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The Human Interest Trap

Published in J-Source on Oct. 20, 2010

By Claude Adams

For the Chilean miners, as for the reporters who covered the story, the common theme of the 70-day drama in the desert was entrapment. The miners were trapped underground. The reporters were trapped in their narrow narrative: all human interest, all the time.

The miners found deliverance when they made it to the surface. The media, however, are left to deal with the critical post-mortems that invariably arise from this kind of event. They are accused of turning news into nuisance. They created a “circus,” they whipped up a “frenzy,” they stepped on people’s toes, violated privacy, and abandoned all proportionality in pursuing tears, conflict and melodrama.

In the process they left decorum behind. As Steven Bodzin of the The Christian Science Monitor reported, television cameramen roughly fought for their positions, even if it got in the way of family members who just wanted to celebrate. And once the celebrations started, reporters collapsed the tent in their rush to get close to the emotion. As if that wasn’t enough, they then dug into the awkward private lives of some of the miners.

Or else they gushed (MSNBC: “I think we need this as a world!”) or revealed their cultural cluelessness (“How do they get the doves to fly down there?” asked one reporter, not knowing that the Spanish for “doves” is an idiom for the packages sent down to the miners.)

Meanwhile, there were the stories they didn’t cover: the 250 miners who escaped the mine but lost their jobs, the shockingly poor safety record of the mine in question, the way the story was exploited by a billionaire president who had been criticized for not doing enough for Chile in the wake of last February’s earthquake. And the fact that as 33 miners were being pulled to safety, thousands of lives are lost every month in the world’s mines. Death isn’t nearly as compelling as deliverance.

They couldn’t do these other stories during the Rescue Countdown because they were trapped in the feel-good narrative of a resurrection story that would be choreographed to perfection. They were bound to one of the ruling principles of journalism of this kind of event: Never, ever, for even a second, take your eye off the singular human drama as it unfolds, even if every other reporter is tracking the same story, the same image. It’s the Iron Law of the Pack.

(I once heard a foreign editor argue that the “world”—meaning his audience—could only “handle” one major international story at any one time. This belief--that news consumers cannot cope with complexity and ambiguity--is at the root of the media’s embrace of the one-dimensional human interest story, to the exclusion of anything else.)

Imagine trying to convince a news editor back home that your time might be better served leaving Ground Zero and chasing another story. Say, how politicians and officials historically unconcerned about working conditions underground are now milking the rescue for its public relations value. Talk about spoiling the party!

So the miners became heroes through the simple act of survival under unpleasant conditions (hundreds of millions of anonymous Africans do this every day) and a lackluster president was elevated to world acclaim, just for being there. It’s a familiar bland black-and-white media template that’s perfectly suited to lazy journalism.

It’s a way of working, of course, that’s imposed on individual journalists by their bosses. There are few things riskier for a journalist than to depart from the standard text of a breaking human interest story, or worse, to be “missing” in pursuit of one’s own initiative when the story that everybody else is covering happens to break.

All this prevailed in the Chilean story. But there, the rescuers did one thing differently. They were smart enough to keep reporters a safe distance away, behind a fence. But even then, the rescue organizers had a captive audience. The Pack had little to do but to keep the cameras with their long-distance lens trained on the rescue shaft, with occasional segues to the encampment of anxious waiting families.

It was a subtle and nuanced negotiation between the Chilean government and the world press: We’ll give you proximity and pictures, but never forget that we own this story, and we’ll manage it our way.

Once upon a time, it was a different story altogether.

On a November day 25 years ago, in a mountainous region not far from Bogota, Colombia, a volcano erupted and propelled a mountain of mud onto the town of Armero, swallowing up 20,000 inhabitants in a few seconds. It took a day or two for the world’s press to arrive, but when we did, it was anarchy. We trampled over half-buried bodies, got in the way of rescue crews, searched for survivors to interview, and came to half-baked conclusions about the slowness of the government’s emergency response.

Inevitably, the Pack was drawn to a 13-year-old girl, Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped up to her chest in mud and debris. We took turns interviewing her, we did our stand-ups with Omayra in the background, we traced her life story, and we watched, hour after hour, as efforts to pull her out of the debris failed. One or two network reporters were determined to have the cameras rolling as Omayra breathed her last breath. That happened about 60 hours after the mudslide—a teenager expiring after an ordeal that had not a moment of privacy.

When the last survivors were pulled out, and the last of the dead were buried, we all went home and considered our work done.

But the lesson of Chile, as is the lesson of Rwanda and Haiti and a hundred other human interest hot spots, is that the real work of journalism, the grunt work, is often found away from the centre of the “action,” and after the camera lights have been turned off.

It’s Journalism 101 from the Wizard of Oz--the way out of the human interest trap. While everyone else is transfixed by smoke and lightning, take the time to look behind the curtain. Often that’s where you’ll find the real story.

Journalism gets mad

(Published in J-Source, Oct. 12, 2010)

By Claude Adams

To the many legacies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, you can add one more: The Journalism of Outrage. The natural disaster that nearly obliterated New Orleans five years ago made it okay, no, even fitting, for reporters to let loose that righteous indignation that lurks in all of us when we are witnesses to needless death and devastation, and we know the worst effects could have been prevented.

