I know I’m late to this trend, but it seems to me that there has recently been an enormous increase in the number of news stories in which the essence of the plot reduces to someone caught doing something very bad or very good on video or cell phone camera, which then goes pandemically viral on the Internet. I know this trend started a decade ago with the infamous Paris Hilton videos, but I think that there has been a sudden uptick recently in the number of these stories that the media finds of interest.
Take the November 18 New York Times, which has two stories in which the scenario involves a video of someone doing something offensive going viral:
- Lead story of the international section is the racist video of South-African blacks eating stew that some college boys had pissed in, which happened last year and led to riots.
- Lead story in the sports section of a female soccer player caught on video two weeks ago yanking an opponent’s ponytail and seeming to throw a punch at another’s head.
In both cases, the news is of a feature variety, which means that it is not absolutely necessary to cover these events, just as it is necessary to cover hard news, such as, let’s say, President Obama’s trip to China or Sarah Palin’s chat with Oprah. And in both cases, the event is not the news, but the reaction that came through a storm of downloads.
Are these stories a permanent part of the landscape? Or will the newsworthiness of a viral video end up a fad, much like the following generic stories which for very brief periods of time dominated feature news coverage:
- The fact that a celebrity started tweeting.
- The launching of the website of a prominent organization or company.
- A celebrity communicating with people via Facebook.
- A Ford vehicle driving over another previously unblemished part of the Amazon. (For more on this media phenomenon, see the recent Fordlandia, Greg Grandin’s very intriguing book on Henry Ford’s plantation city in the heart of the Amazon.
My prediction: Although the frenzy will die down, the story of the video gone viral will remain a staple for journalists for as long as people can post and watch home-made and bootlegged videos and photographs. Although the plot uses technology, it is not about technology, but about grassroots outrage or delight, and that’s always newsworthy.
Following the generic plot lines of media stories may seem like an academic pursuit, but it has very practical applications in the world of both public relations and journalism. The job of the PR professional is to figure out how to make the story and messages of the organization attractive enough for the news media to want to cover them. If you recognize a trend in media plotlines and can fit your subject into one, you have a better chance of success than a less strategic arrangement of the information. And imagine yourself a journalist, with a deadline and no idea how you are going to cover the company or the event to which you have been assigned. If you have a bag of plotlines, you can always ask questions until an answer fits one of the trendy (or even tried-and-true or homiletic) scenarios, and then write away.