Moving away from sad and tragic stories

Romenesko highlighted this Washington Post column by Howard Kurtz today. It immediately reminded me of a post I wrote in April: Sad and tragic stories, and photojournalism.

Matt Mendelsohn, a photojournalist, has been working for a year on a story about a woman who had both arms and both legs amputated, according to Kurtz. Now, this is not a hopeless story — the human spirit rises above tragedy and misfortune, and it can inspire us all. That’s one view, anyway, and it’s the view I have heard from several photojournalists when they talk about their subjects who have suffered from cancer, the death of a child, or other heartbreaking events.

Kurtz’s column explains how The Washington Post Magazine killed Mendelsohn’s story.

I have no complaint with the photojournalists, but as I wrote in April, I think stories like these do damage to journalism.

Now, the triumph of a plucky individual over great misfortune is more optimistic and “happy,” if you will, than a doom-and-gloom story about drug addicts or criminals who never rise out of depravity. What these stories have in common, though, is the likely effect on many readers and viewers. How terrible, we think. That poor, poor girl. Oh, my, how awful.

I think we need to draw a distinction between stories about individuals that result in that kind of feeling, and stories about a situation or broader issue of public interest that have the same end result.

Coverage of war or genocide or famine is also horrible — but very, very necessary. A tsunami, an earthquake, a flood — we need to see individual stories from these tragedies because we, the public, cannot cover our eyes and say, “Lalalalala,” and hope it will all go away.

The damage done to journalism by individual tragedy stories (unconnected to larger events) is that they drive people away. There’s enough difficulty in people’s everyday lives, they say. The news is such a downer.

Sometimes the news has got to be a downer. But not every downer story is a story the public needs to hear.

I think we need to adjust our thinking about what makes a good human-interest story — especially for photo stories — with an eye to keeping the public informed about things they really need to know. When it’s disturbing and awful and they need to see it, then show it. Otherwise, stay away from the horrifying, the grotesque, the random awfulness — and even the terribly sad.

There’s nothing wrong with making people feel good for a change.

8 Comments on “Moving away from sad and tragic stories

  1. As someone with a disability, I’ve been eager to see stories that veer away from sentimentality and focus on the broader societal changes challenges that dictate life for those who are disabled.

    Tales of an amputee learning to do work with a prosthetic hand or a paraplegic triumphing at wheelchair basketball can be touching, but they’re all too often trite, especially as accommodations for these disabilities have been around for awhile. These stories turn sources into passive characters instead of active ones.

    Rather than simply writing about a person with downs syndrome who can’t get a job in the current market, it’s more interesting to uncover what people with disabilities are doing to adjust and whether support/job placement services are adapting well or failing.

    I’m actually trying to do just that for a current article and know the challenges of veering away from sentimentality. but doing so ensures that there’s a greater degree of truth in the article.

    While I think the article will not necessarily be “happy,” I think there’s merit to balancing out gloom with equal moments of brightness and success in such articles.

  2. Hi, Alex. Thanks for your comment. I’m very much in favor of articles that help us understand other people and their lives. One of the great potentials of good journalism is that some stories help us overcome hatred, aversion, or just plain stupid ignorance about others and their life conditions.

    I personally like to see stories about adults with Down syndrome who have jobs and live partly or wholly independent lives. As a result of having read such stories, I no longer look at children with Down syndrome and feel pity (which was how I used to feel when I was ignorant about their potential).

    Those kinds of stories need to show more than one case, however, to be effective.

  3. I’m of two minds with this decision. I agree that “downer” news can overwhelm an audience into apathy, but just yesterday I watched MediaStorm’s piece (by Jessica Dimmock) on junkies trying to turn their lives around, and found it really important as a means to reconnect w/ my own empathy. It’s trite to say “touching”, but pieces like this can touch the deepest part of us in really profound ways.

    However, I find I have more patience with new media pieces (rather than straight text, or video) that have such a focus.

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  5. I totally agree with the idea that the public has difficulties in daily basis and that covering individual tradegies can be too much.
    Thank you Mandy for your great job at sharing all theses atircles on the new journalism.
    Martha Avelina Rojas

  6. I agree with Mindy. A lot of people just don’t want to read about death and tragedy. Almost 10 years ago, I helped write a special section called Hidden Wars for the Dallas Morning News. It was about terrible conflicts and massacres that haven’t gotten a lot of headlines. I joined other Morning News reporters who investigated war in Africa and other spots. The special section included all kinds of graphic photos of amputees and victims of war in Africa.
    My contribution was a piece on the aftermath of civil war in Guatemala. I worked on it with Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Cheryl Diaz-Meyer.
    I was proud of the special section and showed to my best critic – my mom. I asked her later how she liked it. She said something about not quite being able to get through it. That’s when I knew – people don’t like downers.

  7. I am going to take the hard road here. The problem I have with personal tragedy stories whether they end happily or not is that they often distract from the issues behind them. Are these random situations or is there some reason why they happened? I think we can fill up the news with “human interest” stories so as to not take the risk of uncovering the bigger issues. Where is the investigation here?Our local papers and news shows are full of these stories but avoid talking about leakage from the local dump or corruption at city hall.

  8. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments. I’m happy to see I’m not alone, and I’m really glad to see that photojournalists are thinking about these questions. There are certainly a lot of issues that are important to people’s lives, and great photos can help explain those issues and make them understandable.

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