It’s not only setting aside objectivity. It’s raising the temperature, pointing a finger, holding someone accountable. It’s more than speaking truth to power; it’s assertively demanding an explanation, and maybe even throwing a figurative shoe when an honest answer isn’t forthcoming. “Cool is one thing,” said psychiatrist Frank Ochberg of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, reflecting on the emotions that were generated by the coverage of the Gulf Coast hurricanes. “Cold is something else.”

Katrina killed cold. Those of us who covered Rwanda and Haiti and the Asian tsunami, and prided ourselves on our reserve and professional detachment as we tip-toed around the bodies, got a shock when we watched the coverage of New Orleans. The rules of the game were changing. Here, finally, was gritty, hardcore journalism with a voice, an attitude. It was the end of deference.

“Excuse me, Senator,” remarked Anderson Cooper of CNN, as the US Senate leadership was congratulating itself for having passed an emergency funding bill. “I’m sorry for interrupting, I haven’t heard that because for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets . . . Because literally, there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the streets for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities (sic) to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out there?”

Call to arms

The tone was unmistakable: If you don’t “get it,” we are here to remind you of it over and over again throughout the news cycle. It was the newsman’s equivalent of the call to arms, to shake the foundations of a lethargic Big Government until it responds.

For NBC’s Brian Williams, the slow government reaction became a focus of the story. Williams recalled watching the U.S. Third Infantry Division in Iraq land a pallet of ready-to-eat meals, portable toilets and bottled water into an emergency zone 10 minutes after an order was issued. “What about these people in front of the (New Orleans) Convention Center—they didn’t deserve that?” he asked.

A TV critic in Seattle, Kay McFadden, remarked that the outrage showed America’s “passion for passion.” The storytellers, many of whom were themselves the victims of Katrina, had the right, even the moral duty, to get mad.

But the Journalism of Outrage is more than hectoring and finger-pointing. In New Orleans, it was the distilled proxy voice of a dispossessed population--wounded, homeless and feeling abandoned. Or as the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt put it: “Outrage is at its most effective when it is based on compassion; the sense that one is speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.”

The emergence of angry, compassion-based journalism is only a small part of Covering Disaster: Lessons from the Media Coverage of Katrina and Rita, a collection of essays edited by communication professors Ralph Izard and Jay Perkins, of Louisiana State University. But it’s easily the most evocative and important part because it makes such a strong case for aggressive advocacy in certain events.

“Citizens and reporters alike saw firsthand how inefficient and inept government really was,” they write. “It was a catastrophic failure from top to bottom, from the sheriff on the street to the bureaucrat in Washington . . . Many journalists clearly abandoned the concept of fair-and-balanced coverage and became advocacy reporters, telling the people in no uncertain terms what they were witnessing.”

And this kind of journalism struck a chord with the American public: Surveys showed that a solid majority of viewers didn’t mind having their emotions, and their critical faculties, stirred by a strong-jawed mad-as-hell media.

A kind of apology

It’s a bit surprising, then, to see what happened in the post-mortem analysis of the Katrina coverage. So entrenched is the profession in its ethos of equanimity and “coolness” that when the crisis was over, some of the journalists who had made the most noise were the first to issue qualified apologies. Looking back on his displays of on-air emotion, Anderson Cooper told the authors that he doesn’t “take sides” and that viewers don’t need an overpaid anchorman to tell them what to think. It was a repudiation of an honest and, I believe, justifiable impulse. (To be sure, in his coverage of post-earthquake Haiti earlier this year, Cooper was quite unrestrained in taking sides and telling his audience what they should conclude about the slow delivery of food and medicine to the people of Port-au-Prince.)

Other commentators warned that journalists needed to be careful lest they get “burned” by this new readiness to display outrage.

“Outrage,” said the BBC’s Hewitt, “should be used sparingly and should never slide into anger.”

To which I have to ask: Why not? As journalists dispense with their dispassionate objectivity in the face of tragedy and genocide, why shouldn’t they inject a little righteous anger into their reporting? Isn’t that display of passion essential in creating a true sense of connection between a viewer and an eyewitness to an extraordinary event? Indeed, isn’t that emotion part of the context of the story? Isn’t that also part of the legacy of 9/11?

Psychologist Daniel Goleman reminds us that in any given situation “our first moral response comes as a feeling, not a thought.” That’s not a bad thing, for a reporter with fully-developed Emotional Intelligence. For those with lower EI, however, strong emotion can cloud judgment. In New Orleans, in the fever of the moment, media outlets were too quick to report rumors of large-scale violence, rape, even snipers shooting at would-be rescuers. One commentator called the coverage of Katrina “an unmitigated media disaster”—an overstatement that unfairly tarred a profession struggling to deal with the worst natural disaster in American history.

Mistakes and hyperbole will always happen in the heat of the moment. (Remember Three Mile Island?) But what Katrina demonstrated is that passion and taking sides has its proper place in disaster journalism. “2005 was the year the stakes went up in journalism,” wrote one newspaper columnist.

Things will never be quite the same.