Opinion | The feel-good news story is a hoax


TPN File Photo

A shelf in the Pitt Pantry, based out of Bellefield Presbyterian Church.

By Ebonee Rice, Staff Columnist

Americans love a feel-good news story — the ones where everyday civilians come together for the greater good despite their differences and defeat whatever obstacles stand in their path. Some examples include a Philadelphia woman using her home as a food pantry or a teacher raising money so their students don’t go hungry over break.

It makes sense that we use these stories to restore our faith in humanity, but as the headlines continue to celebrate the acts of everyday civilians, they obscure reality. The media continues to frame these moments as heartwarming news stories rather than what they really are — societal failures.

When I was scrolling through Twitter last November, I came across the headline “13-Year-Old Boy Uses His ‘Make-a-Wish’ to Feed the Homeless for a Year: ‘It Warms Our Hearts’” in People Magazine. At first, I was inspired that someone so young would be willing to make that sort of sacrifice, but the headline continued to eat away at me for days. I couldn’t help but balk at the idea of a young boy using his last big wish on Earth to take up the government’s job. How did this type of responsibility come to rest on the shoulders of a 13-year-old boy with a life-threatening illness?

These thoughts continued to nag me for the rest of the week. I googled more “heartwarming stories” and found an alarming pattern. A majority of these stories are painted as inspirational community stories, obscuring the overarching issues within America’s health, political and economic systems.

A popular storyline is a community coming together to take up an individual’s health care bill. There were a plethora of these stories in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated issues within America’s health care system. A few months ago, strangers on TikTok raised $57,000 to replace a 79-year-old Navy veteran’s scooter, which was his only mode of transportation. Newsweek described the veteran’s reactions as bringing “a ray of positivity to the video platform.” While it’s great to focus on human empathy and kindness, why are we not asking why a veteran does not have access to a new scooter, or why the scooter is so expensive in the first place?

Another sub-genre of these “feel-good stories” is the classic tale of the individual who was able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. NBC Washington published a story in November about a mother who lost her job due to the pandemic and had to move into a shelter. The article focused on her efforts to start her own business as a pastry chef and congratulated her entrepreneurial drive. There was barely any mention of the lack of resources for the unemployed or the rise in evictions due to the pandemic.

There is also the classic trope of the kindness of everyday people. In December, a loyal Dunkin’ customer gave an employee a fully furnished home. The employee, Ebony Johnson, was a mother of three who had been evicted from her original home. The story did not go into detail about Johnson’s eviction or that the customer, Suzanne Burke, had to rely on third-party organizations to achieve the good deed.

Take, for instance, a story published by CNN last year about Turquoise LeJeune Parker, a teacher at Lakewood Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina. Parker collected $106,000 to feed her students in need so they wouldn’t starve over winter break. In the dozen schools the project assists, 98% of the students rely on school-provided meals, but when the school closes over break, they are left with no source for food.

Instead of the story being centered around the reason for food insecurity in the community, CNN instead decided to put Parker on a pedestal. The article ended with a statement released by the school district applauding Parker for her efforts to help food-insecure students, saying “she is their lifeline.”

Now, I’m not belittling the amazing feats by these individuals. I think it’s incredible there are people like this who exist. But I’m concerned that individuals are the ones forced to take on the role of our nation’s public resources. I realize these stories function as silver linings from the heavy reality that other news stories provide, but they are actively instilling the idea that civilians must provide the resources the government controls.

The media focuses on these stories as examples of triumph, instead of holding the institutions at fault accountable. These stories make it seem like it is an individual’s responsibility to support the weight that our government refuses to carry by congratulating civilians for picking up the slack. Readers marvel at the everyday kindness of strangers, rather than worry about the lack of funding in essential areas. Why concern yourself with the funding cuts in the health care system when you can rely on strangers from social media to pick up the bills?

These articles emphasize the emotional aspect of the story, following the same social media methods of using emotional language to make stories go viral rather than address the deeper problems at hand. Within these articles, food, housing and health issues are all evaluated at the surface level. They speak to the individual experience without addressing the hundreds of thousands of individuals who face the same issue. What about the people evicted from their homes who couldn’t rely on loyal customers to buy them a house? What about the thousands of starving students without a superstar teacher who go hungry over the holidays? The sensation of the “feel-good story” refuses to address the roots of the issues that affect the millions of people who don’t go viral.

I will say it is worth commemorating all these incredible individuals, and yes, the “feel-good” stories offer a moment of brightness when doom scrolling through our regular news feed. But we have to remind ourselves that it is not the people’s duty to accomplish these incredible feats. 

We should not be the ones we depend on instead of institutional support. We should not have to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive. We need solutions to these problems, ones that go deeper than “A heartwarming true story that will restore your faith in humanity.”

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].