Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A perilously fine line, but a line nonetheless

Cassie asks an interesting question about my last post, in which I snottily dismissed Extreme Makeover. And I think it bears an answer:

What is the difference between this kind of thing and tabloid journalism?

Admittedly, the line is perilously fine at times. But here's how I would define it.

In tabloid journalism - any journalism, really - the events described are at least real events (however sensational or trivial) that occurred without the intervention or prompting of the publication, at least when the system is working right. Extreme Makeover, however, crosses a crucial line in terms of creating the events it chronicles. A real journalistic enterprise, say the New York Post or New York Times or People magazine, might certainly profile the very same kind of family in distress that Extreme Makeover is seeking. Obviously, it is doing so to catch the reader's attention and, yes, play on their emotions (all good story telling does so). And usually the story is at least nominally making a bigger point - buried somewhere in most stories like this is some kind of information on how the story relates to a bigger issue, perhaps access to health care, or the dangers of drugs, or the problems of poverty, or whatever.

But the problem with something like Extreme Makeover is that is essentially setting up the event that creates the emotion, both for the people affected and for the audience. It has a vested interest in pumping up the pathos of the families involved, then playing up the heroism of the show and the team involved as a way of pumping up the supposedly redemptive emotion as the family sees the results. Nor would it hesitate to tinker with the sequence of events, pictures, or other elements to hype the drama, a practice that is deeply frowned upon in all but the most disreputable fringes of the press. I find this kind of manipulation of the story unacceptably exploitative and cynical. And on top of it, Extreme Makeover doesn't even pretend to give some broader context. Where a normal news story might try (with varying degrees of believability and success) to make the family some kind of human face of a broader trend or issue, Extreme Makeover simply implicitly says "Here is a really pathetic family and we, the nice guys, are here to make their sad little existence better." Extreme Makeover also tends to fit the events it creates into a neat narrative arc - sad family now made whole in 60 minutes. There is little or no attention paid to whether the family in question benefits from the intervention of the show. A news organization, at least ideally, would raise this question in the story, or at leats be open to it, and perhaps even revisit the story later to see how the family has fared. The messy results of real life are not always pretty, as I have discussed before.

I suppose one could make a case that news organizations are on some level exploiting the people about whom they write, and exploiting the emotions of the readers, but the same could be said of good storytelling of all sorts. I think as long as a news story is done respectfully, accurately and without manipulation of the situation or participants, then it falls on the acceptable side of the line. Sometimes news organizations of all kinds fail in one or all of these categories, but I think Extreme Makeover fails routinely by its very structure. It wouldn't even recognize the distinction I am making.

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