Beware of the feel-good news story

James Robertson, who walked 21 miles to and from his factory job in Detroit, pauses during the filming of the documentary The Walking Man in 2016.
Salwan Georges/Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Robert Goodman had planned to go back to work after chemotherapy. The Florida teacher who taught world history for much of his 25-year career was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in April 2018. To cover him through his treatment, he had to ask his fellow teachers to donate their sick days. Without those extra 20 days, he would have to finish chemo — a time when your immune system is weakened, your body vulnerable to nearly any germ — while still showing up for work every day, or he would risk losing everything.

His ask for help resonated with teachers from his district, who transferred around 75 of their own sick days to him in credits. It was enough time for him to qualify for catastrophic leave, complete his chemotherapy without worrying about work, and get himself back into the classroom by the new year.

His story also resonated with a public hungry for an inspirational clip in a time when uplifting news seems harder and harder to come by. Local outlets WPTV and South Florida Sun-Sentinel descended on the story, with headlines like “Florida teachers unite.” Goodman’s tale went viral, gracing the likes of CNN and beyond. The focus of nearly every news piece was the teachers’ generosity and Goodman’s appreciation. The takeaway was: Hooray for the charity of others.

But that December, another headline emerged as Goodman prepared to go back to school: “Teacher who asked for sick time for cancer fight forced to ask again.” Goodman told Vox he had suffered two minor and one major heart attacks while celebrating being cancer-free and needed more sick time. The teachers came through again.

When Goodman finally returned to school this April, the same local news station covered his first day back. In a video package, former students walked up to Goodman and hugged him as he held back tears. But again, among the numerous outlets that picked up the story of Florida teachers’ goodwill, there was nary any reflection on why Goodman needed to ask for help not once but twice. Nor was there a look at why Florida teachers must ask one another for their sick days, or why they can’t afford disability insurance, or why people such as Goodman who have taught for 20-plus years don’t have support for long-term health emergencies. (WPTV has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)

“I’m the poster boy of ‘People love me and gave me their sick days and I appreciate it.’ But I’m also kind of the poster boy of, ‘Why does he need help? And why is this story happening all over America all the time? And what about the teachers or other employees that didn’t get the help I got?’” Goodman told Vox. “They’re out there. They’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their lives. And how does it make me feel? It makes me feel awful.”

Societal failures framed as feel-good stories is short-sighted journalism

It shouldn’t be understated: Teachers stepping in to help one of their own is heartwarming. As Goodman has said, he would have lost his job and could have died without their assistance: “I was surprised by the volume of outreach, but I wasn’t surprised that teachers were giving,” he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in August 2018. “Because that’s what teachers do.”

The problem isn’t that stories like Goodman’s shouldn’t exist; it’s that inspiration is the only narrative being pushed in a much larger, nuanced story about the social failings that brought Goodman to need such help in the first place.

There is an overflowing pipeline of “feel-good” stories traveling from local to national news, showcasing inspirational tales about adversity and how community members support each other in times of need. However, these pieces, seemingly easy to report out because of their surface-level levity, often eclipse overarching, unexplored narratives about labor, health care, education, and more, indicated by the lack of public or private support detailed in these stories themselves.

Last year, a young boy sold his Xbox to a stranger online to buy a car for his single mom to drive herself to work (“Good kid. Sad story,” someone responded). A few weeks ago, an elementary school student gave his teacher his birthday money because he heard about how underpaid teachers are. Last year, a stranger donated supplies to six random teachers after one of them posted her salary on Facebook. The internet has hosted a myriad of stories depicting people whose bosses or coworkers or customers gave them cars to get to their jobs, after walking 20 miles overnight to their first day, or 12 miles to work roundtrip, or walking to work every day for a year. It’s a rose-colored coverup of public resource failures.

Journalist Carla Murphy, in an essay about the need for a working-class media for Dissent Magazine, wrote about a viral story the Detroit Free Press ran in 2015. The piece was about James Robertson, a black man who walked 21 miles to and from his factory job in the suburbs every day, and pointed out that “you won’t hear him complain — nor his boss.” Speaking at a panel in October about the Dissent issue in which her essay was published, Murphy said she was struck by how people reacted to the Free Press story.

“My first thought isn’t, ‘Oh wow, what a great worker.’ I think as a journalist, my first thought is, No. 1, ‘Why is he doing that?’ No. 2, ‘Are there other people who are doing that in his area?’” Murphy told Vox about her reaction to Roberson’s story.

Murphy said the subjects of public transportation and job availability immediately jumped out at her as the crux of the story. “I think quite frankly, every journalist should look at something like this and say, ‘What is the public policy issue behind this action? Why are factories or why are good jobs not located near this man?’”

These kinds of stories act as a glimmer of hope in a sea of societal hardship, and, simultaneously, are indicative of total systemic failures that make children feel like they must take care of adults, make workers feel indebted to their bosses, and make audiences feel that we are all but a “stroke of good economic fortune away from wealth and abundance,” labor historian Max Fraser, a current fellow at Dartmouth College, notes. We are living in the era of depressing, capitalist content packaged as mind-numbing uplift.

The “inspirational story” economy is due for a reality check

Coverage about working-class issues wasn’t always this way, Fraser told Vox. Muckraking journalism of the late Progressive Era was mostly comprised of middle-class writers who worked for mainstream newspapers but wrote exposés of corporate malfeasance, workplace exploitation, and other issues that impacted poor and working-class people. Fraser said that during this era, a robust left-wing political movement pushed reporters with deep personal and political connections to those movements to create journalism with incisive analysis and critiques of industrial capitalism.

