Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Regional Inferiority Complex Hits Record Level

A few years ago, my wife and I were listening to a broadcast of This American Life on WDUQ. I can't remember the topic of the program that day, but I do remember a very funny interview with a young Canadian man. He pointed out that Canadians generally suffer from a sort of national inferiority complex; and they feel the need to compensate for these feelings by pointing out Canadian connections whenever the opportunity presents itself. He gave a number of examples, all of which were rather funny. For instance, he said that the Space Shuttle is never referred to as just the "Space Shuttle" in Canadian news broadcasts, but is instead invariably introduced as "the American Space Shuttle with its Canadian-built robot arm". Or how, if you happen to mention to a Canadian that you heard an old song by the band Rush (one of my all time favorites) on the radio, you will immediately get interrupted by them telling you, "You know, they're Canadian".

What stuck us as so funny about this story was that, as relative newbies to the Pittsburgh region, we often saw exactly the same sort of behavior around here. Every single story that cropped up in the news was immediately spun to find a local angle -- any kind of a local angle -- to throw in. Christina Aguilera used to live in Wexford. Various cast members of various reality shows used to live in various western Pennsylvania locales. Some third-world dictator would get blown up in his car, and the local headline would trumpet the fact that two of the four lug nuts used to secure the vehicle's right rear tire were machined in West Mifflin.

But this time they've gone too far. I checked the Tribune-Review website last night, and this is what I found splashed up on the main page:

Chances are that you have, by now, seen something in the news about this astronaut kidnapping story. One of NASA's astronauts got wrapped up in some kind of romantic relationship with another astronaut, got jealous of another woman whom she saw as a rival for her beau's affections, and ended up in a physical confrontation with this adversary. The situation got pretty disturbing, the police were called, the attacker was arrested, and some dangerous objects were found nearby. Of course, these things happen hundreds of times a day, and the media never pays the slightest attention. But since this was one of our astronauts, and because there are some frankly funny elements to the story -- our astronaut wore diapers while driving to the confrontation, so that she wouldn't have to stop to use the restroom -- it gets a little bit of the media spotlight.

And how does the Tribune-Review spin the story? With the news that the victim in this attack -- not the astronaut, mind you -- used to live in Monaca. Not Pittsburgh, but Monaca. And she hasn't even lived there since she graduated from high school 12 years ago.

I don't know about you, but this seems like a real stretch to me. Sure, people like to have a local angle on national stories, but come on! This has to be a new high water mark, especially when you read the accompanying article and see that the Trib actually interviewed this poor woman's classmates and teachers.

Really folks, western Pennsylvania is a pretty decent place. We do some good things around these parts. We don't need to demonstrate our ability to produce love-triangle assault victims to prove it to the rest of the nation.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure we can fit that into our branding statement.

Jonathan Potts said...

I'm not arguing with your overall point about our inferiority complex, but in "defense" of my former employer, I think there are other factors motivating their decision to find a local angle.

When a big national story breaks, every media organization wants to be a part of it. The challenge for a paper in a market like Pittsburgh is justifying the expenditure of time and resources to cover the story. The best way is to find a local angle. (Sometimes they don't even bother. Both the PG and Trib sent reporters to the last Olympics even though, to my memory, there were no local athletes in contention for medals.)

There is a media training institute in Florida called the Poynter Institute, and one of the people who works there is a former TV guy who distributes story ideas every morning in an email. Most of these ideas consist of tips for a finding a local angle in national stories.

malificent said...


I've lived in various cities in the U.S. & the "desperately seeking local angle", is a common practice among local media.

As Potts said it helps media outlets to justify expenditure.

It boosts readship/viewers. People like to read about themselves/their geographic area. Just like they like to talk about themselves & look at pictures of themselves/people they know.

Many regions have inferiority complexes for which they overcompensate by injecting incongruous "local links/angles" into places where these things just don't belong.

Bet if there's a Cleveland connection to this sad story, the Plain Dealer's worked it into an article:

"EXCLUSIVE!! Kooky-Killer Astronaut's former paper boy, Ignatius O'Reilly, now a Shaker Heights Tavern owner, speaks only to us! Read our exclusive interview with O'Reilly here!"

Jonathan Potts said...

In the short term it might boost readership, in the sense that I'm sure a few more people in Monaca picked up the Trib today than yesterday. In the long run a better strategy is to devote time and resources to strengthening coverage of truly local issues.

the comet said...

I credit Roger Humphrey with nailing the diagnosis: "Chronic Mass Hysterical Low Self-Esteem"