Lessons from “Sesame Street”

PBS hits home with a look at the economic fallout on families

Last night, I saw some of the best journalism on regular working folks that I’ve seen in some time. But it wasn’t on CNN or the NewsHour. It was on “Sesame Street”.


My wife stumbled across the special, “Families Stand Together,” last night—an effort by “Sesame Street” to help kids and their parents deal with the ravaged economy. I only saw the last forty minutes or so of the one-hour special, so don’t consider this a full review. But let me tell you what I saw: Poignant stories of real people laid low by the crash. Stories of a kind and quality you don’t see much done by journalists. Stuff that hit home.

I’ve said it before, but it’s awfully easy—especially for grizzled business-media veterans—to become numb to the reality of what it means to lose your job or your home. Sure, most of us in the media business have friends and colleagues caught up in our own industry’s depression. But then again, that depression means our own industry is less and less able to produce the kind of quality work it took for granted a decade ago.

Even back then it was all-too-rare to see something as simple and well done as what PBS did with this special, which was to just go to someone’s home and tell the story of a struggling family and how it’s coping.

I saw a vignette on a family of six in Detroit where the father lost his job as an auto engineer. They’re surviving off of his wife’s salary and the dad, clearly a sharp, talented guy, is pretty much resigned to being a stay-at-home father in the bombed-out job scene that is Detroit. “Sesame Street” shows you the vicious circle of the economy at work by showing how the family has severely reined in its spending. When will they be able to turn that back on a bit? It doesn’t look like anytime soon. Tell them about “green shoots.”

And there was a good segment on a California family of four going through the process of losing their home after the father’s earnings fall by two-thirds. They’ve moved from their nice house into a two-bedroom manufactured house and are growing fruit and vegetables in their backyard to save money and earn a bit of income. The two pre-teenish boys have had some problems dealing with all that’s gone on.

There’s a nice shot in there of the the parents in their empty house sitting on the floor, defeated. They didn’t “trash out” the place, but they did take the door jamb which they’d use to chart their sons’ growth over the years. It felt all too real to me.

In a third family, the father of a family of eight lost his job after sixteen years. “Sesame Street” shows us the tough meeting at the dinner table where the parents calculate his unemployment check will pay their $1,700 mortgage and leave $600 left over to somehow live off of for the rest of the month. They’re trying to sell homemade T-shirts to add some income.

Sure it’s gauzy and soft-focused (though not as much as you might expect), but it was aimed in large part at children.

That’s what makes it heartbreaking, too. In one segment, layoffs hit Sesame Street and Elmo’s parents struggle to make ends meet. Somehow it really sinks in how awful it is out there, especially when you remember that one in six workers is unemployed or underemployed. This is what’s going on in many a household right now, and this hour of TV was more revealing than a hundred tossed-off job-numbers stories.

So is there anything for journalists to take away from a show like “Families Stand Together”?

Sure. Here’s one: You can do economy stories until the Dow comes home, but if you don’t put a human face on them, you’re not giving your readers the insight they need to really understand the trends (that’s why what’s going on over at The Wall Street Journal is so awful). The story, in the highest sense of the word, matters. And it ain’t exactly hard to find anecdotes these days.

Also, detached objectivity has its uses, but it has its limitations, too. It’s hard to connect with your readers if you’re doing that walk-the-tightrope journalism that all too often drains the life out of stories. “Sesame Street” clearly empathizes with the families it profiles and ends each segment with advice on how viewers can get help if they need it.

Lastly, don’t buy into the one-and-done story, “Oh, that’s been done to death.” This is a long recession, and it’s going to be a long recovery. Times weren’t exactly great for the middle class and poor before the downturn.

Hang with the story. It’s ongoing.

Finally, print reporters looking to translate this into text: read Michael Luo’s recent New York Times piece on the hardcore unemployed—those who are so discouraged from months and years of not finding work that they’ve given up looking—and don’t get counted in the unemployment data.

That’s how it’s done.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.