There's a certain brand of "feel good" story, "uplifting" local news item, that has become popular over the past few years. You've seen them.
Strangers band together to buy a car for a guy who was walking three miles to work every day because he couldn't afford one. A little girl sells cookies and hot cocoa to pay off her classmates' lunch debts. A young kid sells lemonade to raise money for their sibling's medical bills. Note: I thought I made up that last one, but then I googled to see if it was a real thing. Lo and behold.
These stories are almost always presented as heartwarming tales of people stepping up to help those in need, as aspirational instances of plucky, enterprising kids taking the reins and displaying a level of altruism we hardly even expect from adults.
But these aren't "awwww"-inspiring stories. The conditions of each of these stories point to a broken society, one in which a man with a steady job can't afford to buy a car, little kids in school are burdened with lunch debts, and healthcare is not considered a right but a for-profit business and is so prohibitively expensive, even families who are lucky enough to have insurance accrue such insurmountable debt that their young son feels he must start his own business to bring in extra cash.
Even if these articles do address the issues at hand, as the CNBC article about the young boy's lemonade stand sort of does, the headlines almost never reflect the truth, and these details are often buried toward the bottom and mentioned off-hand.
And as a member of the media, I understand the impulse to lead with the shareable headline. I've been guilty of it before. We're being pummeled with horrible, tragic news every day. People on the internet want to click on headlines that will "restore their faith in humanity."
Joanna Mang, in her essay for The Outline, "There is nothing more depressing than 'positive news," writes, "Positive news is categorized not just by content but by framing and prominence — it is not simply that a nice thing happened, but said nice thing gives us hope for the very future of humanity that we are elsewhere denied. And this, to seekers of positive news, is exactly the point...
"The positive news lover believes that straight news isn’t just negative, but essentially fake, and positive news does more than make a reader feel good, it delivers a fundamental truth."
The news is widely seen as overly negative and pessimistic — a total mood ruiner. It's more pleasant to read that "free eyeglasses" are "boosting test scores in Baltimore" than it is to read that children in need of eyeglasses have been performing poorly in school due to this one extremely small, avoidable obstacle.
When Good Morning America reported that "Donating vacation time to new moms is a trendy co-worker baby shower gift," it was presented as a cool new gift for moms-to-be instead what it really is: a horrifying indictment of the late-capitalist structures that have left employees with no federally-mandated paid parental leave.
In an article for ThinkProgress, Jessica M. Goldstein calls these "feel-good feel-bad stories." She writes, "In the feel-good feel-bad story, irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph."
Convincing us that it's inspiring that a man walked 20 miles to work because he didn't have a car and that when his boss found out he gave him one plays directly into the insidious hands of late capitalism. It's a structural failure that an employee can't afford transportation to his job and is willing to exhaust himself to get there while the CEO is able to give up a whole car on the spot for a person in need.
The gift of the car is presented as generous instead of as proof that wages are way too low, that the top few executives at most companies hold the vast majority of the wealth, and that employees like this man will only continue to be exploited...just more efficiently now that he has a car.
Alan MacLeod calls these stories "perseverance porn" in Common Dreams. "To be clear," he writes, "while we can admire the never-say-die attitude of those in tough conditions, this is no substitute for guaranteed public programs to help those in dire need.
"The problem with perseverance porn is not the brave subjects of the articles, but the lack of any journalistic scrutiny examining the failings of society that placed them in such desperate circumstances to begin with."
Obviously, it's not the fault of the subjects of these stories for taking the steps they do to make theirs and others' lives better. It's the way that the media covers these stories that needs to change.
Individuals seem to be catching on. Anecdotally, I'm seeing more and more tweets that call out these "feel-good feel-bad stories" for taking something we should find horrifying and framing it as an inspiring story of strength through personal struggle.
MacLeod writes, "What these articles highlight so clearly is not only the grim, inhuman and unnecessary conditions so many Americans are forced to live under, but the degree to which mainstream corporate journalists have completely internalized them as unremarkable, inevitable facts of life, rather than the consequences of decades of neoliberal policies that have robbed Americans of dignity and basic human rights.
"Because corporate media wholly accept and promote neoliberal, free-market doctrine, they are unable to see how what they see as 'awesome' is actually a manifestation of late-capitalist dystopia."
So, you're telling me a child was forced to sell tchotchkes to make sure other children and their families aren't in debt for eating lunch because the adults couldn't address this problem.— Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) February 4, 2020
This is not a heartwarming story. It's an indictment of our current system. https://t.co/ttboRscG93
Journalists investigate. That's what they should be doing with every story they tackle, no matter how innocuous or "positive" it seems on the surface.
Vox reports that while speaking at a panel and referencing a story about a man who walked 21 miles to and from his factory job every day, journalist Carla Murphy said, "My first thought isn't, 'Oh wow, what a great worker.' I think as a journalist, my first thought is, No. 1, 'Why is he doing that?' No. 2, 'Are there other people who are doing that in his area?'"
Speaking with Vox, she said, "I think quite frankly, every journalist should look at something like this and say, ‘What is the public policy issue behind this action? Why are factories or why are good jobs not located near this man?’”
I think the wave is starting. More and more people are recognizing "perseverance porn" for what it is and publicly criticizing it when they see it. But it's on reporters' shoulders to responsibly report these stories.
I don't think it's the right move to stop writing stories about kids paying off classmates' lunch debts or selling lemonade to pay off medical bills. Stories like these are happening frequently — and there are probably more we're not hearing about.
But it's the framing of these stories that needs reexamining. Carla Murphy has called for a reformation of "working-class media," and, as Vox reports, "laid out three requirements" for it: "to have anger, to frame its coverage of society through power and its imbalances, and to cover the working class as 'more than a problem to be solved or studied.'"
For her, it's not just about individuals calling out the "feel-good feel-bad" story coverage but about media companies dedicating resources to covering these stories responsibly and comprehensively.
In the age of "fake news," it's more important than ever to look critically at the news we consume, to hold outlets to the highest standard, and to recognize that there are socio-economic structures in place that determine and restrict who gets to tell what stories and to what end.