Vol. 4, Issue 9, December 19, 2006
Random Numbers for All Purposes

Heartwarming Holiday Stories No Piece of Cake, Says Media

The approach of the Christmas season means many things; the arrival of seasonal decorations (often by late October), the sudden profusion of reindeer-themed sweaters on coworkers, and Christmas music broadcast incessantly via every available device. Many people find the holidays somewhat stressful. But for journalists, Christmas brings something even more challenging: a ruthless mandate for heartwarming, uplifting stories.

"I tell you, it's brutal," said Mark Hansen, news director for the Miami NBC affiliate. "People think these great stories just happen around the holidays. It's a lot more work than that."

The ideal holiday story involves a gesture of goodwill or generosity involving a donor and/or recipient of modest means. The trouble is that such gestures are not nearly common enough for the needs of the broadcast news community, which has daily segments to prepare.

"You really have to sort of stockpile decent material ahead of time," said Hansen. "If I find some kid baking cookies for the orphanage in October, I'll slap a Santa hat on him and save the footage for December. It's not exactly news, but hey - I've got a quota to fill."

The quotas are so strict that many local stations resort to "sweetening" their stories with a bit of extraneous narrative.

"Sweetening, hell - I know guys who make it up, not that I'm naming any names," said Hansen. "But anyone who believed that 'Pip the Insulin-delivering Christmas Kitten' was anything other than a media fabrication needs their heads examined."

Stories of long-lost twins finding one another over the holidays, grandmothers handcrafting toys for paraplegic orphans, long-lost twin paraplegic grandmothers endowing a Christmas-themed library; these and other stories have come to dominate local newscasts in many areas, occupying up to 19 out of 22 total minutes in some news broadcasts.

"It's hard to get sports and weather in sometimes," admitted Hansen. "Generally the stuff that gets cut is about stuff like Iraq, and nobody wants to hear it anyway."

The fact that advertising revenues tend to rise during the holidays attests to the truth of this. And it is not just viewers who prefer the holiday stories: the tale about 'Pip', in fact, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

"He was wearing a little Santa hat as he carried the insulin to the diabetic children," said Harmon Poston, of the Pulitzer Prize committee. "It was adorable. American broadcast news just doesn't get any better than that."

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