Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Human Interest Stories


I have commented before about how effective, but potentially deceptive, news-by-anecdote is.  NPR is a particularly egregious offender in this.  If the story is about sweatshops in Thailand, there will be a (translated) interview with Sanan Pamsoonthorn, an actual swetashop worker, about how hard her life is and the lack of laws or enforecement of safety standards at her factory. Missing will be an interview with Rahmat Bowo or anyone else in Indonesia who says “You have work for a new sweatshop?  I would love to have that work.” I am not making any statement what our response should be to working conditions with our trading partners, BTW.  I simply note that NPR’s is rather predictable, as is any news source that uses this tactic.

Once you have decided to “try to put a human face” on a news story, you have already made up your mind what the answer is, and what you are hoping your audience will “understand,” which is newsspeak for “be manipulated into believing.”  Because we are affected.  We want to be affected.  We want to be bonded to the rest of humanity and to make the decision that makes us feel like we are being decent and honorable.  We want the sad kitties and puppies.  We want to be let off from the hard work of deciding what actually is good and wise and moral. If someone can give us little girls with big eyes, we can breathe a sigh of relief because our decision has been made: “Mr. Senator, I want the solution that makes that particular little girl not look so sad anymore. No, don’t bother me with numbers and laws.  I want the little girl not to be sad.  She is now the face of this issue for me.”

So advocates, and charities, and politicians, and journalists use this.  Because it works.  And to be fair, some of them do it because they know a hundred little girls like this, or a thousand, and it hurts, and they want some help from the government or from the public to lessen the pain.  Wouldn’t you? I’ve got a Christmas card with a picture of eight little Romanian girls in the orphanage my third and fourth sons are from, hanging on my window at work.  They are just cute, and maybe, maybe, some passer-by might get interested enough to help to.  I do exactly the same thing I am railing about.  I am attempting to manipulate people to help.

Well, okay, except I’m not trying to pass laws to force you to take care of them.  That is some different. But I wanted to stress that however much I might rail against the manipulations, they work on me, and I can use them as well.  You might take the natural extension I am hinting at here and recognise that however much you might complain about those others swayed by emotions, you do it too.  Different stories push your buttons.

If there were a national lottery, where people at random were selected every year to win $100,000/year for life, we would want to get rid of that, right?  That would be a terrible use of government money, wouldn’t it?  But if we tried, the journalists, and politicians, and advocates could locate human interest stories of people who would be harmed by losing that lottery money.  They could locate those stories within hours.  And they would be absolutely true.  Those would be real single mothers of children who needed expensive school interventions; those would be real older guys who had lost their jobs for reasons that weren’t especially their fault who couldn’t find and weren’t likely to find new work; those would be real young people who had come up from bad neighborhoods and trauma but were getting good grades at college and would have crushing debt. Their stories would be heartbreakingly sad; sad enough that it would start to be persuasive to us that maybe we should keep that National Lottery program in place after all…It would do no good to point out that many people spent it frivolously, or that other single moms were paying taxes to support this, or any of the hundred other reasons why the program makes no sense.  We want the little girl to stop looking sad, Jack.  Shut up and turn “Mad Men” back on, okay?

We no longer live in bands of 150 hunter-gatherers, but we still respond that way.  It is how we are made.  We are not really built to be rational.  Our arts, far more a product of our social and emotive sides than our intellectual, quite joyfully teach us to hate the “faceless bureaucrat” – the last line of defense of someone who might, possibly, do what is good for the greatest number rather than the kitties and puppies – and root for the girl in the wheelchair who has always wanted to be an astronaut.  That’s why it works to have “Tex Richman” in the Muppet Movie, vilified as a person who loves only money and power.  He’s a stock character.  This goes back centuries.  There’s no use complaining about it because we are wired that way; the movies don’t teach us to have that value, we teach the movies to have that value, or we won’t pay money to watch them.  We want the little boy to follow his dream and become a hoops star – who cares if we destroyed the lives of a hundred thousand other kids who followed their dream and not their homework and can’t make it?  Screw ‘em. They’re not in the story.

They’re not in the story.  That’s the key.  That is where the value of the Deconstructionists is quite real, and conservatives had better learn to stop reflexively kicking everything that has a postmodern whiff to it.  When you run across one of those human interest stories, you have to ask yourself Whose story is not being told here? Why is this story “privileged” over others? Look at what is being left out as much as what is being put in.  There was a revealing line in the Screwtape Letters, where the senior demon tells his nephew the apprentice tempter, that they do much more work keeping certain thoughts out of people’s heads than putting them in.

Related note, because Bethany’s new blog has put me in mind of misleading statistics.  They say you can lie with statistics, and that is true.  But statistics can be forced to tell the truth if you grab them by the shirt and shove them up against the wall and say “Tell me who your friends and associates are!  Where are you from, and whose bags are you carrying onto the plane?”  Because even if they won’t answer, your asking of the question immediately reveals to you much of the missing data.

5 comments:

Mr Tall said...

Superb post.

My wife, daughter and I are currently watching and reading Pride and Prejudice. My wife and I were discussing a passage last night in which Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are debating how to make decisions. Mr Darcy insists upon the cold, rational approach; he is Sense, of course. Elizabeth counters that there must be some point at which a decision is sufficiently inconsequential so as to allow Sensibility to overrule cold reason.

It is fascinating seeing this evidence of Western society right on that cusp between 18th-century rationalism and 19th-century romanticism.

Today, of course, Sensibility has at its command so many and such powerful tools: gauzy photographs, cleverly-edited video clips, swelling background music . . . . it is very hard indeed to make that case for sense, isn't it?

Sam L. said...

Every show is Queen For A Day. The most tear-jerking hard-luck story always won.

Barb the Evil Genius said...

Someone, somewhere, will always be sad, or hurting, or lonely at some point. But life never stays on one fixed point. A millionaire can lose it all. A poor kid can grow to become a CEO.

As a mother of two teens, I am seeing firsthand how making decisions solely with your emotions doesn't really work out very well.

Texan99 said...

I agree with you, except that I've been surprised how fair NPR sometimes is about throwing in an interview with the Other Guy. It's at the end, and it remains clear what the reporter wants you to think, but they're not quite ruthless about demonizing the Other Guy when they give him the mike. They ask him reasonable questions and include clips of him giving reasonable answers about the other side of the story. (Ah, if only they could listen to the answers, too.)

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