Where is the fine line between bringing human interest into the news and invasion of privacy? As the world hungered for more of the unfolding story of Chile’s 33 trapped miners, media coverage of this tragedy with a happy ending drew its share of criticism. And now that the excitement has wound down and these guys are heading into the aftermath, I can’t help but reflect on what lies ahead for them.
Privacy, Human Interest, or Media Circus
I hopped into a Santiago taxi shortly before 8:00 PM on Tuesday, October 12, anxious to get home. The rescue mission was scheduled to begin, and I had 33 miners on my mind. I asked the driver about the news. And, as often happens when I talk with cabbies, he gave me something to think about.
“Chiss! No po! Ya me aburrí!” he said, flipping his right hand in the air as Chileans so often do when they are telling you they’ve had it up to here with something. And then he launched into an argument he had clearly been thinking about for quite a while.
“The journalists are all over these guys and their families. Why do they have to muck around in their private lives? Why can’t they just leave them alone?”
Ah, I thought, the media circus argument. He wasn’t the first to express it. I had seen numerous newspaper columns, Facebook comments, and even Tweets calling for a back off. I wanted to hear what this guy had to say. I brought NPR into it.
“I listen to the US radio on the internet and they were interviewing the women who were getting their hair done so they’ll look nice when their men come home.”
“Ah… that. Look, they gave these women passes to the salon so they can get dolled up. But face it. These are not good-looking or classy women. They are short and fat and not at all pretty; it’s just pathetic to play with their feelings like that.”
Wow, lots going on between the lines in this conversation!
“But they’re still the women who these men love, and they want to look their best when they finally come home,” I countered. I mean, hey, who doesn’t want to primp a bit for an important occasion?
“That’s fine, but why is that news? Journalists will do anything for a story…” he says.
I go for the human interest angle: “I thought it was interesting that the women said that the psychologists had warned them not to change their looks, not to get new cuts or different hair colors, etc. I’d never thought about how that kind of thing might affect someone in a situation like this, how they remember someone one way and the stress it could produce to find them looking different.”
He rambled on for another five minutes or so about the pack of wolves that the media are, “They keep sticking cameras in people faces when all they want is to be left alone,” and how they bring out the worst in people. “There’s this one woman who’s always the first in line to be interviewed; all she wants is attention, and even when someone else is talking, she gets behind them to be sure she’s on camera. No po…. I’ve had it with all that.” He suddenly went silent… fixed a brown eye on me through the rear view mirror.
“You aren’t a journalist, are you?”
I let a sly grin work slowly across my face, cocked my head, and looked him square in his mirrored eye. “Yes.” And let him squirm a moment before I qualified my answer. “Sort of. I’m an anthropologist, but I write a lot and work with journalists…”
He backpedaled—something about, well, not ALL journalists, but, but, but… I let him off the hook, and agreed that yes, there are those who are overzealous and even unscrupulous, but that the human dimension, the putting oneself in the other’s shoes is an important part of understanding a situation, of developing empathy… and you can drop me right here on the corner, thanks.
But he left me thinking. In these times when television viewers are so absolutely drawn to the anything-but-real and so-called reality shows, here is a true life situation unfolding day by day that beats the scripted ones by a mile. Of course people want to know.
I’ve never followed a reality show, and in fact only began to follow this real life drama more closely as the end approached. But I have to admit that the human factor of it all truly captivates me. The psychological aspects of the 33 who managed to survive below—and how they will now survive above. The cultural aspects of the families who set up camp on the hillside, determined to wait for them to come out—dead or alive. The business culture that could allow the owners of the mine to just wash their hands and walk away from it all. The expectations on all sides that may or may not be met. All the makings for fairy tales and great disasters.
In the days between their discovery and their rescue, many details of these men’s private lives made headlines. How much of that was really necessary? Do we have the right to rearrange the skeletons in these guys’ closets? To further upset distraught families with prying questions? Or for attention-seeking neighbors and acquaintances to offer up information that isn’t theirs to reveal? These guys didn’t ask to become famous. They just went down a hole day after day to bring back a paycheck.
Much more will come out about these guys now that they have been released. They are unintentional heroes, and people want to know who they are. They will be hounded. They will be paparazzi fodder. That was made clear as last night’s news showed the disturbing results of a frustrated welcome home party when one miner called his mother and said he wasn’t going to her house when he was released from the hospital, but to his partner’s house (apparently the two women don’t get along). The entire barrio—which had been waiting to celebrate with him—took it badly, and the planned celebration ended with the mother fainting, a TV crew filming an ambulance arriving, the neighbors tearing down and stomping on the welcome home signs, and a step-sister shouting “You’re dead to me weón!” And the guy’s not even out of the hospital yet!
Of course everyone has heard about the guy who’s two women—his legal wife and his current partner—showed up to wait for him. The original story made it sound like they only found out about each other at the camp. This morning’s La Cuarta newspaper, however, set the story straight in a juicy interview with the woman with whom he has lived for the past five years and who claims that the legal wife only showed up when she learned there was money involved. That, and some TMI-type details that left way too little to the imagination about her plans for their first encounter.
As a foreigner, as an anthropologist, there is solid cultural information that I can glean from these stories. In fact, gossip, rumors, and snooping is one of the ways that members of any given group learn and reinforce behavioral norms. Attentive outsiders can also pick up clues about how a culture works: perceptions of class differences run deep; family ties are strong; mothers and daughters-in-law compete for attention; marriage laws that include joint property entitle estranged wives to financial benefits; sex sells and La Cuarta is not the classiest paper in town; there are all types of people in any society; some people are ultra-private, some are extra-extroverted, some hunger for attention, some privilege money over all else, and more.
It’s natural that we want to know their stories, but the question remains. What do these 33 men owe us?
Or should the question be what do we owe them?