NYTimes skirts — or crosses — boundary of staging a story

News organizations frequently “humanize” the news to draw readers, listeners and viewers.  They tell the story of one person to serve as a microcosm of a bigger issue, giving a “face” to an abstract idea.

At other times, news media moderate panels, covering what in a sense they’ve created.  Political debates come to mind.

But it’s really rare to see a news organization create a one-on-one conversation, then cover it as if it represents a microcosm of something bigger.  That’s more or less what The New York Times did today in a story that felt a bit like reality TV comes to the print media. And we all know that reality TV is anything but real.

The story wasn’t a big deal. It ran on Page A15 of the print edition under the mouthful headline,  “Near Zuccotti Park, a Momentary Detente for 2 Representatives of Opposing Views.”

It tells of a meeting between a long-haired, barefooted, 25-year-old protester from a family of means and a 40-year-old stockbroker in a pinstriped suit who grew up in a working class household.  So far so good; it’s a nice twist of roles in the rolling protests roiling New York and other cities.

The two men met in a coffee shop for a one-on-one discussion about Occupation Wall Street. A delicious slice of life perhaps, a piece of humanization at its best?

Nope. This meeting wasn’t accidental. It was arranged — dare I say staged? — by The New York Times, which then covered it. The Times, to its credit, makes the nature of the meeting clear in its story. The story in other words is transparent; it doesn’t deceive the readers.

But isn’t the whole premise of this story contrived?  Why should these two take center stage in discussing opposing viewpoints of Occupation Wall Street? Who picked them and why? What do they represent? And to what extent were their comments stilted or simply designed for the benefit of the observing reporter?

Obviously, presidential debates are utterly artificial events, too. The candidates try to score points by inflating their accomplishments, dinging their opponents and dodging those opponents’ barbs.  The moderators try, but rarely succeed, to drag them beyond talking points. But these people are running for public office. People have a reason to watch them and hear what they say, artifice or not.

Equally obviously, reporters, in choosing individuals to focus on to write about a larger issue, always to some extent bias the perception of audiences in their choice. But the premise of such stories isn’t artificial or contrived. If, for example, a reporter sets out to find three people who represent three different types of protester, these three won’t be wholly representative.  But they will be observed and questioned in the context of what they are doing naturally.

Not so in this case. Here, The Times seems to have anointed two people with opposing perspectives and then devoted an article to them. Their conversation seemed as stilted as the story’s concept.

So what’s the point?  I can’t find it. And I’m hoping this experiment in “reality news” comes to a quick and painless end.

About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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