Silver linings newscasts

Down with forced positivity in TV news coverage of Moore, OK

Like everyone else this week, I was transfixed by the tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma. The devastation was quick and, in some neighborhoods, complete. I streamed local coverage of the event from KFOR and over the course of Monday afternoon noticed a narrative was developing.

News outlets were looking for good, positive stories to report just a few hours after the dust had cleared.

Reporting in the aftermath of any tragedy is difficult. Some members of the staff had families in the path of the storm, they knew where a school used to be because they might have dropped their own child off at the spot every morning for years. Now, it was a search and recovery site.

But I think there is a larger issue at play. With too many tragedies to report in such a short period of time — Newtown, the Boston bombings, Hurricane Sandy, the deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant and others — there seems to be a desire to move straight from the tragic to the silver lining.

I have nothing against the woman who found her dog in the rubble, or the few horses that survived a direct hit of an F5 tornado at the Orr Family Farm.

But in an everything-happens-for-a-reason culture, where happy aphorisms greet you every time you log onto a social media site, the premature positivity feels forced. I know polls constantly tell station managers that the public wants good news, not so much bad news. But news itself doesn’t have a point of view, it just is — when reported objectively.

But once the cloud of national news outlets descend and the news cycle is all day long, you can see how the same threads get teased from the wreckage.

Wolf Blitzer had a moment with a young mother and her child in Moore on Tuesday. The family was lucky to be alive, and the restless toddler had confiscated the CNN anchor’s microphone. The interview prolonged, Blitzer looked at the mother and said; “I guess, you gotta thank the Lord, right.” She didn’t give much of an audible response so he pressed. “Do you thank the Lord? For that split second-decision?”

She said she was an atheist, awkward laugh, but she had nothing against those who did thank the Lord — which gave him a more graceful exit than he had earned. Blitzer was shoehorning the woman into a gratitude narrative. Ignore the tangle of wood and metal that once was her house and the mortal threat to her child — wasn’t she grateful?

Of course, anyone who has faced death is grateful for life. Yet, it is the most superficial of stories, the easiest to get at in a four-minute television window. Had it not been for adding such a discordant religious element, Blitzer’s subtle encouragement would have been unremarkable.

Gratitude is positive where destruction is negative. The lone puppy, the intact horse, these are reported as though they are news but they are less significant when weighed against the children who may have drowned after their school collapsed on top of them. That kind of news is almost too much to bear, but it is what in fact happened. A puppy is an easier story to tell than the miles of red tape now-homeless survivors will face if they want to find long-term shelter or rebuild.

The truth is sometimes grim. Stories of survival can be difficult and won’t always have a happy ending.

Are we losing our ability to stomach unbrocaded reality? It is more comfortable to overweave some narrative of triumph. If you read a self-help novel you might conclude that a mile-plus wide tornado is just another opportunity to overcome adversity, or that a reason for such devastation exists if you just look hard enough and focus on the gratitude.

And personally if people chose to look at it that way, there is no judgement here. But a news organization isn’t there to chew your meals for you. Even in difficult reporting conditions like these, it’s perfectly appropriate to let the facts lead the story and allow survivors their own narrative. However messy the stitching.

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Jane McManus graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1997, and writes for Tags: , , , ,