Entertainment vs. News: The Real Story

Yesterday, while thumbing through the latest edition of Vanity Fair, a quote from the movie Morning Glory leapt out at me. In the film a young TV morning show producer squares off with a veteran news warhorse, quipping: “The world has been debating news versus entertainment for years, and guess what? You lost.” First of all, that’s just plain wrong. It was never a debate. Entertainment has always trumped news.

But what got to me was the intimation that this is inherently a bad thing. As if somehow entertainment is synonymous with frivolous.  As in, news has weight, gravitas and the power to inform, while entertainment is diverting, ineffectual fluff.

Really? Not according to recent study in which college age women were shown either a news-format program on the hardships of teen pregnancy or . . . an episode of the teen-drama The O.C., in which high-school students grappled with the consequences of an unintended pregnancy.

The result? Those who watched the news program were unmoved, reporting absolutely no change in their intention to use birth control.  Not so those who watched The O.C.’s Ryan and Theresa struggling with a predicament they sure didn’t want to find themselves in.

Why did the story – mere entertainment -- have a far greater impact on something so life-altering?  Let’s listen to one of the researchers:

"Many of the women were able to put themselves in the place of the characters and sense they could end up in a similar situation if they weren't careful," Emily Moyer-Gusé, co-author of the study said.

Which is probably why even when contacted two weeks later, women who reported identifying with Ryan and Theresa still felt more vulnerable, and expressed a greater intention to use birth control.

"One of the reasons some people avoid safer sex behaviors is because they feel invulnerable -- they have this optimistic bias that nothing bad will ever happen to them," Moyer-Gusé said.  "But if you vicariously experience a bad result by watching a narrative program, that may change behavior in a way that is difficult to achieve through a direct message."

Yes, yes, yes!  Story is more powerful than facts.  Much more.  But rather than being the opposite of “news,” story is what humanizes it and makes it accessible. It’s how we put the facts into a context that gives them relevance, thus translating them from the objective into the personal.  It’s the conduit that allows us to feel the facts.

Which means that as storytellers we wield great power.  Even when we’re writing something that might seem utterly frivolous, like say, an episode of The O.C.

What about you? Has an episode of a TV show ever changed your life?  Do tell!