Soft News, Hard Sell

Why real stories about regular folks never get told


| March/April 2000


The most compelling--and continuing--news story in my family these days is our struggle with my 15-year-old son over homework. My friend Bill's top story is about his 80-year-old mother and the doctors who tell him that while there is 'nothing really wrong with her,' she needs 'more support.' Throughout the months that we have each been immersed in our separate stories, practically stopping strangers on the street to unburden ourselves, neither of us has seen a word relevant to our personal current events in 'the news.'

Mundane family problems happen below the news radar. To warrant a headline, there has to be an element of surprise, a startling biological event, say; or a gothic ingredient--madness, murder, sexual perversion--or the domestic moment has to provide an anecdotal lead-in to a more 'serious' event, such as a congressional showdown over how courts deal with incorrigible minors. During my son's most recent academic meltdown, school life was reflected in the news via the Littleton slaughter and political horse-trading over school vouchers. The only elderly mother of note during Bill's anguished deliberations was one who shot her grown daughter when she overheard the daughter discussing the possibility of putting her in a 'home.'

Why is it that my family crisis is not news but a pathological family's is? Why shouldn't I expect the public record to reflect the daily demands (and rewards) that form the texture of family life? After all, most of us think about family at least as much as we think about professional sports and the weather.

The difference between the unstable climate in my house and the thunderstorms skittering across the Doppler radar screen is not their relative importance but the current definition of news. The homework hassle and the aging parent plight are not 'news' as we--the public and the press--have come to define it: 'News' is about outcome; family is about process. 'News' is about winners and losers; family life is about not giving up, because you can't.

Despite almost 30 years of newspeak nods to feminist complaints, these not-news experiences still fall into traditionally pastel pastures of 'women's news,' also known as 'soft news.' This domestic category is about love (which includes, as we all know, the full range of human passions). Real news, which is men's news, is about war--winning at power, money, politics. Being ghettoized diminishes both spheres.

Much 'real news' is ostensibly about civic life, which sounds like it should reflect how families function within the community, but most of the stories are bloodless reports about buildings--the Board of Education, City Hall. Bloodless but, perhaps to attract the attention that gray stone doesn't, brutally confrontational. E.J. Dionne pointed out in Why Americans Hate Politics that the way the media typically report politics--titanic struggles between irreconcilable forces and scandalous behavior by unworthy leaders--only polarizes the issues beyond recognition, and beyond resolution as well.

Jones
10/27/2008 1:12:10 PM

My problem with this article is that the news has been dumbed down so much already that I can't imagine it being any more irrelevant. My local news in Chicago is so vapid that I routinely consult other sources to get more in-depth news about the world. Furthermore, I do not have a family and do not want to be bombarded with endless stories about fatherhood, parenting, breastfeeding, etc. I am much more interested in stories that about the country as a whole and then uses local examples to illustrate their point.


Tod Colby
12/31/2007 12:00:00 AM

I like this story. It seems that modern media is all about extremism: something has to be on one extreme or another in order to be newsworthy. Although I think the author's example about after school time is a good one, I would presume many outlets don't feel it covers a sufficient amount of their demographic to warrant it newsworthy. Also, the "how did it happen" angle requires a lot of research and I seldom see research these days that goes beyond a quick Google look-up or a stale regurgitation of something that is all ready on the AP wire. Journalists need to spend more time researching the pro's, con's and "undecideds" rather than stopping as soon as the data collected supports their own personal bias. Hopefully Ms. Braun Levine's approach reaches those who are sending the message, rather than those of us who simply hear it.