American viewers expressed outrage Sunday after NBC reporter Christin Cooper interviewed U.S. skier Bode Miller, driving him to tears with inquiries about his deceased brother. Miller tied for a Bronze medal in competition Sunday, and mentioned his brother in connection with the win. But subsequent prodding from Cooper on the subject was too much.
Twitter and other social media exploded indignantly, accusing Cooper of malicious indifference. But Miller defended the reporter Monday: “I’ve known Christin for a long time and she’s a sweetheart of a person,” he said on NBC’s Today Show. “I know she didn’t mean to push. I don’t think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be. I think by the time she sort of realized, then I think it was too late.”
It’s kind of Miller, and sheds a compassionate light on the incident. Nonetheless, the incident should prompt journalists (and their audience) to consider the consequences of our sensationalistic reporting.
This sort of journalism is not abnormal. The media’s normal attitude toward celebrities is often just as uncouth and intrusive. Our reality shows regularly exploit the emotions of viewers by drawing on any and every tragedy experienced by its candidates. We’ve become a culture that feeds on sensationalism and misfortune: we love the underdog, the tragic hero. This often becomes a form of emotional exploitation,targeting the audience, protagonist, or people involved in the protagonist’s life. As long as a semblance of fiction or separation remains, we feel okay with this exploitation. But when a man breaks into tears, and the camera hovers in front of his bowed form, we begin to feel guilty. Yes, we—for it is our fault too, not just Christin Cooper’s. The media gives us what we want. It’s a simple case of supply and demand: Americans eat up the media’s shameless emotional pandering (usually).
Also, it’s important to note that Cooper was not the only reporter who seemed to rub pain in Miller’s face. The cameraman zoomed in on his face, and held the camera close to his grief. He wouldn’t go away. It was an inexcusable breach of propriety. If the cameraman had turned away when Miller began crying, perhaps the incident wouldn’t have been as painful. But this isn’t the only time such shameless recording has taken place in Sochi: other failed contestants, when pushed to tears, are immediately dogged by cameras. They want to see the tears fall, to capture the moment of grief for viewers at home.
When Cooper and her cameraman zoomed in on Miller’s grief, they detracted from the true story of the moment: his victory, hard work, and resilience. That should have been the focus of the interview. They ought to have adopted a more professional manner. Indeed, beyond professionalism, mere courtesy would suggest that a person, in moments of grief and pain, should be granted greater privacy.
But American audiences should also consider the role they play in shaping the news: until they demand otherwise, this sensationalism will not stop.