A Journalist’s “Wow!”

We have been discussing discussion.

Our recent concern has been on how public debate is formed and how the political crisis we face needs to be part of our ongoing discussion. How do we meet the crises – the many complex challenges – that seem to confront us on every side? That is what we have been discussing.

Well it may be a truism,  but however dangerous and many-sided the political problems confronting us, we should not contribute to public debate as if the other kinds of problems that people face don’t demand our full and undivided attention.

I often compose my Nurturing Justice blogs when I am walking along the Point Lonsdale promenade. And as any reader may know by now I give a lot of thought to politics and the problems of citizenship and so on. But as I walk I am also cognisant of the sea coming in. I cannot afford to be so absorbed in how I am going to add to my blog that I simply presume upon the tide to refrain from washing over the sea wall.

If I see my young friend Evan standing there on the wall in danger of being swept into the brine by the wave he hasn’t seen, I will have to interrupt my intense self-reflection (drop my artful exposé of the Liberal Party) and simply help him stay dry.

Indeed there are many “crises”, large and small, that may threaten us. They may do more than merely drench us or sweep those we should be looking after away. We may be swept out to sea and in need a lifesaver. In which case, it is always good to hear a story of how people have come to each other’s aid in an emergency; such stories also need to be told. If we don’t tell such stories, gaining much needed perspective and inspiration from them, then our political discussion may well lack perspective, lack “telling power”. Our political discussion too easily becomes obsessive.

So will be benefit from thinking about the way a story we tell has echoes (we may call them “presuppositions”) of our political standpoint, or more importantly what is basic to our political standpoint, the bedrock assumptions on which we build our political view?

Here’s something I just heard on “ABC News radio” in its lunchtime “feed” from NPR in the USA.

It may help us in our investigation of what is taken-for-granted aspect in American society. But it can also help us deepen appreciation for “typically American” ways of story telling, when “good news stories” get aired in the mass media. See if you find yourself reading this report in the same way I found remarkable. Yes, it might help us deepen our appreciation for “American studies” but let’s not limit our comments to the US or even North America or even the Anglophone-sphere.

Beachgoers Form Human Chain To Save Family Caught In Florida Riptide


For the purpose of this exercise I would draw attention to the journalist’s/interviewer’s “Wow!”

People, presumably holidaying, banded together on a beach to save the lives of those swept out to sea. A family was in grave danger.

Those telling the story focused upon “the remarkable aspect” of the event. People who did not know each other previously came together and pulled, pulled, pulled the stranded family to safety. Then were immersed in spontaneous celebration before all went their own ways – from the questions and the answers given we hear the interviewer and interviewee referring to what was experienced as a miraculous event – what Emile Durkheim the French sociologist might say can only be understood in terms of “la conscience collective”. This supervening “action” was brought about by people who did not know each other banding together instinctively to work co-operatively in saving lives. They succeeded.

There may be other accounts of “what actually happened”. There may be those who did not experience the event as anything remarkable in any magical sense. But I found the report remarkable – I was pleased to hear how lives were saved – but the story as told presumed that “life as per usual” is “every person in their own world with their own families”; that this is “normality” and it framed the “magical moment”. Individualistic “normativity” frames the abnormal, the remarkable, the “magical”:

SIMMONS: It was like they were destined to do it and they knew they had to do it, and then they went back to their own lives. Each person went back to their own family.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Wow.
SIMMONS: It’s hard to explain, but it was so remarkable to see how people jump to somebody’s rescue and then just go about like it was nothing.

So what does “Wow” mean? And what does the laughter suggest? Of course, this was no joke. Does it not suggest Ari Shapiro is saying:

“Wow! We needed reminding we are indeed (destined) to be co-responsible for each other! This wonderful story reminds us of that. We are responsible!”

As we think over the story as told we hear how people responded. Perhaps the dark clouds of a self-absorbed liberalism, with its Me Over All intentions, have parted for a minute and the sun of mutual obligation has now shone through – when the magic has run its course everyone goes back to their individualistic lives with a bright ray of moral hope internalized.

So I wonder, in comparative sociology of journalism sense, how might such an event be reported at Bognor Regis, or Portsea, or Manley, or Scheveningen, or Waiterere Beach, or even at Waikaki?

This reminds me of how journalism, sociology and our way of life are closely linked, and in a very basic way – the everyday life of loving our neighbours includes extending love to our neighbours by conveying to them the stories we tell. Story-telling has a contribution to make in its own right. And any Christian political option we may mount will have to feed off a renewal in our journalism and in our ability to tell crackin’ good stories.

BCW 14.7.17