What journalists can learn from Aristotle

I wrote a blog post about Circa shutting down and a lot of people glommed on to this sentence:

“The schadenfreude in our industry is thick and disgusting at times. People love to read tea-leaves. This is a whole other tangent that we can/should confront as a community sometime.”

I was also asked to write an article for SPJ’s July/August issue on failure. Below is a small part of that which focuses on an alternative to Schadenfreude via Aristotle. Pedantic much? Yes!

Note: Much of this is inspired by Alain de Botton – who I highly recommend. But first let’s get one caveat out of the way and then do a basic primer on Aristotle’s “Poetics.”

Caveat: Schadenfreude is a natural human emotion/reaction. It is not unique to the journalism community or the Germans. Perhaps it is heightened because competition is built into our industry and its folklore. Taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortunate is also a sign of jealousy. Being jealous doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you alive. But it’s good to contemplate jealousy because it tells us who has traits we admire. So the question is – when somebody fails – instead of taking joy in that, why don’t we reflect on why this person, who has qualities we admire, was unable to succeed and what can we learn from it?

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s get nerdy!

“Tragedy” was the highest form of drama, according to Aristotle. And a good tragedy left somebody feeling pity and fear. Ideally after feeling those emotions the audience had a sense of “Catharsis” or release.

Essentially the Greek people were supposed to better appreciate the fragility of life (they could be that tragic hero) and feel empathy for each other (e.g. bad things befall good people). The characters in tragedies were victims of fate. Anyone could be a victim of fate, and therefore Greek viewers were meant to walk away with a bit more empathy and pity (not Schadenfreude) for when bad things befell people. There was an understanding that some things are out of mortal control — that even a well intentioned Oedipus will end up killing his father and there was nothing he could have done differently to avoid it.

It was a social lesson taught through storytelling.

A tragic ending for Romeo.

The story of modern capitalism (and dare I say journalism) is the opposite. You rise and fall completely on your own merits. You claw your way to the top. And if you succeed then all the glory is yours. If you fail, you have nobody to blame but yourself and your insufficient product.

There is an element of truth to the story we tell ourselves in capitalism. But we should also recognize that tragedies befall us all the time as well. Perhaps as a journalism community and industry we should recognize that in every failure is a potential tragedy. And as the Greeks showed us, tragedies can be good. So when a startup fails – we shouldn’t presume everything was fate or out of our control: But we should appreciate what we have and understand that every project/organization we work for is a few steps away from fated destruction.


There is also something to be said about a kind of story we cover. My friend Monica Guzman showed natural horror in a Facebook post questioning why the story below even exists (it’s a great Facebook comment thread).

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Obviously the story is horrid. Anyone with normal moral fibers would be repulsed by the actions described. So what is gained by covering it?

While it’s easy to position this as “ambulance” chasing journalism – I think there is an ideal here where something more is gained. I’m not saying that every story of this nature reaches the ideal – just that an ideal exists where these stories aren’t about the sick/twisted mental state of the perpetrators, but are actually about the precious and fragile lives that we all live.

One of the reasons a 20-car pileup on the freeway is news – it reminds us that no matter how good of a driver we are – our lives are somewhat out of our control when we drive. Here’s an action that we take every day. Without thought. And yet in a moments notice it could be our downfall. To really be touched by a story like the one above or a 20-car pileup is to experience the kind of Catharsis that Aristotle thought was integral to living a good life.

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