kinds of articles share the same potential of being misleading or emphasizing minor matters?

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  8. Excellent post as usual. I think my (current) view on human interest stories is a bit more positive though. There are indeed a lot of them, and the share of bad ones of course heavily depends on the media one follows: articles and especially headlines in the yellow press may often be utterly pointless, ignore the important stuff or be downright disinformative. On the other hand, human interest stories can serve a lot of purposes.

    If you simplify things, news have two purposes: to entertain, and to make a difference. Being educational about something can be seen as both. Human interest stories may increase the entertainment value, but it doesn't necessarily take away from the other two. This is the case for example when the story - like you described - turns a complex problem into something you can relate to. And this is of course a prime example of a great human interest story.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Let's consider the Chile mine workers. They are an interesting example of how reaching a critical level of interest stirs up an exponentially growing amount of interest. At first, one could think that it doesn't share the same characteristics as the examples you mentioned - being stories behind a bigger story that is. But it is a part of a bigger phenomenon: it gives a face to the safety problems in various mines around the world, and accordingly also spreads knowledge. In the process one might end up learning something about the society in Chile as well.

    Nevertheless, one might criticize that this being just one of many similar mine accidents around the world, it shouldn't have been given such special attention if many other similar accidents aren't given the same resources. But does special attention really matter, if the
    alternative is just less attention and resources to all accidents? Or does it even matter if companies take the opportunity offered by media and equip the mine workers with Oakley glasses and give them several presents? The mineworkers having to cope with all the media attention
    is probably the biggest downside to all this - or to some of the workers at least.

    The attention to the Chile case served in two ways: it increased awareness about safety issues and it gave a serious boost to the saving efforts. And as it, in human interest terms, turned out to have a happy ending, it was actually in a positive way a very rare piece of news, since usually it's the bad news that make the headlines.

    ReplyDelete
  10. As for the rest of human interest stories, there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, even if a story didn't really raise awareness about something significant, it might manage to create the economical or social interest for helping a certain invididual or small group. Even if there are others who would need the help as much if not more, the harsh truth is that the alternative would often be that no-one would get the help. Thus, even some documentaries telling "shocking stories", which may be seen as exploiting someone with a nasty medical condition, may be for the good, if the person gets help through this focused interest. Secondly, if a pointless story behind a significant story has the effect of drawing the attention of someone who didn't otherwise pay attention to the real problem, the pointless story has been useful. Thirdly, even the independent pointless stories can often be regarded as harmless: if you don't like them, you don't have to read them.

    So, all in all, isn't the only real downside to human interest stories the situation when they truly take room from the important stuff, or when they mislead to simplified (like you suggested) or even false conclusions? But is that really only characteristic to human interest stories? Don't all kinds of articles share the same potential of being misleading or emphasizing minor matters?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Re Chile: but did it? Maybe I'm too cynical, but from where I'm at it looked like a typical media circus with a happy ending and great photo ops for politicians and CEO's, after which everybody went home and nothing changed with regards to mine safety. There have been several mining accidents since, which barely registered.

    My point is precisely what you say—they do distract from the important stuff, do take the place of facts, analysis, and putting things into context, and do lead to false conclusions. Other things do too, but human-interest ones are particularly dangerous because (a) they're emotionally so gripping and (b) because they're so pervasive. They give an illusion of being up to date with what's going on in the world, but the picture they paint is very misleading.

    There are exceptions, of course. But this is the big media picture as far as I can see it.

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  12. Chile was a Media circus with a big M, yes. But I've understood that had there not been such an interest, the whole rescue attempt might have not been the success it ended up being. Not sure about that though. Any way, in the end nothing much probably changed, that's true.

    But did it increase awareness? Definitely not as much as the matter would deserve, but I do believe that it did to some extent. When I saw the short articles (microscopic in fact compared to the Chile case) about some accidents in China and New Zealand I did read them with different thoughts in mind as compared to the situation had I not heard anything about Chile. One thought that they brought to mind was of course that of asymmetrical interest between the cases. But the Chile case did make these cases also feel more concrete.

    It is of course another thing, does the awareness affect anything. Well, at least it should be a step in the right direction: without awareness nothing will happen, that's for sure.

    The points a and b that you mention there are true, but on the other hand those kinds of stories may be the only ones that some are willing to pay attention to, and on the other hand those who would rather concentrate on hard facts, can try to do just that. Of course then there indeed is an abundance of human interest stories if those seeking for the hard facts / hard analysis just can't seem to find them, even though the facts would have been readily available for the journalists.

    I reckon there is no clear-cut solution for the optimal hard fact / human interest ratio either. :)

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  13. No clear-cut formula, no. I just think the balance has swung rather too far in one direction now. It wasn't always like this, you know.

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  14. Yep, the ratio probably has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Not sure if I find it that bad though. I'll have to pay more attention to this in the future. It might be that I'll start finding them all too excessive too, once I start consciously recognizing them.

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