Soft News, Hard Sell

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.

In the scramble to save declining newspaper readership, ‘reader-friendly’ has become the talk and ‘civic’ or ‘public’ journalism the walk. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, created ‘to stimulate citizen involvement in community issues,’ has funded countless town meetings and focus groups convened by local news outlets in an effort to reconnect with their readers. Their valid premise is that the ‘people’ are living the stories the journalists should be telling more of, but I am concerned about the implied assumption that the people will say what those stories are. Citizens will eagerly say what they want to read, but their suggestions are circumscribed by the conventions of what qualifies as a ‘news story.’ Moreover, a person’s most troubling concerns are not likely to emerge in response to the question ‘What are your most troubling concerns?’ It takes a skilled reporter to push and pull until the story is told. In a focus group we express our opinions, but we don’t surprise ourselves.

Recently I interviewed young fathers for a book about how they define a new commitment to parenting. The conversations were rambling, anecdotal, and protected by the promise of a pseudonym. I was struck by how, under safe and expansive conditions, the men expressed hopes and anxieties about their work, wives, and children that were as fresh to them as they were to me. I learned that men and women experience everyday family problems–the news beat I am advocating–very differently. Men consider a problem of any kind a challenge, an enemy to be subdued as efficiently as possible. Women, on the other hand, use problem-solving as an opportunity to do several things: to deal with the problem, of course, but also to communicate with others, to clarify thinking, and to gain and offer emotional support.

‘Soft’ news stories explore questions without being invalidated by a paucity of answers. But parameters that are fading shades of gray do not make these stories washed-out versions of real news, any more than higher-contrast presentation makes hard news two-dimensional. If ‘news’ conventions didn’t relegate clarity and complexity, conflict and compassion, into opposing camps, we might begin to see coverage that would renew the spirit of inquiry and offer moral support. Even to men. Especially to men. If ‘women’s news’ is a side dish on the news menu, ‘soft news’ about men–as fathers, husbands, friends–isn’t even an ingredient. And men are the worse for it.

Family life is underreported even though–and here is the irony–many of the reporters, men and women, who are missing the real-life stories are themselves living them. They are as disconnected from this kind of news as ‘the news’ is from their audiences’ lives. They are blinded by the requirement that news has to be urgent, unnatural, or dangerous to attract attention. I am not denying that many stories fit these requirements; high-quality investigative reporting is our best hope for many crises confronting the republic. But there is also a need for explicative reporting, coverage of insight, compromise, imaginative problem solving.

A handful of journalists are beginning to rewire the newsgathering process. One is Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. When she realized that her paper was covering news only if it was ‘novel, unusual, or counterintuitive,’ she changed the ground rules. She began assigning reports from what she called ‘third places’–the supermarket, the playground, the coffee shop–where people hang out and talk about things. Then she required that political stories include citizens among the ‘active players,’ along with lobbyists, lawmakers, spin doctors, pollsters, experts, and analysts. And she required that stories about controversial issues include quotes from people who are undecided or ambivalent as well as those who firmly support one side or the other.

Instead of concentrating on the who, what, when, where, and why–the formula that produces hard news–reporters should be supported in their pursuit of the more elusive how. How did it happen? How does it work? How does it connect to what happened over here? How can we make it happen again, or never happen again?

Here is one example of the kind of story I mean. My personal bugaboo is the dismissal time at American schools. The microcosm is the nervous parent trying to make sure a second grader has been picked up and a ninth grader is settling down in an empty apartment for an afternoon of television. The macrocosm is the assumption that it is the American Way for parents to work from 9 to 5 and kids from 8 to 3, and that the family has failed if no adult is at home during the gap. The how stories lie in between: How much anxiety do family members experience when school is out? How much productivity is lost when working parents are on the phone, frantically scrambling to patch together after-school coverage? How different is it when schedules are flexible? How much would it cost to establish programs in empty school facilities? How willing would people be to re-evaluate the school calendar and other conventions? How do they do it? How do you manage? How can we help?

Is there a connection between this train of thought and the more conventional unconventional news story? I think so. There is certainly a connection between, for example, the questions engendered by Littleton and the life experience of every family of schoolchildren in America. And that connection is very likely to be illuminated by understanding the impact on a family of the 3 o’clock dismissal or a teenager’s homework boycott.

The connections are in the storytelling; they cannot be woven together, though, when the warp of public and the weft of private experience are on different looms. Both news categories would benefit from removing barriers to the kind of understanding expected from each. ‘Hard news’ would mean more if its process encouraged more questions and fewer pronouncements. And ‘soft news’ would have more consequence if its producers aimed for more scope and grit, and everyone took it more seriously. We are all familiar with ‘gotcha!’ journalism; it’s time for a little ‘Now I get it!’ journalism.

Suzanne Braun Levine is a former editor of Columbia Journalism Review. From The Nation (Nov. 22, 1999). Subscriptions: $52/yr. (47 issues) from Box 551492, Boulder, CO 80322.

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