It’s difficult to pinpoint when the genre shifted, but by 1974, when New York City’s WNBC-TV asked its viewers to call in and pick the perpetrator of a staged purse snatching from a lineup of suspects, the journalistic experiment had attained its modern form. The station was flooded with calls and, after fielding over 2,100, cut the experiment short. The results: respondents picked the correct assailant no more frequently than they would have by guessing.
Over the last decade, as best-sellers such as The Tipping Point and Freakonomics have lent social science a sheen of counterintuitive hipness and reality television has tapped into a cultural fascination with how people behave in contrived situations, journalistic experimentation has become increasingly common. In addition to The Washington Post Magazine, it has been featured in The New York Times, Harper’s, and Reader’s Digest. Its most regular home, however, has been on network-television newsmagazines.
ABC’s Primetime has staged a series of experiments in recent years under the rubric “What Would You Do?” which enact provocative scenarios while hidden cameras capture the reactions of the public. Chris Whipple, the producer who conceived the series, refers to it as a “Candid Camera of ethics.” Starting with a nanny verbally abusing a child, the series has gone on to present similar scenarios: an eldercare attendant ruthlessly mocking an old man; a group of adolescents bullying a chubby kid; a man viciously berating his girlfriend, seeming on the verge of violence; etc.
The sequences tend to begin with the narrator pointing out that many pass right by the incident. Several witnesses are confronted and asked to explain why they didn’t step in. One man, who gave the fighting couple a long look before continuing on his way, reveals that he is an off-duty cop and says he determined that no laws were being broken, so there was nothing for him to do. The focus shifts to those who did intervene, and the camera lingers over the confrontations, playing up the drama.
These experiments are, in a sense, the flip side of the reality-TV coin: rather than show how people act in manufactured situations when they know they’re being watched, they show us how people act when they don’t. And the experiments have clearly appealed to viewers. From the first minutes of its first hour, when its ratings doubled those of the previous week, “What Would You Do?” has been a success. After appearing periodically in 2005 and 2006, ABC ordered five new hours that were scheduled to air last November before the writers’ strike put them on hold. It is, Whipple says, highly “watchable” television.
In the world of print, Reader’s Digest has come closest to making such experiments a franchise. Over the last two years, the magazine has pitted cities around the world against each other in tests of helpfulness and courtesy, to determine which city is most hospitable. The first round used the following three gauges to separate the rude from the solicitous in thirty-five cities: the percentage of people who picked up papers dropped by an experimenter; the percentage who held the door for experimenters when entering buildings; and the percentage of clerks who said “Thank you” after a sale. When the scores were tallied, it was clear that Reader’s Digest had hit the counterintuition jackpot: the winner was New York City. According to Simon Hemelryk, an editor with the UK edition of Reader’s Digest who came up with the idea for the tests, the press response was “totally, totally mad.” Hundreds of media outlets picked up the story. David Letterman presented a tongue-in-cheek, top-ten list of the “Signs New York City Is Becoming More Polite.”