Which headline would catch your eye first.
BLIND MAN REACHES SOUTH POLE
BLIND MAN GOES ON HOLIDAYS, HAS LAUGH WITH FRIENDS
Certainly, for the media, the first headline has the bigger draw. In a gloomy climate, they love to gobble up any crumbs of good news that fall their way, so as to induce a feel-good factor in their audience. Now, more than ever, the media is eager to turn the most ordinary of people into heroes. This hero worship has spread beyond celebrity magazines, into broadsheet newspapers and current affairs programmes.
As a visually impaired person, I know I should find the first headline inspiring and there’s no doubt that reaching the South Pole was a great achievement, but having read the man’s profile, I think he’s the sort of achievement-oriented individual who would be doing this kind of thing if he had full sight. Whereas I have friends who are more likely to fit the second description. To me, they are more heroic, because they have a laugh and they get on with life.
But I have to admit that I’ve been able to use the media’s love of creating heroes to my own good. National media outlets have lapped up my tales of derring-do, including an account of a skiing trip I went on. I wore a high-vis vest saying Blind Skiier that was the fashion must-have of the season. I try to write about myself and my friends in a light, humorous way, without exaggerating my condition or experiences. But the temptation is always there to ham it up for the crowd, because that’s what editors want.
It isn’t just the visually impaired who are given the hero treatment. Anyone who’s even slightly famous is described as flawlessly gifted. People who have serious or long-term illnesses are always brave and uncomplaining. I think this is damaging in two ways. Firstly, it can be demoralising. There’s a sense that if you’re not coping absolutely perfectly with what life throws at you, there must be something wrong with you. Secondly, the edia is not showing people what life is really like when circumstances are difficult. And surely, it’s the job of the media to uncover the truth.
It may seem less newsworthy to simply describe people getting on with it, but to my mind, it makes a more compelling story. Who doesn’t feel a secret thrill at reading that their favourite celebrity eats beans out of a tin that are one day past their sell-by date? A story about a woman with cancer who stares at her bald head in the mirror and asks, ‘When will I be me again?’ is far more likely to strike a chord than a story about a woman who remains relentlessly cheerful in the face of impending baldness. People love to get a glimpse into the real lives of others, hence the popularity of phone-in radio shows like Liveline.
The media has a responsibility to describe people in a way that truly reflects the reality of their lives, rather than presenting an ideal which is impossible either for the audience or the subject of their reports to live up to. Writing about people in a realistic way will increase the audience’s empathy. Ironically will create heroes of a more ordinary kind, with a heroism we can aspire to, because these people are just like us.