Posted on September 15, 2009
Moving away from sad and tragic stories
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.