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The Dangers of The Feel Good Story

Ben Jenkins discusses the flip-side of warm’n’fuzzy at The Side Project blog

At some point around about the time that television news was really kicking off, someone, possibly a bright and ambitious work experience kid, made the suggestion that the nightly broadcast ought feature a story with a ‘feel-good’ element. Why? No one really knows. It may be the journalistic equivalent of a mint to counter to acrid taste of tragedy you experience in your mouth after any given bulletin. It might be because we are an aspirational sort of species, and we have some primal need to see stories of good things happening to good people. It might be that dogs on surfboards make excellent vision. I suspect that there is truth in all of these things.

Whatever the reason, feel-good stories are a staple of any news program, and here at The Project we are no exception.

One of the challenges associated with stories is striking the balance between engendering an uncomplicatedly lovely feeling in the audience and oversimplifying or trivialising an issue that is hugely serious.

This isn’t usually a problem when you’re dealing with a story about, say, a water-skiing squirrel. It’s a squirrel, it’s on wee little water-skis and has a tiny lifejacket, it thinks it’s people. It’s simple, adorable, and (some possible animal rights issues aside) it’s reasonably cut and dry. But every now and again, there’ll be a story that, in order to make digestibly feel-good, you need to overlook or at least oversimplify some of the issues at play.

Remember Ted Williams, The Homeless Man With The Golden Voice? Last year his inspiring story went viral, and it’s not difficult to see why. It was a literal rags-to-riches story – and example of someone overcoming adversity, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, a testament to American exceptionalism etc. More than that, it was a story where the media could bask in some feel good credit themselves – after all, it was they who unearthed his talent and helped him pull himself out of poverty.

What you didn’t see an awful lot of, though, was any sort of meaningful discussion of the root causes of the homeless epidemic in America, or even the epidemic itself. Because at the time of the Ted Williams story, well over half a million Americans were homeless, the causes of which include entrenched poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. And this angle wasn’t explored in any depth for the legitimate reason that it would have muddied and otherwise simple and uplifting story.

If it sounds like I’m being a killjoy, it’s probably because, at least in part, I absolutely am. The Ted Williams story was a good one, and there was nothing wrong with telling it, it’s just that when we enter into this trade-off we need to understand what’s being traded. Quite often we’re sacrificing the ability to have a proper discussion about an issue that has a real impact on people’s lives. I was reminded of Ted Williams’ story when I received an update this week about Jeffrey Hillman.

Hillman was a homeless veteran who made headlines last week when a New York cop was snapped gifting him a pair of boots. This image went round the world and before too long was featured on the feel good segments of bulletins world-wide. As with the Williams story, it’s not difficult to see why this story had such appeal. The sight of a cop buying shoes for a homeless man is more at home in a Nickelodeon Christmas special than on the streets of New York City – so when humanity shows itself capable of not behaving like a total dickbag, it should absolutely be given encouragement.

But when the press caught up with Hillman one week on, his feet were bare once again. When asked about it, he told reporters that the boots were hidden, because they were ‘worth a lot of money’, before adding ‘I could lose my life’. He then goes on to say ‘I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without my permission. What do I get?...This went round the world, and I want a piece of the pie.’

This last point makes him sound, and with good reason, more than slightly ungrateful. But it’s important to realise that he’s not complaining about the gift of the boots, in fact he goes on the thank the officer again, it’s the way it was beamed around the globe and a heart-warming piece of television. And in this instance, I think he’s got a point. It’s one thing to receive a generous gift, but quite another to have your image flashed around the world, especially when that image is more often than not accompanied by a reasonably superficial treatment of your situation.

The point here isn’t that anyone acted irresponsibly. Did broadcasting the story put Hillman’s life in danger? Probably not. Is it better to have a pair of warm boots as a New York winter approaches? Absolutely. The thing to take away from this is that issues like homelessness and poverty are often much more complicated that a 40 second segment after the weather can hope to convey.

With all the dreadful crap that we see on our news day in day out, stories where people are behaving in an inspiring or, at the very least, decent way to one and other are important. But what’s more important is that we don’t let serious issues be glossed over just for the sake of a fuzzy feeling.

The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.