There was a fire Friday morning in the Eagle River community of Anchorage, Alaska. Janet Seitz’ house sustained an estimated $70,000 worth of damage. I don’t know what all she lost, but I do know that her world was saved when a firefighter brought her cat, Max, to her from the still-smoking house. Seitz broke into tears when she got Max back safely in her arms.
Here’s the original photo at full size. Blow it up and see the emotion on the woman’s face clearly. Feel the honesty and immediacy of real life as it happens. This is news that matters to me.
We have something on television today called “reality TV.” It’s about 80 percent fake. It’s a phony. A lie.
We also have something we call news. It’s on television, online and in print. Even though I spent more than 10 years in news, I suggested last week that news is really just trivia that makes us feel smart and educated, but it’s almost all worthless — and it diverts us from things that matter in life.
Maybe this story from Eagle River is an example of news that matters, because it’s news that connects to the part of all of us that feels emotion — and we can briefly connect with an emotional and overjoyed woman.
When I was working in news, we had a word for things such as this. We called it “fluff.” We were pretty disdainful of it. We were interested in the “serious” news — about the City Council’s budget or the controversy about the secret meetings that some of the county commissioners were holding illegally. We were pretty smug about it at times.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe that the fluff — by my standards back then — is about all that matters. What matters is the connections we make with other people — the ways in which we identify with them and feel their emotions. I don’t know this woman from Alaska, but this picture — the news that an anonymous person on a website brought to me — connects me to her in an emotional way.
It’s fleeting. It doesn’t change her life. But it changes me by allowing me to experience her joy and relief. It makes me feel more alive.
People aren’t going to quit paying attention to “hard news” just because one former newspaper editor has finally figured out how worthless it is. But I would ask that you at least consider this question as you look at news today.
Even though you might be addicted to reading about what politicians are doing, is knowing what they’re doing changing your life for the better? Or is it just making you angry? Does getting celebrity gossip really enhance your life? Does it matter who in Hollywood is sleeping with whom?
The older I get — and the more I think about the things that have really mattered to me — the more I realize that it’s the connections with people that I remember. In real life, it’s the connections with people I’ve loved or even met just briefly. (For instance, I still wonder about a 3-year-old girl named Tricia who I knew briefly on a mission trip. She lived with her mother in an Oklahoma City homeless shelter back when I was in college. That little girl loved me and I adored her.)
Maybe that’s why pictures such as the one above connect with me so strongly and make me see them as examples of news worth telling. More and more, I just want to connect with people and their feelings. You can keep the politicians and celebrities if you want them. I don’t think they matter.
I think people such as this woman in Alaska matter a lot. Her emotion is real, and I feel grateful to have been able to share it through the picture. That’s the kind of news I want.