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December 03, 2002
"Searching for Answers"

I remember a scene from the movie "Bull Durham" in which an aging catcher, played by Kevin Costner, coaches a rising star pitcher, played by Tim Robbins, on the importance of learning the proper clichés to feed sports reporters -- quips like: "I'm just glad I can contribute to the team," and "we really gave a team effort today." "You've got to learn your clichés," says Costner's character. "You've got to learn them and you've got to know them."

The cliché is the ugly little pet of hack writers. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that it can be too often found in the writing of journalists. I'll give you one example: "searching for answers."

"A tragic house fire leaves a stunned community searching for answers," says the TV news talking head.

"The brutal murder last week in this rural town leaves its citizens searching for answers," reads the news copy.

You get the context. Terrible events, no matter how obvious their sources, seem to leave people stunned and searching for answers. An abusive father gets drunk yet again, and bludgeons his family to death; people scurry about searching for answers. A home burns down and kills its occupants; the community racks its collective mind for answers. Nineteen followers of a venomous creed fly planes into the World Trade Center, and the nation is seized by a search for answers.

I don't think so. I think the journalists get it exactly wrong. Let me explain.

There are two levels at which one searches for answers after a tragedy. The first is the simple causal one: Why did this happen? What caused it? Most often the answers are fairly clear. Brutal drunks eventually hurt people. Sometimes families don't get out of burning houses. Thousands of murderous Muslims would love to sacrifice their miserable lives for an opportunity to kill thousands, or even dozens, of Americans, but most don't have the financing or training to pull it off.

Journalists are generally pretty good at giving us the answers (even if only inadvertently). What is curious is that the "searching for answers" story typically comes after the bare facts of the tragedy have been repeated ad nauseam. This happens not because people are really still searching for answers (of the simple causal variety), but because journalists need an excuse to wring the last bit of blood from the story, and the "searching for answers" angle provides it.

The second meaning of "searching for answers" is metaphysical: What kind of god/karma/universe exists that would tolerate such breaches of humanity? This is frequently the clothing in which a more selfish question is shrouded: What kind of god/karma/universe exists that would tolerate such infringements on my wants and needs? The main character in John Updike's latest tedious story, in the November Atlantic Monthly, has this attitude. He "realizes," upon watching the Trade Center towers fall, what people who have suffered tragedy "realize," namely, that there is no God. What he fails to realize, I think, is that there is no God whose sole end is to make us continuously happy on this Earth.

People do search for metaphysical answers after a tragedy. It is in our nature. But our grappling with them leads us quickly to places that journalists will not tread: to faith in God, recognition that men are inherently evil, and understanding that providence has more bearing in our lives than our own meager wills. The only time a journalist is going to touch on religion, however, is by means of a diverse ecumenical soundbyte array, which usually entails a half-quote from a man of faith, sandwiched between half-quotes from two or three apostates cloaked as people of alternative perspectives on that faith.

So when a journalist says that a community is "searching for answers" after tragedy, he is usually incorrect that there is still a significant ongoing search for immediate causes, and he doesn't approach the story in a way that opens the door for an answer at the metaphysical level. The answers people are supposedly searching for are either obvious (in which case, his "searching for answers" angle is moot), or uncomfortable to intellectuals (in which case he can be counted on not to address it in meaningful fashion).

In short, when it comes to stories about tragedy, beyond reporting the five W's and one H, journalists tend to be moot or meaningless, and sometimes both. Come to think of it, this is mostly true of their reporting on other topics as well. The more they accept that they are less writers or philosophers than useful technicians (at least in their day jobs), the better will be their product.

So the next time you hear a journalist utter the "searching for answers" line, ask yourself this: if God himself came down and provided the deep metaphysical answers, would the journalist report them?

The answer is yes, but only with a rebuttal from the local lesbian Unitarian Universalist pastor. Such is the nature of "searching for answers;" it's only a comfortable concept if we can be assured that none of significance are forthcoming.

Posted by Woodlief on December 03, 2002 at 08:13 AM


Tony -

I think you've posted the answer that everyone is searching for but refuses to acknowledge once it has been found.

Posted by: John Venlet on December 3, 2002 08:21 AM

Good article. Yes, I agree, the cliche about a search for answers is all too often uttered, or written, by people with little patience for answers.
On a side note, I find myself frequently irritated by another common journalistic cliche. It seems that whenever something newsworthy--usually involving tragedy--in a community smaller than that served by the media outlet in question, reporters cannot resist cliches about the "tight-knit community was shocked" or something similar. It seems nothing more than a desperately cliched and futile attempt to make a sweeping characterization of an entire town, and sound profound in the process. It always bugs me.
Tim Plett

Posted by: Tim Plett on December 3, 2002 10:42 AM

No, folks. The most, absolutely MOST stupid cliche reporters use in those cases is "how do you feel". As in, "Mrs. Jones, your son just slaughtered his whole family and committed suicide, how do you feel?" I keep hoping somebody answers "just jim-dandy, thanks!"

Posted by: Emma on December 3, 2002 11:10 AM

I agree 110% with Emma - it also reminds me a line from Deep Impact:

A man wanting the reporter to leave his family alone says,

"Look, I know you're just a reporter, but you used to be a person, right?"

I love that line - and the "how do you feel?" question that reporters always seem to ask the aged grandmother whose entire family just burned to death before her eyes is why.

Personally, if I'm ever in that position, I hope I have a large caliber, fully-automatic firearm handy so I can properly answer the question.

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