(un)common ground

a commonplace book

Bourdieu on Human Interest Stories

[Human interest stories] depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal. This…is accomplished by fixing and keeping attention fixed on events without political consequences, but which are nonetheless dramatized so as to ‘draw a lesson’ or be transformed into illustrations of ‘social problems.’ This is where our TV philosophers are called into give meaning to the meaningless, anecdotal, or fortuitous event that has been artificially brought to stage center and given significance–a headscarf worn to school, an assault on a schoolteacher or any other ‘social fact’ tailor-made to arouse the pathos and indignation of some commentators or the tedious moralizing of others. This same search for sensational news, and hence market success, can also lead to the selection of stories that give free rein to the unbridled constructions of demagoguery (whether spontaneous or intentional) or can stir up great excitement by catering to the most primitive drives and emotions (with stories of kidnapped children and scandals likely to arouse public indignation). Purely sentimental and therapeutic forms of mobilizing feelings can come into play, but, with murders of children or incidents tied to stigmatized groups, other forms of mobilization can also take place, forms that are just as emotional but aggressive enough almost to qualify as symbolic lynching.

Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (1996)


This in discussing how TV news disrupted the dichotomy (at least in France) of the human interest newspapers vs. the political analysis newspapers. Television, Bourdieu argues, can now use its domination of the former to mobilize the audience of the latter(?).

The sorts of stories Bourdieu calls out here are relatively easy to spot. In particular, these types of “soft” stories may come at the end of news segments, especially when the material that came before is controversial or particularly catastrophic. But of course, other of these stories’ capacity for “pathos,” “indignation,” and “moralizing” also speaks to the ones that, stripped of their overtly political demarcations, nevertheless arouse ideological or political reactions. Sometimes this can come across to me as a sort of “test” story for the audience, as if to say, “We’ve given you the political content already, let’s see you direct your judgment to this seemingly unrelated case history, which happens to be framed in such a way that facilitates political evaluation.”

However, I’d also add that it seems to me human interest stories are certainly not all depoliticized.

Note “symbolic lynching.”


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This entry was posted on November 23, 2015 by and tagged , , .
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