However, in the two decades leading up to the housing market crash and Great Recession of the late 2000s, the struggles of poor and working-class people were almost entirely absent in reporting from the “bourgeois” mainstream press. Fraser said reporting on working-class issues most often occurs during moments of political change, such as with the financial crisis, labor strikes, and presidential campaigns like Bernie Sanders’s elevating the conversations around class inequality. Today, few mainstream outlets have a dedicated labor reporter, and the reporters who do cover these stories through a human-interest lens often have a limited understanding of the economic forces at play.

James Robertson, who walked 21 miles to and from his factory job in the Detroit suburbs, was first covered in a Detroit Free Press story that went viral in 2015.
Salwan Georges/Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

“Since we don’t see and hear a different kind of media today the way we used to, when major newspapers had not just a labor beat reporter but multiple beat reporters — when there was a robust working class of various kinds — these stories sort of take up more of the airspace,” Fraser said. “They loom larger.”

Despite the inadequate portrayal of these feel-good stories, Fraser questioned whether the general existence of inspirationally framed coverage of working-class people is necessarily worse than when the mainstream media skipped coverage of the working class altogether. Nonetheless, this coverage is inadequate. Murphy, who is writing a book about class mobility, said that mainstream press often portray these stories as pseudo-inspiration because they’re writing for their comfortable middle-class audience. She said when we see these stories as “inspirational,” we have to question who the story is inspirational for.

Because there are viewers who aren’t buying it. When Goodman’s original story went viral, audiences questioned what the kindness of teachers really said about the reality that teachers, and workers at large, face when they get sick.

“This isn’t a feel-good story of friendship and charity. This is the everyday nightmare dystopia that is America. Workers’ lives do not matter,” one person replied to CNN’s tweet sharing the news.

“I don’t get it, ‘ran out of sick days,’ they are limited in the US? How barbaric,” another commented.

“Sick days for the flu are one thing. How does this guy not have coverage or short-term disability during his fight?!?! Huge systemic fail,” someone else replied.

Perhaps it’s a hopeful sign that audiences, at least anecdotally, are starting to push back on the insistence from mainstream media that these stories are valuable for their depictions of charity — as opposed to what they say about private and public resources, low wages, and health care.

Murphy said she had written her essay in Dissent because she wanted to find other people who also think the mainstream media’s coverage of the working class is lacking. And while she said her essay did attract responses from people mystified by this kind of coverage, she said she hasn’t seen a similar public backlash to these stories at large outside of Twitter, and that may be because there isn’t another notable, dissenting space where people can voice those reactions.

Goodman, too, said Twitter was the only platform where he saw responses questioning why Florida teachers had to go to such great lengths and depend on one another when they got sick. He recalled only one interview with a national video-based publication that actually touched on the politics of health care. When news outlets have an agenda that only focuses on the positive, they are also determining how much control the subjects have over their own stories.

“I wish someone could have asked [about health care and recovery care], but I don’t know how I would’ve felt trying to answer these questions,” Goodman said, “because I was trying to be thankful. And also I still have a job and I still work in a system where, you know, if you work for a corporation or you work for the government, you have to not always say the things that you’d like to say.” (Goodman later clarified that he wasn’t saying he would have necessarily faced consequences for saying the wrong things about his situation, but understood that others in similar situations could be.)

It’s astounding: The same systemic problems that people are at the mercy of are also holding them back from sharing their truth. Goodman focused on the charity of his story instead of health care because he didn’t want to seem unappreciative and he had less energy to talk about the more stressful topics. He even went back to work earlier than expected because even though his school said they wouldn’t terminate him, he wanted to make sure his position was still secure: “You never know,” he said. He heard from other teachers who had gone through similar leaves of absence, and teachers who lost their jobs after becoming sick, and spouses of teachers who died after getting sick. Goodman is back teaching this fall, but even as he works, he still has numerous doctor appointments and medications for conditions he developed following his chemotherapy and heart problems. Now that he’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of his heart attacks, he’s found that his time to talk about health care is now.

“We have all the money in the world to defend our nation, but we don’t have enough money to take care of the people,” Goodman said. “There has to be a balance in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, where people wake up and they’re not stressing over hospital bills. The stress itself kills you.”

Indeed, now, with all our social failings harder to ignore — racism, sexism, and transphobia appearing in our news and social feeds daily — would be a good time for journalists to reckon with the inequalities of labor and socioeconomics in America as well. Instead of scheduling feel-good news between coverage of the Trump administration’s latest controversy or human rights catastrophe, the media could examine these goodwill stories in the context of Trump and the policy failings that brought us to this place of lacking health care, inadequate labor rights, and transportation woes before he was even elected.

In Murphy’s piece for Dissent, she laid out three requirements for a new working-class media: to have anger, to frame its coverage of society through power and its imbalances, and to cover the working class as “more than a problem to be solved or studied.” However, Murphy hypothesized that just creating a space for an alternative to “feel-good” stories would require an ecosystem of dozens of working-class outlets — outlets “for,” as opposed to “about,” working-class people. A space to not just critique mainstream coverage but to provide a model for what could be done. This means hiring journalists from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, not just those who live in the country’s most expensive cities. As Fraser notes, there is still a long way to go.

Again, if Goodman, who said it took him 20 years as a teacher to make $50,000 a year, was in charge of his own narrative — if he felt supported enough to be in charge — it’d have more nuance.

“I think the big stories are actually not just that [these people] help me, but again, why does anyone have to go through this in America at all?”


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